Thursday, April 4, 2013


By Jay Stringer

I'm itching to talk about JUSTIFIED, but it would be harsh to do it so soon on the finale, when people may not yet have watched it. I'll tuck that one on the drawer and come back on it later. 

Yesterday Weddle laid down a great question on us. As part of my answer I said we (as a community) don't yet discuss all of these things loudly enough or often enough. So it would be hypocritical if I stepped jauntily on to another topic straight away. I thought I'd post an expanded version of my response from yesterday, and touch maybe on a few of the other great comments to the piece, and keep the question open for another day. 

So first head back and read it.

Interesting question. I can't help but feel that overall the answer is NO. The answer is also NO for much of mainstream society. I don't always feel the criticism of this is handled the right way but I usually agree that the criticism aimed at something valid. 
There is a distinction to be drawn between the fiction and the community. I want to tackle the fiction first.

I'm one of the guys who always goes on about crime fiction being social fiction. And it is. But not all of it is. Some people just want to keep writing the same thing over and over. And even when writing the more social fiction, that doesn't automatically mean you're going to be writing something inclusive. Not all fiction has to reflect all people, and we write about some nasty shit happening to people. Ellen Clair Lamb made a great point yesterday;

It boils down to this, I think: sci-fi and fantasy are by their nature more concerned with ideal alternate universes/societies, while crime fiction tries to look at the darker side of society as it is. Arguing about utopias, and who belongs in them, will always cause more contention than the premise that bad people sometimes do bad things and need to be brought to justice.

I completely agree with the first part of Ellen's point. We could maybe say that Sci-Fi and Fantasy is often about writing the world as we would remake it, and crime fiction is about writing the world as we see it. I would caution though that it can become easy to use this line as an excuse as we write. "Of course I've marginalised some people in my work, I'm writing about a world that marginalises." You are and it does, but if you become aware of this while writing something, it's worth taking a second look at if you're handling it right. 

We can also talk about blind spots. We all have them. We all have things or people or cultures that we miss simply by not being aware. Our work reveals our passions and out strengths, but also reveals our blind spots. Even in talking about this, I probably tend to lean more towards talking about the aspects of sexual and racial identity politics that I'm more aware of, and I'm bound to miss people out. We may not intend to misrepresent or marginalise, but that doesn't mean we don't do it. All we can do is put our hands up, cop to it, and aim to fail better next time. 

I take issue with the way this is often handled on social media and in the other genres. A man who has written a scene or a part that is dismissive to a female character or to another ethnicity doesn't automatically need to have "YOU ARE A MISOGYNIST RACIST IDIOT, PLEASE RETWEET," shouted at him. And yet he does. Some writers have had to quit twitter because of it. We live in a world where it's easier to shout abuse at a stranger in less than 140 characters than it is to attempt to write a novel or a script that tackles large issues. That's just the way of it. Sometimes our blind spots show, and we can be called on that, but it should be handled right. An honest writer just needs to be invited into a conversation about a point of view he or she has been blind to, and then given room to take that on board and to write better next time. 

There are many many writers in crime fiction who should be held up and praised for doing this. Many who deliberately look for the voices that aren't being heard, and choose to tell their tale. They just tend not to be the ones that sell. 

What we maybe don't admit often enough is that there is also a very conservative streak in mainstream crime fiction. Crime and punishment, right and wrong, old fashioned values, that kind of thing. When Chandler wrote about mean streets and dropping crime fiction back into dirty alleys, he didn't mean that we should spend forever writing about those exact streets and alleys. He meant that crime fiction should be alive, fresh, current and real. There are people who argue that Noir and Hardboiled fiction are interchangeable labels for MEN'S FICTION, and to allow the womenfolk to have cosy crime books with cake recipes in them. There is also a hesitancy to read a protagonist that you can't immediately project yourself into. Something that's true of all fiction -but which splits our genre down the middle- is that there are people who want to read books to see new things, and people who want to read books to see their existing world view reflected back.

But things on the page are changing. Doors are opening. I think we'll see a massive shift as 'Young Adult Crime Fiction' blows up huge. (Because it's going to.)  Young Adult fiction deals with the world in ways that is relevant to...young adults. YA took off a long time ago in Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Dystopia. Is there a comment in there about the age of crime fiction readers? Maybe. I don't know. But it does mean that writers and publishers have been thinking in those genres about younger readers in a way that has been slower to come through in crime. It means that the page has been much more reflective of this shift in those genres. None of this is to say that it's all been perfectly handled, but it does mean they've been having the kinds of arguments and conversations that Weddle has been talking about.

Even more than what's written on the page, however, I feel this is an issue about the community. Sci-Fi and Fantasy has been making room for Young Adults in a way that Crime Fiction has yet to do. McFet yesterday commented that this is down to the TV and Movie industries moving into the conventions and festivals. Maybe. Or maybe they've been moving in due to a larger cultural shift, seeing a chance to profit from something that was already happening.Both are probably true.  The comic book industry, for example, has long suffered because it stopped for many years trying to bring in new readers, and it became cold and cliquey. Sci-Fi and Fantasy has always prided itself on -while never being 'cool'- being open to other ideas. Crime Fiction has never much been marketed at the young, so the community hasn't had to make room for them and have the arguments and debates that come with it. 

As someone who has not yet attended a crime fiction convention, but has attended (worked at) comic and sci-fi conventions, I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm going to guess that COSPLAY isn't that big a thing at crime conventions. The community has not had to deal with the idea that young people of all sexes and genders like to dress up as their favourite characters, and that this often leads to a lot of flesh on display. The crime fiction community has therefore not had the open fights that comes from this, of having to explain to men that flesh is not consent, and that a young person showing some skin or dressing as Lara Croft or Vampirella is not an excuse to hassle, grope or flirt.

That also leads onto ideas of identity politics. To make another assumption I don't think young people use crime fiction for self expression and self discovery in the same way they do Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Those communities can become a club where people go to be people and do things that they maybe can't be or do at home, or at work. And with that comes the need for the kinds of discussions you're talking about.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy has had to have those battles, and has become a very pro-active community on these issues (sometimes too much so, but that's better than not at all.)

But crime fiction hasn't had to have them. The community has been able to laugh and say, "yeah, we don't have all our women on covers in the nude, or being attacked by tentacles, or wearing gold bikinis while hefting swords, we rule." But then people do start to point out, "yeah, but all your women are in revealing 1940's ball gowns, or are being strangled on the covers, or are tied to chairs as someone points a knife at them. All of your biting commentary about human trafficking involves very attractive women and incidentally, why is it all so WHITE?"

At the same time, every time we have the conversation when someone claims Noir is male only, we then have people pointing out great women writers in the genre, and that is then followed by the people who point out that we shouldn't be defining these writers by the fact they are women and simply by the fact that they're great. And that discussion is had pretty quickly. So we do have some of these battles. 

So yes, no. We don't discuss them enough. And when we do discuss them, the conversation doesn't get out to enough people. The genre prefers to spend it's time arguing over swearing, violence against animals and the price of ebooks. 

But the young adults are coming. And the change will come with them. 

And here's the challenge. Keep this conversation going. Take it to your own blogs, or to the twitters, or to facebook. Don't just agree and wonder when crime fiction will start discussing inclusion, get out there and discuss it. 

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I find crime fiction to be more socially than what appears to be the popular position, but that may be due to an evolution in my tastes over the years. Most of the writers I'm now attracted to (Dennis Lehane, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge, Ken Bruen, Richard Price, et al have strong elements of this in their writing. I've noticed myself thinking more along these lines lately when I write, which may be why the WIP is taking me so damn long to feel comfortable about it.

It's also important not to make too much of this. A book or writer that tries to be too inclusive of social concerns will please no one. Things will either become superficial in order to fit everything into the available container, or too much of a socio-political manifesto. (I love Lehane, but MOONLIGHT MILE was a pain to read.)

As for science fiction and fantasy, if people ever start showing up at Bouchercon dressed up as their favorite characters, I'm gone.