Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Guys and Molls

By Jay Stringer

Some debates just bore me. Certain “hot topics” just make me roll my eyes to the heavens and zone out. One of the best examples of my apathy?

Is there a difference between male and female crime writers?

You know what? It just doesn’t interest me. The idea itself seems so silly to me. There’s way too much to take into consideration, too many subtleties, too many different tastes and too few hours. To boil it all down to differences between the sexes has always struck me as over simplification. I don't like to simplify an issue, i like to open the can and tip all of the worms out.

Of all the interesting things to be discussed about the craft of writing, and all the even greater things to be discussed about the joy of reading, I could care less what sex the writer is.

(There’s always one)

I’ve been at two events recently where the topic has been discussed. Both occasions it was by female writers, and I’ve heard some well thought out arguments and some poor ones. It’s been playing at the back of my mind for the last few days now, and so I want to get it out of my head and open up the floor for a discussion. I don’t claim to have any answers here, just a few nagging questions. And it seems to flow naturally from the discussion that Dave started last week. It has struck me that this website can sometimes be very much like a panel, there's the guys sat up here with the microphones but it's rally the interaction that makes it work.

One of the arguments put forward was that women are more sensitive to pain and emotion than men, another was that you wouldn’t find a woman detailing the building of a nuclear bomb in the way Tom Clancy might.

I don’t know that this holds true of any of the books on my shelf, but okay. And this isn’t an attack on the opinions of female writers. Men get in on the act too. Ian Rankin caught a hornet’s nest between his teeth a few years ago when he suggested that female writers –and gay ones in particular- were more violent than their male counterparts. I don’t know that this hold true of my bookshelves either.

Maybe Rankin was taking a poorly worded friendly swipe at the British crime fiction market, which often seems to be dominated by female authors who write forensic procedurals. Well, aside from the fact the market is dominated by Ian Rankin...

Just a scan of bookshelves in my nearest store, or during my time as a bookseller, would support both of those generalisations. The route to success as a female crime writer often appears to be to write a series of novels starring a forensic pathologist/psychologist/ventriloquist that mixes grisly murders with a romantic subplot.

But I don’t like to make snap judgements, I like to get into the cracks and see why something happens. If one type of fiction dominates female fiction, isn’t that far more likely down to a bias in the publishing industry rather than an in built difference between men and women?

And that’s to ignore writers like Helen Fitzgerald who I wrote about last week, who writes dark and humorous stand alone books. And it certainly doesn’t cover Christa Faust or Megan Abbot who have been writing some of the best noir of recent years.

And to get back to looking at the flip side; there sometimes seems to be the idea that men are interested far more in glorifying violence and crime, whereas women look to explore the emotional impact. But that seems to ignore writers like George Pelecanos and Ray Banks. Russel's latest book is a great example of choosing to show the consequences over the actions, and yet there's not a single scene of pathology or the scrubs of a forensic scientist.

The market doesn't seem to have many instances of male writers giving more time to highly researched forensic analysis than to the emotional impact of alienation and social dysfunction. But again, surely that generalisation is more an indication of what publishers are looking for than of anything else? (or even of my own limited scope)

There are some differences between us, sure.

Men and Women will definitely read certain situations differently. I’ve only ever been one of the two, so I’m working on guesswork here. But I’d use that guess to say that a woman’s reaction to an aggressive man would be different to a male reaction. It would be a different emotion that comes from a different place. A man can be just as scared of a dark alleyway as a women, but again the fear might come from a different place, a different instinct. And so -following through- the two sexes may react in different ways to many of the trappings of crime fiction. But isn’t the art of writing to remove yourself from the story and let your characters react in their own way? And in that case it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference whether the author has an outie or an innie.

I reject the notion that women writers are pre-programmed to deal with fall out and consequences any better than men. But to the accusation that men glorify the violence? Well there have been more Mike Hammers than Ms Trees, but again that’s surely down to the market?

And is there anything wrong with trivialising violence? It depends on who's doing it and why, of course, but one of the scariest aspects of real life violence is that it can become casual to the battle hardened. I want to read a book that faces up to this and tries to explore it

I can’t see that there should be any differences other than the ones we choose to see. Are male writers sometimes guilty of not exploring the female point of view? Are female writers sometimes guilty of overdoing things to try and prove a point?

Is the only difference that we think there should be a difference? Maybe when someone starts to list the differences between male and female writers, they’re actually telling you more about their own insecurities and tastes than any larger truth?

I don’t know, obviously, but I’m interested. The floor is open, what do you guys think?

And on a side note; I've said it's the interaction that makes this whole thing work. What issues would you want us to write about in future? Any questions you'd like expanded upon?


Lyn said...

Interesting post.

Until recently, I never gave a thought to the author of a book. An author's name was a brand name, like Kraft or Chevrolet. I've had good experiences with products from Brand A, so I'll buy it again. Until it occurred to me to try to boost myself from Reader to Reader who Writes, I just never thought of the authors as persons.

This is the first time I've ever heard "innie" and "outie" used in just that way.

Word: dedlinda
Being a person named Lynda, I'm going to say this is a morning hairstyle.

John McFetridge said...

Sure, men and women are different. But within the groups there'll be a lot of overlap. Okay, that's trite.

Let's try this. I took a course on the writing of Alice Munro. Most of her stories are about not fitting in in small towns, women who realize that they aren't like the others and push back against the conformity.

When one of the other students said something about it being harder for women when they realize they're differnt, the prof - a woman - said, "Do you think life is easy in a small town for a boy who wants to be a poet?" We went on to have a bigdiscussion about writers being people who often push back against conformity - male or female.

And, one more thing. Here's a short story I read recently by Josephine Damian.

Tell me that wouldn't make Al Guthrie proud.

Dana King said...

For years I only occasionally looked at crime fiction written by women. Not hard-boiled enough, and I thought female writers were too concerned about making sure the reader "got" it, and explained too much. Stylistically, they were less adventurous.

Turns out that was my fault; I was just reading the wrong women. In the past year and a half or so I "discovered" Christa Faust, Val McDermid, and Libby Fischer Hellmann; the Bouchercon just past made it clear I need to add Megan Abbott to the list post haste. Probably Yrsa Sigardursdottir as well. There's a Zoe Sharp on my TBR shelf I'm looking forward to.

The generalization of writers is no better than saying you're anti-woman (gay, man, transsexual, whatever) because there was one in your book that was unsympathetically portrayed. It was just that one; an individual. Writers are all individuals, too. We need to look at each as distinct from all others who resemble them in a non-writing way. (Now that I typed this, I see I'm agreeing with Lyn's opening paragraph, but less concise.)

As for the question about this blog, I thought this group hit the ground running. I've been a regular reader since Day One. It's a nice mix of advice and discussion on topics I like to read about. Far as I'm concerned, don't change a thing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A blogger today listed his favorite books from the last decade. Forty-eight of the fifty were men. Sex matters.