Crime fiction reviewer refusing to review any more books because of misogynist violence

// 27 October 2009

Crime fiction writer and reviewer for the Literary Review is refusing to review any more crime novels because of the high levels of misogynist violence, the Guardian reports.

Jessica Mann, an award-winning author who reviews crime fiction for the Literary Review, has said that an increasing proportion of the books she is sent to review feature male perpetrators and female victims in situations of “sadistic misogyny”. “Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims’ sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive,” she said.

“Authors must be free to write and publishers to publish. But critics must be free to say they have had enough. So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me,” said Mann, who has written her own bestselling series of crime novels and a non-fiction book about female crime writers.

She said that when a female corpse recently appeared on the jacket of a crime-writing colleague’s new book, the author pointed out to her publisher that the victim in the story was actually a man. Mann said the publisher replied: “Never mind that. Dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or geriatrics.”

Some of these books (although not all) are written by women, the Guardian reports. But while Mann suggests this means there is no anti-feminist backlash involved, it doesn’t seem so clear cut.

Natasha Cooper, former chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, agreed with Mann. “There is a general feeling that women writers are less important than male writers and what can save and propel them on to the bestseller list is if they produce at least one novel with very graphic violence in it to establish their credibility and prove they are not girly,” she said.

So one theory is it’s a reaction to … surprise, surprise… sexism directed at female writers.

While another theory is it’s about commerical pressure:

Val McDermid, author of the books adapted for the television series Wire in the Blood starring Robson Green, whose novel The Mermaids Singing won the association’s Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year, said that crime writing was increasingly “sensationalist and gratuitous” because of the demands of the market.

“There has been a general desensitisation among readers, who are upping the ante by demanding ever more sensationalist and gratuitous plotlines,” she said. “But when women write about violence against women, it will almost inevitably be more terrifying because women grow up knowing that to be female is to be at risk of attack. We write about violence from the inside. Men, on the other hand, write about it from the outside.”

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 27 October 2009 at 4:35 pm

Dead children may not sell books, but abused children – both male and female – clearly do, if the massive publishing genre of “misery memoirs” is anything to go by.

Madeleine // Posted 27 October 2009 at 5:03 pm

I would say three of the worst offenders for depicting the most visceral violence against women in their novels are Val McDermid, Mo Hayder and the aptly named Karen Slaughter. And I don’t think Val McDermid can cop out by saying “we write about violence from the inside”. I think it’s ridiculous to say that readers are “demanding” ever more sensationalist and gratuitous plotlines. A lot are looking for books that don’t contain them.

I want to see more ass-kicking heroines in crime fiction! And not ass-kicking as a result of having been raped or otherwise traumatized.

Darius // Posted 27 October 2009 at 5:17 pm

I get Jessica Mann’s point, but I do think there is something of a double standard here. Many male authors (such as the incandescently repellant James Patterson) have been writing stuff for decades that contains horrific violence towards women, but no one bats an eyelid and if they do they don’t get listened to. But when more female authors start to do it, there’s a big debate.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 27 October 2009 at 6:39 pm

About a year ago, I was talking to the publisher of Alexander McCall Smith, who is a crime writer of sorts, and he said when he first approached him, he rejected him because it was all too nice and happy and nobody wanted to read that- people want dark and violent. A . Mc-S disagreed saying people want a mystery without it being dark and another publisher took a risk and he became a bestseller. (and the first publisher then brought A. Mc-S contract so all was well with the world). But, clearly people don’t always want explicit violence and misogyny.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 27 October 2009 at 6:59 pm

The issue is two-fold – increasingly crime thrillers are containing now as a matter of routine graphic sadistic misogynistic descriptions of females being subjected to sexual torture, sexualised mutilation and of course horrifically murdered by males.

So why then are such stories all becoming the same – namely depicting graphic sexualised and sadistic male violence against women. Is it because our society has become so desensitised to graphic depictions of male violence against women, that the only way publishers can make a profit in this field is by publishing highly crime novels containing the now de rigeur descriptions of sadistic male serial murderers who subject female victims to horrific and graphic sexualised torture and sexual mutilation prior to murdering them in ever more ‘so-called’ imaginative ways.

The other point is the common claim ‘but men have written this type of material for decades and no one complains. Only when it is women adopting the same style as male writers is there suddenly an outcry.’ Such a perspective neatly avoids asking the pertinent question as to why it is essential graphic sadistic male sexual violence against women must be included in a crime novel in order to be published?

Furthermore not until the last 5 years or so, give or take a few years, was there such a proliferation of crime books all having similar storylines wherein the female victims are subjected to horrific and graphic sadistic male sexual violence.

So women crime writers have a choice or rather non-choice – either they adhere to the male-dominated publishing companies who demand and expect crime thrillers to provide graphic descriptions of males engaged in serial femicide by sexually torturing and subjecting female victims to sadistic and horrific sexualised mutilations to being murdered. Or female writers refuse and have their work declined as not being ‘acceptable.’

I’m glad that Jessica Mann is publicly taking a stand against this written pornified and increasingly misogynistic ‘rubbish’ because it takes little imagination to construct storylines wherein routinely the male serial murderer is depicted as engaging in sadistic sexual violence against women.

Is it not more than just a coincidence that written descriptions of male sexualised sadistic torture against female victims are identical to much of the so-called gonzo filmed porn and the so-called ‘edgy filmed porn’ wherein the intent is to subject women to horrific sexualised torture, whilst at the same time the male pornographers claim ‘oh it is just fantasy not real!’

Pornography is now mainstream and there is more than just a casual link to the now routine crime thrillers all depicting graphic sadistic male sexual violence against women.

It takes intelligence and skill to write a crime thriller without resorting to graphic misogynistic representations of male sexual violence against women. But then of course, publishers’ profits would initially decrease because we have all become desensitised to male violence against women. Profit is the name of the game and misogynistic representations of women as dehumanised ‘things’ has always attracted large readerships. But does this make it acceptable or right?

earwicga // Posted 27 October 2009 at 8:27 pm

Anyone know the demographics of those that buy these books?

thebeardedlady // Posted 27 October 2009 at 10:51 pm

Jessica Mann = heroine, sister.

It warms my heart and gives me hope that someone would be brave enough to take a stand against sadistic misogyny.

gadgetgal // Posted 28 October 2009 at 10:42 am

@earwicga – don’t know the exact figures, am looking into it, but I do what happened at my local WHSmiths a few years ago that would illustrate the point:

I used to go there as it was the only bookshop in my town, and although it didn’t stock much you could occasionally buy a gem. I went in a few years back to get some erotic fiction – I’d bought a couple of books there previously and was looking to see if they had anything I hadn’t read before. I couldn’t find anything at all, not even the section where they used to keep the books – out of a tiny store with perhaps 15 large shelves they’d filled 5 or 6 of them with a crime fiction section. When I asked the woman why they weren’t stocking erotica anymore she said crime fiction was more popular with female buyers, in fact more women bought the books than men, and as they only had limited space they would only stock what people were buying (rather than a decent selection).

So I got two things from that: first, in a poor town with not much to do it’s ok to want to get off on something if you’re a guy (looking at the shelves full of porn for them) but not ok if you’re a woman; and second, women are kind of shooting themselves in the foot generally by buying this kind of trash.

It kind of worries me, because if we keep buying the books they’ll keep writing them and with more and more graphic scenes in them, it just makes economic sense to do so. I asked one of my friends what drew her to crime fiction, because she reads a lot of it, and she said she really likes the mystery aspect of it, and looking back to the Agatha Christie era this has always been popular with female readers. The only problem is in trying to be entertained like this they’re willing to forgive the less salient aspects of the book instead of just boycotting buying them until they cut to female un-friendly gore. It’s unhelpful, and I find it in a lot of issues involving women – we have to put up with so much anyway it’s easy to see why we’re not going to deny ourselves something even if it contains something derogatory towards women because most things do, and we’ve not been offered any kind of alternatives (or at least not any well-known ones).

Full marks to Jessica Mann, though – sometimes it just takes one person to make a stand, and hopefully this is the wake up call we needed!

Kristel // Posted 28 October 2009 at 11:29 am

Jennifer Drew, publishing companies are certainly not male dominated. The majority of crime fiction editors are women. Ditto literary agents.

And how do you know how much “intelligence and skill” it takes to write a crime novel? Have you ever tried?

I deeply dislike the kind of crime fiction novels which depict graphic sadistic violence against women, and I am glad Jessica Mann has taken a stand about this. I think (hope!) they have had their day. But there are a lot of really good crime/thriller novels by female authors who don’t bow to the “demand” for graphic stuff, and still get published.

And here we are focusing on and criticising ‘women’ writers….sigh. I agree that women who hand over their money to buy novels that contain sadistic violence against female characters are shooting themselves in the foot. But you can’t tell authors what to write or not write, or readers what they should or shouldn’t read. It’s a market and you can only hope that the demand for this stuff will drop as more awareness is raised. Which is what’s happening.

earwicga // Posted 28 October 2009 at 4:00 pm

@ gadgetgirl – thanks. I thought that it was women who bought these kind of books. I do find it disturbing to say the least.

@ Kristel – I think you misread what Jennifer Drew actually wrote and didn’t take note of the second half of the sentence: “It takes intelligence and skill to write a crime thriller without resorting to graphic misogynistic representations of male sexual violence against women.”

And I have no problem criticising women writers when they are perpetuating violence towards women, which, to me, is what this graphic violence in words and film actually does.

gadgetgal // Posted 29 October 2009 at 9:30 am

Finally! Took a while but I’ve found some figures – here’s a link to the results of a Mori poll in 2006 and published in the Telegraph:

http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/database/Mori.html#hankies

Just click on “Women put away the hankies and turn to crime (13.04.06)”

There are also Library statistics on the site and links to other places to get reading habit statistics (although most of the other sites you have to pay to receive the research). The survey was mostly made up of married working women but as far as I can see they’re the most likely ones to read books anyway.

Makes for some disheartening reading – I don’t know what it is, is it that they’re not aware of other the types of books available out there? Is it that these books are easier and quicker reads so they’re more attractive to someone who doesn’t have a lot of spare time? Maybe it’s that they tend to include more sex in them than most other types of fiction other than Romance and Erotica, and so it’s seen as the only legitimate way for women to gain access to it (since most women wouldn’t want to be seen reading Romance because it’s considered tacky, or Erotica because it’s obvious it’s about sex)?

I still think the mystery and danger aspect of it is attractive to women, but I must admit when I was a kid (before they went all torture porn disgusting) the only way I could get any sex that I would like (since all the daddies seemed to only get Playboy, not Playgirl!) was from my mother’s crime fiction books – she didn’t read Romances so it was my only access to anything sexual. I’m wondering whether the two are linked in any way, and, even if they are, how many women would either realise it or admit it? We’ve never acknowledged it about Romances (shocking for every young man who read one out of curiosity and realised his mum or nan was a sex fiend!!). And the only difference between a Romance and Erotica is the pink flowery covers and slightly less BDSM!

This is just me thinking aloud, by the way – it’ll be a combination of a lot of factors, I’m just throwing this one out there as something to consider. The more we understand why the better able we are to do something about it.

What does anybody else think?

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 October 2009 at 12:04 pm

@gadgetgal Maybe because they’re accessibly-packaged and extremely well publicised, compared to most other fiction? And because they’re widely available?

gadgetgal // Posted 29 October 2009 at 12:19 pm

@Jess

That’s true, they’re pretty much the only books I’ve ever seen advertised on TV, and as I said, my local WHSmiths may as well just be called the Crime Fiction store! It’s hard to know what to do about it though – we don’t have enough power to get the publishers to advertise anything else if they don’t want to, it’s up to the writers to please the publishers (not us, like you’d think they would), and if no alternatives are offered then this will all just carry on and most people will remain none the wiser.

Well, I suppose this blog will help, but without it I’d never have even heard about it!

I think it’s a problem that’s been building for a while because of people (both children and adults) reading less and less. I’m hoping new technology, like ereaders and ebook software you can put on netbooks and iphones will help – as a gadget person myself I can say new technology will interest me in most things! And the books in electronic form are cheaper (or even free) and you get them online, so it offers more choice.

Oh well, that’s my two pennies worth, anyway – I’ve spoken to my friend about the issues raised here and it seems to have made her think about the wider consequences of the books she’s been buying. I wouldn’t want to put her off crime fiction because it’s what she enjoys, and reading is good, but I hope she’ll be a little more careful about what she purchases now.

Clare Gould // Posted 29 October 2009 at 12:27 pm

A good way of getting around the fact that so many of these books have massive marketing budgets and publishing muscle might be to get talking to your local independent book seller. Larger stores such as Borders and Waterstones aren’t likely to be interested in individual customer’s concerns since publishers buy shelf space by the metre. However, independent stores are often far more likely to take notice of their customers individual tastes and can often source far more interesting reads than you find in the big supermarket book stores.

Judith // Posted 29 October 2009 at 1:18 pm

This is CRIME fiction. What does anyone expect crime fiction to be about? Duh – crime! Horrific violence against women happens a lot, and if crime writers didn’t reflect this in their novels they would be criticised for ignoring it. Things have moved on since Miss Marple and the body in the library. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. And don’t try to dictate to other people what you think they should or should not read.

I can’t stand the books of authors such as those mentioned above – James Patterson, Stieg Larsson, Karin Slaughter. So I don’t read them. But I wouldn’t think I had the right to tell someone else they shouldn’t read them. Trying to analyse why women read crime novels is just sexist.

Kez // Posted 29 October 2009 at 2:17 pm

I’m a bit of a crime fiction aficionado, though my taste runs more to classic crime and I actively avoid anything with graphic violence, because I don’t enjoy reading it, in fact being rather overly sensitive to such things I tend to get haunted by particularly nasty images. (Although I enjoyed some of Val McDermid’s earlier novels, I no longer read her work after a couple of really disgusting moments.) I have not read James Patterson, Stieg Larsson or Karin Slaughter (though my friend assures me that Larsson is a great read if you skip over the gruesome parts.)

Anyway, my point being that crime fiction is not necessarily synonymous with graphic violence, and many of the most popular modern crime/mystery authors – Ruth Rendell, PD James, etc – keep the gore to a minimum.

I don’t think it’s up to me to dictate what other people should be reading – though personally I find the popularity of child abuse memoirs more disturbing – and those are (allegedly) true stories.

gadgetgal // Posted 29 October 2009 at 2:18 pm

@Judith

No one would be arguing over this if the writers were just reflecting what actually happens to women – it’s the sordid made up details that are worrying people, including other crime fiction writers. Some of the crimes they imagine have never happened to anyone, anywhere at any time (believe me, we’d all have heard about some of the more memorable murders in some of them!), but they’ve obviously been added in to drum up sales. The thing that some women are finding disturbing is it’s the violence against women that drums up the most sales, as the publisher above said “Dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or geriatrics.”

I agree with you that no one should tell anyone what they can or cannot read, I don’t agree that that argument then covers someone stating a valid reason why something should probably be avoided – when I talked about this debate with my friend who I mentioned before I told her what it was about – it’s then up to her whether she agrees or not, and then whether or not she does anything about it. I just thought she might be interested because she likes crime fiction, and I wanted to understand what draws her to it.

And the relevance of studying why women read crime fiction is obvious – as it’s mostly them who do it would be redundant to study anyone else, and as it’s mostly violence towards them in it, it would be interesting to know why. That’s not sexism, that’s learning something to better understand the topic. If we were talking about the portrayal of women in lads mags and then went on to discuss why men buy them that wouldn’t be sexist either, it would be us just trying to understand a little better.

Denise // Posted 29 October 2009 at 2:52 pm

If anyone cares to check Jessica Mann’s website (as I just did), she did not say she is giving up reviewing crime fiction. She said she has had enough of the ‘torture porn’ variety, which, as she says herself, is a very small subsection of the genre.

Please do not condemn all crime fiction because of the work of a few authors.

Posy // Posted 29 October 2009 at 4:24 pm

Judith Mann’s put a note on her website to let people know it’s actually ‘torture porn’ crime novels she won’t review any more, not crime fiction generally. She says torture porn stuff is a small section of crime fiction overall.

(Still too big for my liking!)

Anyway, good on her.

Posy // Posted 29 October 2009 at 4:25 pm

Sorry! I mean Jessica Mann. (been reading the comments here)

Karen // Posted 29 October 2009 at 7:15 pm

Perhaps part of the problem here is that each author is trying to outdo the last big whodunnit by making their story that little more seedy, just a little more graphic, just a little more disturbing until the trend is going right down the toilet into places that we probably dont feel that comfortable with – a sort of “murder mystery one-up(wo)manship”. I personally couldn’t read or stomach these graphic, gory tales and yet I am into the BD side of BDSM myself. Maybe it’s because I know that it’s in a controlled safe way whereas in these books, chances are the person being abused in whatever way is either going to end up dead or disfigured. Which is not what BDSM as practiced by “safe”, mutually-consenting people is about. So I don’t think it’s necessarily BDSM-ers getting a kick out of these tales. I’m definitely with Jessica on this one.

Catheirne // Posted 30 October 2009 at 11:55 am

Val McDermind is actually one of the most egalitarian crime writers, if not the most, around today. I’ve read all her books (!) and the proportion of ‘strong’ women, i.e. those not being attacked/brutalised in any way, far outweighs those who are. Unfortunately, there are moments of extreme violence against women in her novels, but those moments are few and far between.

Generally speaking, violence against women in crime fiction has almost always (it seems to me) part of a pervasive culture of hatred against women. The scenes of violence are almost always sexual to some degree and another issue that springs from this is the desesitisation of people to SEXUAL violence against women. A dear male friend of mine who I’d take a bullet for argues that murder is worse than rape. This, I think is the attitude which crops up again and again in the crime genre. Dear God, when will it stop?

Daniela // Posted 30 October 2009 at 12:39 pm

If you want GENIUS crime writing, which is also female-friendly and with absolutely no torture porn, try Michael Connelly. I have just finished “The Lincoln Lawyer” and I thought it was fantastic. Brilliant!

Still trying to wind down.

Daniel // Posted 30 October 2009 at 3:03 pm

@Catherine – Hi. I don’t want to take this thread off on another tangent, but I just wondered why you think rape is worse than murder?

Sam // Posted 31 October 2009 at 12:39 pm

Given the torture porn element of crime fiction is only a small subsection of crime fiction, we cannot suppose that it is women who are mostly reading it just because they are the main consumers of crime fiction. It may equally be the case that the minority of men who read crime fiction make up the majority of those who read torture porn. (Equally, this may not be the case.) Without a more detailed breakdown in sales figures (or some similar source of data), we can’t know one way or the other.

Catherine // Posted 1 November 2009 at 2:42 pm

@Daniel.

Hi there. Apologies to everyone for my spelling/grammar errors, I was knackered when I was writing. Well, the point I was getting at that I hoped (and realise now) wasn’t too clear, is the sexual nature of a lot of the attacks on women in crime fiction. Basically, it plays into a larger rape ‘culture’ that surrounds women. I think that crime fiction (in a very generalised sense) ‘helps’ in some way to normalise sexual attacks on women in the same way that pornography in magazines allows a constant sexual gaze to dehumanise women’s bodies. The reason that I made such a crass statement…”Rape is worse than murder,” is part and parcel of the frustration I feel when people become so desensitised to sexual violence against women because it’s become, to a certain extent, normalized.

C.

Chelsea // Posted 1 November 2009 at 3:35 pm

Daniel, it’s her personal opinion, she’s not making a law about it. Maybe because rape you have to live through? And rape can be much more violent than murder…

Kez // Posted 1 November 2009 at 3:38 pm

It doesn’t seem that outrageous to me to suggest that murder is worse than rape – clearly both are heinous crimes but a person who has survived rape at least has a chance to recover from it – still has a life to get on with. Murder takes that away. You can’t survive murder. To say this is not to underestimate, or seek to minimise, the awfulness of rape in any way, or its effects on the individual.

Apologies if I am missing something obvious! Please do point me to a Feminism 101 type explanation if there is one.

gadgetgal // Posted 2 November 2009 at 12:16 pm

On the murder vs. rape issue:

I don’t think you can call it either way, and I don’t think there really is a feminist 101 for it – as some people have pointed out it depends upon the circumstances. Sometimes rape can be worse, if you’re comparing a quick death with a particularly vile rape, sometimes murder can be worse, if you’re comparing someone being tortured to death as opposed to a rape involving less violence and a chance to recover.

I agree that most people would believe murder to be the more heinous crime because it ends that person’s life as opposed to giving them a chance to heal in some way from an act of violence. However, whether you’re religious or not, most people would also agree it’s harder for the people left behind rather than the dead person – they’re dead, the issue of their life being taken is for others to deal with. In rape (unless there is also murder involved) it’s for the victim to deal with. Maybe that’s part of the reason rape isn’t taken as seriously as it should be – most rape victims will not tell anyone about their ordeal, so no one else has to cope with it. If someone in your family is killed, you know about it, so you’re forced to deal with it.

But in the torture porn genre it’s the normalisation of sexual violence towards women (which includes murder) that’s the problem – a good comment made on the subject (it’s not about books, it’s more about movies, but the issues are similar) is a blog written by Joss Whedon on the relationship between a torture porn film (Captivity) and the Youtube video of a girl being stoned to death. He put it on the Whedonesque blog (would link to it but I’ll explain below why I haven’t).

It’s not the most extensive of studies done, more of a livid rant in the shock at having seen what he saw, but it shows how prevalent it’s become in our everyday culture.

BE WARNED THOUGH – if you decide to look it up, the first line of the blog is a link to the Youtube video. I clicked on it the first time I read the blog and will never ever do it again. I’m hoping the people at Youtube had the sense to remove it once they knew what was on it, but seriously, I’m not shaken up or horrified by much, but this will stay with me for the rest of my life, so I wouldn’t recommend looking at it. What he wrote was powerful, though, so worth reading.

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