More about violence in crime fiction

I wasn't intending to write a blog post about the endless rehashing over the past week of an article written by Jessica Mann in Standpoint magazine at the beginning of September. In that article, Jessica wrote that she was no longer going to review books that contained "outpourings of sadistic misogyny". I wrote a post here about it, to which several people kindly responded. Martin Edwards also wrote about this article and topic, a few days previously, and an interesting discussion ensued.
All calmed down until last weekend, when The Observer and The Telegraph ran belated articles, picked up by many other newspapers, magazines and blogs,  stating that Jessica Mann is giving up reviewing crime fiction – untrue, as summarised in this excellent post by CrimeFictionReader of It's a Crime! blog, and this equally interesting post (with long comment discussion) by Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog.
Enough written on the subject, I thought, until today, when author Val McDermid weighs in at The Guardian, in a blog post with the title Complaints about women writing misogynist crime fiction are a red herring. Val McDermid is an internationally best-selling crime-fiction author who has written books that are pretty close to being sadistic enough for me to consider quitting reading her – though her last few novels have been far less explicit, and all the better for it. Val McDermid's thesis in her Guardian piece is that women are no "worse" than men in writing sadistic serial-killer novels, and that it has all been going on for a very long time anyway. She points out, quite correctly, that there are excellent novels being written that address very dark topics, and very poor novels being written that are about cosy, "safe" mysteries.
All fair enough, but I can't agree with her concluding paragraph: "I wish we could get over this pointless gender squabbling and address the really interesting question of why we are so fascinated by the threat, the fact and the consequences of violence." I think Jessica Mann was right to draw attention to the unacceptability of some current commercial fiction – and to point out that in some cases women are writing it. Of course, such judgements have a large element of subjectivity, but I'd personally like to see more marketing budgets devoted to novels that aren't quite so sick – I'm sure they could do just as well, even better. (Stieg Larsson is one example.)
I also take issue with this alleged "fascination with the threat, fact and consequences of violence". What Jessica Mann was speaking out against, I believe, was not "violence" but  "sadistic misogyny", which is different – excessive dwelling on torture, in effect. Although I am not "fascinated" with any aspect of violence, I have no objection to it if it isn't done to unnecessary excess. I do like reading a dramatic story – by which I mean a story with drama in it. There probably is some aspect of violence in any drama, almost by definition. But one does not have to be "fascinated" by it or even interested in it. A good author can engage the attention and sympathy of the reader in very many ways, without dwelling on this aspect – think Arnaldur Indridason for example, or Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben or Diane Setterfield. Some novels I read are more upfront about violence than others, and I don't mind that at all. I just don't go out of my way to read about it. In other cases (eg Jo Nesbo) I'm quite happy to read the book and skip over the odd page here or there when it all gets a bit much.
I think there are some lazy novels being written (by men as well as by women) that are wholly poorly constructed and feature repeated set pieces of violence in what seems to be the main reason for their existence. Quite a few of them are "best sellers". Although books like this have always been written, it's nice that one has so much choice that one can decide not to read them, and instead turn to books that are less formulaic, reflecting the individualistic imagination of their authors.

3 thoughts on “More about violence in crime fiction

  1. You make a good distinction between the “fascination” with violence and the acceptance of it as a dramatic plot element. I hadn’t really thought about it on that kind of spectrum before.
    I do think some people (myself included at times) read too much into people’s motivation regarding the kind of violent details they include in their books when I suspect it’s often just laziness, poor immitation or not knowing how to do any better. I would guess it’s much easier to write a mediocre torture-fest than a thoughtful, character-driven story.
    Either way, just like I’m not convinced that playing hours of first-person-shooter computer games produces killers, I’m also not convinced that writers or readers who enjoy the more extreme stuff are any more likely to be mysoginists than the rest of humanity.

  2. I’m sure you are right, Bernadette. I think for my part I don’t like being categorised as someone “fascinated by violence” becuase I happen to like reading crime fiction!

  3. I am wholly in agreement with you, Maxine. I also thought CFR’s piece on what Jessica Mann actually said a fine corrective. May I suggest the usefulness of a word in this context: gratuitous. Now, here’s irony for you: I read no more McDermid after Mermaids Singing for two reasons: first, the profiling business I rarely find convincing, and that is so with Tony Hill, but second, I wasn’t convinced that the gruesome nature of events in that book served a true purpose (the possible purposes of portraying violence are many), that it wasn’t gratuitous. I may have done McDermid an injustice there, but as an example of what I mean, it makes the point. I am not quite as sure as Bernadette on one point — I think it may be that utterly gratuitous violence and its enjoyment by readers may in some cases indicate a tendency to the sadistic, misogynistic, misanthropic, but particularly the first. If a reader admitted to enjoying accounts of the torture of animals…
    There is one very sticky point that comes up quite often in this regard, and that is the matter of violence against children, and women also in some cases. I’ve been a little uncertain about what was being said in some comments on this here and there, but it seemed to be often an expression of a refusal to read such, though I was never sure whether this also suggested such portrayals should not be written. My own view of this is that it is very important that authors who have sound and considerable knowledge of such matters as paedophile rings, sexual slavery and such, and write with motivation similar to that of authors such as, most obviously, Stieg Larsson, should portray the abuse that does indeed go in our society or others as graphically as need be to portray the truth. It is in such works as these that there is no gratuitous factor whatever — the author is truth-telling. I say this because the media most definitely do not tell the full truth of these matters — not by a very long shot — and crime fiction grounded in fact may be the best way to convey to people just how horrendous are the goings-on behind sanitized accounts in the MSM.

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