Thursday, November 05, 2009

And the Winner Is...

I'm reading short stories for the Edgars, and I confess that I'm dismayed by the amount of graphic and degrading sex contributors use. Eight-year-old girls are abused by sexual predators and no detail is omitted. Beautiful rich girls are decapitated in technicolor.

Time Magazine's October 14 issue proclaimed that women have more power but are unhappy. Maybe because we're being raped and decapitated in record numbers in film and fiction.
Sarah Weinman, one of the most thoughtful writers in the blogosphere, has an interesting post on this called "Getting Re-Sensitized to Violence."

Weinman starts the post with a quote from Jessica Mann:
When a female corpse appeared on the jacket of a crime-writing colleague's new book, she pointed out to her publisher that the victim in the story was actually a man. Never mind that, came the reply, dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don't. Nor do dead children or geriatrics. Which explains why an increasing proportion of the crime fiction I am sent to review features male perpetrators and almost invariably female victims — series of them. 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.

Side-by-side with this comes PW's list of the 10 best books of 2009. It's not just that all ten were written by men, but many of them were tired old paeans to male sexual fantasies. Jeff in Venice, for instance, takes place in two sections. In the first, set at among academics at the Venice Biennale, we get pages and pages of the hero doing lines (under a Tintoretto ceiling, among other places), while having sex with a predatory American art historian. David Lodge did a better job of sending up the academy decades ago, and, well, Portnoy's Complaint isn't exactly news these days.
What gives with this? Why, when women's wages have reached the heady historic high of 77 cents on the dollar paid to men, when three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women, and even one or two Fortune 500 companies have women chairs, why are women being raped and beaten into oblivion?


Laura Caldwell said...

Sara, this is an astute essay on a topic that a lot of people would probably like you to keep quiet on. I'm ashamed to admit that I've become desensitized to violence against women in fiction, almost because, as you pointed out, there is so much out there it's hard to avoid. A recent book I'm reading (R.J. Ellory's "A Quiet Belief in Angels") is so beautifully written that I've decided to try and ignore the 7 or 8 dismembered pre-teen girls.

Dana King said...

I was at your Bouchercon panel where this was discussed, and the only way to keep this type of violence from showing up so often is for women to stop buying and reading this type of book. Publishers print what sells, and every stat I've seen most book sales are to women. There must be something about these kinds of stories that appeals to women, though the explanations I heard at Bouchercon didn't make a lot of sense.

(Full disclosure: I'm a middle-aged male, and I abhor these kinds of stories.)

One last thing: I'll bet Colin Powell is going to be surprised to hear the last three Secretaries of State have been women.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Sara, I've had this conversation a number of times with both writers and readers. The only thing that seems clear about it to me is that both men and women seem to react to women-in-peril stories differently than they do to men-in-peril stories. That's a huge generalization, of course, but what I mean is that "woman in peril" seems to be the sort of instinctive default of our storytelling mechanism. Violence against women is related, I suppose.

What's interesting to me (as you point out) is that today's fiction has so many more strong female characters and heroines than it used to, but that really hasn't altered the balance on the victim side.

Steerpike said...

Guys have regular fantasies about Saving The Girl, which I imagine must have some impact on the volume of these stories and the amounts they sell.

What troubles me is that there may be some implication, in the abundance of such novels, that victimization of women may minimize the victimization of women in real life. "That it's done in books" may be okay when it comes to profit margins, but I'm concerned by the implication it may have in presenting women as victims. I don't like the idea of encouraging the concept that women are victims, even if it feeds into the bazillion-year-old fantasy of Saving The Girl.

Sara Paretsky said...

Dana, help, your right! Of course, I meant the last three had been African-American--no, wait. I'll correct the post tomorrow.
Kevin, you may be right that women make more "appealing" victims than men--that society makes us want to protect women and rely on men to do the protecting. What troubles me is the way the graphic descriptions of women as victims keep getting ratcheted up, as if, as Steerpike and Laura both point out, we get numbed and need bigger thrills, so the violence gets more detailed, more graphic, more lovingly, even gleefully described.
I read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and of course was flattered that Larson mentioned me, but I was troubled by the level of detail he felt he had to give of Salander's torture--did that help the story, or just guarantee a certain kind of readership for it?

JN said...

Love this blog and mysteries/suspense books.
Thank you for commenting on this topic which has bothered me for some time. Books, as well as TV and movies seem to just gratuitously add too much information/detail on violence against women. I personally am no longer watching such shows/movies and if a book starts to get into too much graphic detail, I just quit reading it. Those kinds of horrible details stick in my mind and I find it hard to shake them out. And you know, life is often scary enough without imagining all these horrid things happening to people. I like suspense and working out the mystery, and wish authors and tv/film writers would concentrate more on a good story instead of titillating gore/violence. Do you think too many readers are densensitized to all this violence? Thanks.

Steerpike said...

Hi JN,

I'm very cautious about the whole "desensitized to violence" phrase, working as I do in the video games industry where the entire medium is constantly under attack for that very thing, and the attacks are almost always baseless.

Instead of becoming desensitized to violence, I'd say readers/gamers/viewers/fans of all types are becoming hungrier for more shock.

My brother Marcus gave me the novel "Song of Kali" not long ago, and I was fascinated by the blurbs on its back cover - it would leave you forever changed, nothing has ever been so ghoulish, you thought you knew true horror, etc etc etc. Knowing I wasn't a big horror novel fan, Marcus had really gotten it for me because it's set in Calcutta, and he knows I hate vermin, filth, hot weather, and people. So even if the book's content wasn't terrifying to me, its setting would be.

Anyway, I got to the supposed "ghoulish" ending that would leave me changed forever and I was like, "That? That's it? That's supposed to leave me changed forever? I saw worse on Grey's Anatomy last night."

But in the mid-eighties when the book came out, I can see the shock. As audiences, we expect artists to consistently up the ante, which in the world of horror and crime fiction does tend to mean the violence, torture, and general horribleness amongst people. It's not desensitization, it's seeking the next big thing.

What bothers me is that it's becoming ever more commonly (as if it weren't common before) that such things are directed against women. There is something in our western colonized worldview that almost calls for such stuff, because of the deep-seated Saving The Girl western male fantasy. This is upsetting, even as its incongruous to my own male psyche for whom Saving The Girl is an indelible part. What's to be done?

It must be especially difficult for women writers, who juggle the dual responsibility of writing gripping fiction with the pressure of doing "what sells," when what sells is apparently escalating violence against women. That's just not right.

But desensitization? No, reading Song of Kali didn't desensitize me to what happened. Any healthy mind can discern between fantasy and reality regardless of how intense either may be.

Anonymous said...


I can think of a few reasons.

From a character standpoint, women are physically weaker than men (for the most part) which makes them a more interesting victim in fiction. Men are expected to fight and escape, while women, if they do escape, it's usually because of something other than brute strength which makes for a more interesting story.

From an anthropological standpoint, women are the foundation of society. While men are breeders and expendable in war and in procreation, women are the backbone. When a woman dies, replacing her isn't as easy as plugging in the next available man. Granted, this isn't really the case in today's society, (even though women still aren't officially allowed in front line combat) but the instinctual prejudices remain. Preserve the female and society continues.

Then there's the cheap thrills side which is really harmless and always a stong selling point.