Monday, July 9, 2012

The Patriarchy of Crime Fiction

Two quick announcements up front. Snubnose Press is open for submissions for the first time in 2012. We want your good stuff. Also, our latest release, Pulp Ink 2, is out now.

Crime fiction tends to be a male dominated fiction. Lot's of male writers, lots of male characters, lots of male perspective.

Female characters tend to be the victims. Female characters tend to get pigeon-holed into convenient categories (femme-fatale, damsel in distress, something to be fucked, conquered and fought over, something to be rescued) rather then given a personality or even a third dimension.
Female characters in classic noir fiction tend to fall into one of three categories: the murderous femme fatale; the long-suffering wife who keeps asking the hero, “Why can’t you just let this case go?”; and, of course, the beautiful victim.
The lens that a lot of crime fiction is viewed through is the presentation of masculinity in a world where gender roles have changed. But if the definition of masculinity is changing shouldn't crime fiction change as well. If it doesn't will it be left behind? Is it an anachronistic presentation taking the place of protest in the face of these changes.

Daniel Mennaker stated that the modern incarnation of the tough guy is a "sociological outgrowth of some gender-role ambiguity introduced beginning in the '60s or '70s, when the way a young guy ought to be became less clear."

What I've been concerned with lately is that I've read some manuscripts where narrative possibilities are presented then not explored. In one manuscript a sheriff in a small town has a, *ahem*, business relationship with a local crime boss. They are each getting long in the tooth and each have daughters. It's hinted that the one daughter is a lesbian. I was really hoping that the two daughters would get together, knock off their respective fathers and be the next generation running the town.

That didn't happen though.

 I'm not arguing for some sort of hedonistic, pulpy story where two lipstick lesbians get together and do hot crime things. What I am saying is why can't the girls have the reins of power sometimes. And sometimes, why can't there be no dudes in the picture. Or if there is a dude he doesn't have to rule the roost. Remember that chilling moment at the end of Mystic River where Annabeth reveals her Lady MacBeth side. Now there was a story just dying to get out.

It also doesn't have to be about the women getting together. How about a more recent example. Yesterday we saw Savages (really liked it too!) and there was a point in the movie where Elena says to O that Ben and Chon really love each other and that's why they are able to share her. Imagine the narrative possibilities if Ben and Chon reached the same conclusion and decided to not save O. Then O becomes the daughter that Elena wanted and they team up. All of a sudden the rug has been yanked out from under the viewer, the entire premise has been realigned and, because this is all I'm really arguing for, new narrative possibilities have opened up.

I'm not pulling these narrative possibilities out of my ass though because they were already there to begin with.  They were just left unexplored.

Thought exercise: Think of a crime novel that you read recently, or even a favorite. Now imagine if all of the genders in it were reversed. What would it look like. What if all of the genders were the same. I think either of those simple shifts in perspective would/could open up a new realms of possibilities.

what if women started stepping up to fill the traditional male roles? The tarnished knight? The stone-cold amoral thief? The wisecracking sex machine? Would a Black Dahlia-style victim-obsession plot work if the genders were reversed?

Readers: Keep an open mind because only then can new things be tried.

Writers: Don't be afraid to add new spices to your story. Who knows what will open up.

Currently Reading: The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett


Unknown said...

Yep, definitive food for thought, and something I've been toying with. I think a few people are getting their heads around it - it works a treat, if done with style. Now, how do we define style...? ;)

Thomas Pluck said...

Women without ambitions in fiction drive me nuts. I just wrote a story for Chad E's Hoods, Hot Rods and Hellcats where the roles get reversed, as in above. I wanted to call it "Birth of a Hellcat" but didn't want to give too much away.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Good points.

Dana King said...

"I was really hoping that the two daughters would get together, knock off their respective fathers and be the next generation running the town.

That didn't happen though."

It didn't happen because that's not the story he/she wrote. It's borderline unfair to decry a book for what it isn't, especially if what it is works.

I agree with what you say about women's roles in crime fiction. The ideas you came up with may work quite well. (All I know is what's here, so i'm not going to argue either side.) There's a story for you to write in there. the other has already been written, and it's either good enough to stand by itself, or it's not.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

As a reviewer I have to engage with the book that was written and not the shadow book that isn't there. But as an editor I don't have to do that as fully. In fact it's my job to talk to the writer about potential missed opportunities or things that were hinted at but not explored more fully. That doesn't mean that the author has to take all of my suggestions. But hopefully they will consider the perspective that I have to offer as someone who didn't write it and who isn't a close friend/beta reader.

And here's the things. I liked the book so much as is that I made an offer on it.

I also mentioned that moment to the author where I thought that the two daughters were going to take over. His response was to tell me a little about the sequel... My point in mentioning this is that clearly I wasn't projecting something on to the story.

All I'm really pitching here is for everyone to keep an open mind. Particularly authors if opportunities present themselves.

Sandra Ruttan said...

In a strange way, in Savages, they poke fun at sexist stereotypes themselves. O assumes the person in charge is a man. She is shocked when Elena is revealed as the person in charge, and then has to apologize, but her own prejudices and expectations were projected by her into the situation. It was clear in the movie she was a sex toy who didn't take the business too seriously and didn't think too deep, and that's what she expected of other women. It never occurred to her that, as a woman, she could run the show.

At least, not as portrayed in the movie. But the screenwriters (which included Winslow) underlined that point with a big, fat, red marker.

Ben said...

Good piece, Brian. Been think about that article by Ms. Faust as well.

Oddmonster said...

Good piece.


I was really hoping that the two daughters would get together, knock off their respective fathers and be the next generation running the town.

That would've been a fantastic story.