Women, violence and controversy

The latest permutation in what’s often been a simmering debate in the crime fiction world – why do several female crime writers write such graphic violence? – took place some days ago when Ian Rankin, perhaps foolishly, made the following comment to Danuta Kean in the Independent on Sunday:

“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.”

In a follow-up post on her blog, Kean added that “a number of crime writers made the same observation [when researching her Mslexia piece on literary crime] – though none of them were willing to go on the record.” Then she asked, “why are women so cruel to each other in their writing? And, if Rankin’s

claim is true (believe me he is not the only crime writer – male or

female – who thinks this), why are lesbians in particular writing such

vicious imagery? And, why do women readers – and women are a big

percentage of readers – reading this?”

As a result of the piece and Kean’s post, Val McDermid left a lengthy comment of her own:

The contention that lesbians are somehow most violent towards women in

their fiction is laughable – Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen and Denise Mina,

to name but three straight off the top of my head, are certainly not

lesbian, yet their fiction all contains challenging violence. It also

illustrates a certain lack of familiarity with male proponents in the

genre – what about Stuart MacBride, Allan Guthrie, Chris Simms, John

Connor and John Connolly, again right off the top of my head? Or even

Rankin himself. Have you forgotten the chilling opening to Mortal

Causes, for example?

…The ‘lesbians are most violent’ contention can thus be seen as

nonsensical. And so the question becomes, what is really going on here?

What is really being said? Is it homophobia? Sexism? Fear and envy? Or

is it that the boys don’t think the women really have the right to

explore the territory that has been traditionally theirs, to wit, the

nature and effect of violence? Whatever the answer, it’s not pretty.

Kean responded back, agreeing that “the orientation of the writer is a complete red herring” but that she’s still interested in the question I started this post with.

Obviously, there’s a worthwhile discussion that’s been obscured somewhat by the bluntness (and inaccuracy) of Rankin’s comments, which I interpreted as being of the “reluctantly on the record” variety where one’s foot is lodged in the mouth and it’s rather difficult to undo (Rankin hasn’t responded to my email request to clarify his comments, but he is on tour for his new Rebus novel.) I’ve always viewed female crime writers exploring violence, graphic or otherwise, as a way of understanding human motivations and an increasingly gray world, but I’d say the same for male crime writers, too.

Which is just a glorified way of saying that the backblog door is wide open…