Nov 4, 2006

Sex and Violence

Ah, a comment heard around the world… Yes I’m referring to the Rankin comment made for a daily newspaper. I’m going to thank him for this comment, which I’m certain was taken a.) out of context and b.) with tongue firmly in cheek rather than foot in mouth.

I mean this thing is so big it’s gone beyond the “genre” media straight to .

Without the “lesbian” bit the subject of graphic violence and the gender of the writer has been a staple of every convention I’ve attended. It is pondered by fans, writers, editors, publishers and publicists. The evolution of these discussions usually becomes “was the violence merited within the context of the story?” It is my opinion that this is where the discussion gets interesting. Because any group’s consensus or non seems to split down gender and economic lines.

People who read and write crime fiction novels are interested in the consequences of violence for the main (and those who aren’t, that’s a different running dialog). Does our sex and sexuality have something to do with what we can write and what we can’t? What is acceptable to us as readers?

Of course it does. Men and women are different. We’re raised differently, are exposed to different options in our early development, have been given different attitudes towards sex and violence just through the cautionary tales we are given as youngsters. It is a truism that females are exposed to violence personally in middle class society at a rate of four to one over their male counterparts. We see the resulting behaviors of victims far more frequently than the men who are our contemporaries.

Guy writers all want to be Wojohowitz and the chicks, why we want to be something different. Do you know Wojo? He was the ethnic, working class police on the seventy’s sitcom Barney Miller. Not as smart as some of his squad but with a “goodness” about him, a naïve honesty. Wojo was forever trying to save hookers from the life. “Why do that when you could have me?” He truly didn’t understand. And in sitcom land it usually meant Wojo got laid and then either a.) dumped or b.) had to set Ms. Hooker free to relocate somewhere in white picket fence America to become a teacher or a nurse or a waitress. There were a lot of reborn virgins on Barney Miller. There’s a lot of Wojo in the male perspective when we look at “graphic violence” in crime fiction. Blatant or non, intentional or no. Whether the protagonist marries his hooker (Matt Scudder) or has to be avenging when the hooker trying to escape the life is murdered (John Rebus, Charlie Parker), this trend clearly exists. Lawrence Block, Ian Rankin and John Connelly are three of our best writers. That is why I use them in my dialog. The individual stories make the theme work.

I’m generalizing which is bad. Fiction cannot be delegated down gender lines. It must be sorted by good and bad. I’m not stopping though. Mystery comes down to the three. The root of crime is sex, money, or ennui.

Here in lies the difference between male and female voice. A male writer will present you with a crime and then get on with the business of solving it. Along the path to plot resolution motivation and background will be explored. In the end though the conclusion seems to be neatly tied. A pretty package wrapped up in string. Brutal or not, the crime was put there for the protagonist to solve. Graphic violence is present, but usually with a bit of gauze over the lens. And if a violent act is given a page or two of description more often than not it is directed towards our hero. Look at the rape scene featuring Mark Billingham’s Thorne, brilliantly done, graphic and frightening, it was presented to forward character as much as plot. Aha you say, character development.

Plenty of femmes use this approach too. But some go beyond this to the root of the story. If the focus of investigation is the brutalizing rape of a series of females or children should the act be “off stage left” or is there a responsibility to present the very real violence that has occurred before you go on to the business of resolving your story and developing your character. There are women (and men) who are willing to share the truth that is behind their readers’ evening entertainment. Sometimes it is done badly. And then I’m all about the “violence for violence sake” argument. Sometimes though, it is done with a deftness and beauty that belies contemplation. It also brings the reader closer to the subject of their nightly read.

I’m back to, ”It is a truism that females are exposed to violence personally in middle class society at a rate of four to one over their male counterparts.” Let’s use a writer that Rankin mentioned. Karen Slaughter introduced Lena as a victim. Her sister is brutally murdered in the very first chapter of her very first book. Both Lena and her murdered sister have overcome tragedy. Lena is police. The “my way or no way” kind of police we’ve all seen portrayed time and time again. And this time from the very beginning of our narrative and before, she’s risen above the odds. Lena has balls. The male balls of McBain’s Ollie. Solve the crime, and it will be okay. She rushes through the first half of that first book as gung ho as Steven Segal. And then…. she’s taken captive by a killer. A spree killer with a personal directive. Crucified in a basement, personality being sucked out by the leech that is our villain, she understands that his motivation is somehow this series other female lead. And she is rescued. By the other female. Intelligent, proactive Lena goes back to her job. A dynamic has been born. In the evolution of this series Slaughter has shown more truth of the actuality of violence through this character than any other series I read. You do not overcome. You do not move on. If something this dehumanizing happens to you the therapy and concern cannot overcome. It will stay with you. Lena reacts by becoming self destructive. In real life not all victims do, at least outside of their own nightmares. But the truth in the disintegration of Lena’s self is magnificent. She must now find and react towards violence. To stay alive. This is a character of beauty. She is bold and unique within our world of crime fiction.

For many this series is unreadable. There is too much truth. That’s fine. I can’t read MacDonald. Never could. My background makes his women an undoing. I personally cannot get beyond the female stereotype in his books. It is the same with Sayers’ (and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s) racism for me. Certain things will leave an individual cold as they are reading. The dialog of graphic violence is not one of those for me. It is a truth that many of today’s female writers are allowed access to places their male counterparts wouldn’t feel comfortable. The survival groups where victims present their reality is a place where most male writers would feel vastly uncomfortable. Not many male authors have had their door knocked upon at four in the morning by a friend, beaten and terrified, blaming themselves. Nor have they been railed upon by someone they loved in the dark, in the post colitis position. Subjected to an unfounded jealousy and slapped so hard they saw sparks. Most women have, or it’s so close they can feel it. There are different truths for boys and girls. Because, well, we’re boys and girls.

In writing fiction, if you do it well, you do not want to cover territory already covered. There’s a new breed of fiction I call female hardboiled. Writers who although they may be presenting their story from the same premise as their male counterpart have a different working background. They are adding to the genre’s strength by presenting a prospective towards violence that has been unmined until now. While those passages of violence that are pages long rather than an aside may be hard to stomach there is a breed of female writer who realizes the act of violence is the story. They present the violence and then develop the narrative, plot, and characters. If the central part of the story is violence is it wrong to type it?

I vote no. I also agree that there are more females than males using violence in the personal rather than the impersonal. It is a part of the continuing evolution of Crime Fiction. Gratuitous and Graphic are different. And it is interesting to the self critic within me that even as I type this diatribe I’m thinking the most hardboiled female book out there is MIAMI PURITY by Vicki Hendricks. This is a story of a female for whom violence even directed at self is impersonal. So anesthetized is our heroine towards violence by her circumstance that she moves throughout graphic rather “off stage right” violence until there is an end where hope is stripped away not for our heroine but for her reader. It is the power of the writer that makes this a book reread annually, certainly not a neatly tied ending.

Will the boys catch up with this particular trend? I’m not sure they have to. An equality of the sexes means we should embrace the differences. Appreciate the craft. Allow that being exposed to things we haven’t is part of why we look for different voices amongst the authors we read. The best of today’s writers expand our genre by folding in that something that makes their work unique even as it’s compared to the writer de jour. Girls are raised with a knowledge that the threat of violence is there. It determines how we walk down the street, where we’ll go alone, what we wear and how we behave. We are raised trying to not become victims while men are raised trying to save victims. Different realities make for different psyches. In the end the parts equal the whole.

If, as I suspect, that original comment by Sir Ian was given to make the article’s author think a bit about Crime Fiction I think it worked. She threw it out there. People are discussing it. In the end though this doesn’t belong on For it’s a question of sex not sexuality. Political correctness be damned.

Ruth Jordan


Daniel Hatadi said...

A fascinating post, Ruth. It's got me thinking too. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

Anonymous said...

Well done Ruth. I have on purpose kept out of this! Not because I don't have anything to say. As far as I am concerned as a reader for me it will always be about the writing. I don't care if the writer is male or female as long as they are able to draw me into the book with good narration and description. If it just happens to be graphic then so be it. A very thoughtful and well written post.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Simply the best assessment of violence in fiction, split down the gender lines, that I have read. Thanks Ruth.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't realized it until this article, but in general it is the female writers violence that I find hardest to read. I've really wanted to read Karin's books (even own some of them) but I've never been able to get beyond the violence. Now (just as an example), John Connolly on the other hand has a lot of violence, but somehow its more disconnected from the rest of the novel, so I can either deal with it or even pass over it in a way that I can't with Karin's books. I'm sure I'm not describing it as eloquently as Ruth did, but its a very interesting point.

Sandra Scoppettone said...

I, too, think this is a wonderful piece you've written, Ruth. However, I think that the upsetting part of his comment was that the women who write so much violence are lesbians. It's not a matter of PC, it's that it's a dumb thing to say. There is no It's And the reason it got on there (I couldn't find it, btw) is because it's also a hurtful thing for Rankin to have said. Lesbians have taken enough knocks without this one.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sandra, all you have to do is look at the editorializing that was inserted in the alleged quote to know that the reporter twisted the context of the statement to make it infer things that weren't met.

What bothers me is that so many people take something from the papers as absolute fact. Any of us who've worked in the field know with a lot the attitude is print front page today, retract in small print on the bottom of page 21 tomorrow. Many were quick to jump on the 'bash Ian' bandwagon, but it read wrong to me the second I read it, because I know the guy.

If I was being interviewed by that reporter, I'd be very careful to stick to 'no comment' on anything I didn't want to discuss.

Sandra Scoppettone said...

Sandra...please show me how this was twisted.
"The people writing the most graphic violence today are women," he says when I ask what he thinks of them. "If you turn that off," he looks nervously at my tape recorder, but continues regardless, going public about one of the great unsaids among crime writers, "I will tell you that they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks for writing that, Ruth. Much food for thought.

Harry said...

Very, very interesting. Thanks.

Cornelia Read said...

Ruth, this is amazing. Thank you so much for writing it.

I think you're absolutely right that men and women experience violence (and the threat of it) differently, and that it can influence the way we depict it.

You reminded me of the time I tried explaining to my husband why I didn't want to walk alone at night to a convenience store in our old scary neighborhood in Syracuse.

"Why not?" he asked. "I walk down there all the time and nobody's ever hassled me."

"Yeah," I replied, "because you're six-five and weigh 210 and you're usually wearing a motorcycle jacket."

A few weeks later, I saw Ruth Orkin's photograph "An American Girl in Italy" for the first time, when he and I were in a bookstore together.

I dragged him over to check out the poster of it, saying, "THAT'S why I don't want to walk to the Kleen Food at night by myself, okay?"

I don't think he really understood the connection until our daughters were born. Now he gets it so profoundly he wants them to take karate lessons.

Cornelia Read said...

whoops--here's a better link to the photo:

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Ruth.

Chiming in late, but its interesting to me that a lot of the criticisms with reading hardboiled female fiction written by women and starring female protags come from...other women. Its okay for male characters to be tough, hard drinkin', swearing, exposed to the dregs of society, but the minute a female is in that position, they are subject to much harsher judgment from readers, whether it is about violence or sex. It goes beyond a double standard. Because the statistics say 1 in 3 women will be victim of a sexual assault at some point in their lives, I think we *have* to look at situations and people differently. I think most honest women crime writers are more cynical and less apt to flinch or sugarcoat a brutal act, because as a whole we've been subjected to nightmares about "what if" one of those brutal acts was perpetrated against us? Do men worry from a very young age how they'll be judged by what they wear, how they act, who they hang around with and if they should walk to their car alone? No. So our perspective is different.

I have three daughters. Screw dance class and gymnastics. We enrolled them in martial arts. Will it protect them entirely from potential sexual assault? No. But it gives them confidence - not a false sense of confidence that they could kick anyone's ass - but an awareness that if faced with a scary situation, their training will kick in and give them a fighting chance.

Anonymous said...