The “sadistic misogyny” of crime fiction: UPDATED

October 26, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

I posted about this one over on Quillblog, but I thought it bore repeating here, since it’s a subject that has concerned me personally for quite some time. Jessica Mann, the British novelist and, until very recently, crime fiction reviewer for the Literary Review, has told the Guardian that she will no longer review genre works because of what she sees as their “sadistic misogyny”:

“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,” she said.

“Authors must be free to write and publishers to publish. But critics must be free to say they have had enough. So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me,” said Mann, who has written her own bestselling series of crime novels and a non-fiction book about female crime writers.

Some may see Mann’s stance as overly marmish; I tend to think she has a point that is at least worthy of consideration. When the psychotic serial killer Buffalo Bill used his female victims’ skins to make himself a woman’s suit in the thriller The Silence of the Lambs, the culture appeared to have reached a kind of ne plus ultra where such material was concerned; almost two decades later, Thomas Harris’s book and Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation appear almost quaint.

In her book, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio points out that one in every eight Hollywood movies features a rape scene. Prime-time television crime dramas such as Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation regularly contain plots involving the sexual degradation and exploitation of women. And let’s not even get into films like Captivity (when Clive Barker called horror fiction the last refuge of the chauvinist, I’m sure he couldn’t even conceive of something so execrable). Throughout our culture, the sexual debasement of women seems to be an acceptable subject for entertainment. (And here I make a distinction between books and films that use such subject matter as fodder for titillation, and those like Gaspar NoĆ©’s Irreversible, which try to take a more serious look at such material.)

Val McDermid, a crime writer who has been responsible for her share of violent plotlines, blames market forces for the increasing acceptability of extreme material in popular fiction: “There has been a general desensitisation among readers, who are upping the ante by demanding ever more sensationalist and gratuitous plotlines.” Certainly, in a culture that tolerates as entertainment such torture porn fare as the Hostel and Saw movies, there is an ever-escalating tendency to try to outdo what has come before; it is now incumbent upon writers and filmmakers to push the envelope ever further just to provide the same jolt of adrenaline for their audiences.

There are no doubt people who will suggest that Mann is making a mountain out of a molehill; that scenes of violence toward women in fiction have no demonstrated effect on people’s attitudes in the real world, and this might indeed be true. But the ubiquity of such material in our popular culture should at least give one pause for thought, it seems to me. Here in Canada, we base our obscenity laws on the rather vague metric of “community standards”; what kind of community standards are we promulgating if we agree that scenes of the most explicit sadism, misogyny, and degradation are acceptable fodder for entertainment? Am I being too prudish? Or is the slope really as slippery as it appears?

UPDATE: The original article from the Guardian‘s website, upon which this post was based, has been updated with the following notice:

This article was amended on Tuesday 27 October 2009. We previously said that one of the country’s leading crime writers and critics “is refusing to review new books” but that should have been “is refusing to review some violent new books.” This has been corrected.


11 Responses to “The “sadistic misogyny” of crime fiction: UPDATED”
  1. Don Doggett says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being offended by gratuitous misogyny and sadism in fiction, and in calling it out as such, but perhaps readers would be better served if Ms. Mann continued to review such books and did just that; called them out. Myself, I have no problem with anything in a book that is written convincingly in true service to a story. However, what often happens is that lazy, unskilled, or, worse yet, chauvinistic misogynist writers resort to what I like to call “drowning kittens”, and create artificially intense situations in the place of real drama. All it really is is poor storytelling, and instead of running from it Ms. Mann should rip it to shreds.

  2. August says:

    I think I agree with Don on this issue, though to be honest as I’m just starting to get interested in crime/mystery fiction, I haven’t really bumped up against the issue much (I’m not a fan of slasher fiction in general, particularly in films). I will say, however, that I’m a tad disappointed that you used Inga Muscio’s ridiculous, thoroughly discredited piece of slap-dash reason-by-analogy piece of pseudo-scholarship as a source.

  3. Alex says:

    Not sure about the misogyny, but I’ve been complaining about the rise of serial killer fiction for years now. From a review I did of Jan Burke’s Bones (2000): “The superhuman serial killer has become one of the most common archetypes in today’s entertainment industry. Enough is enough!” (Full review here: )

    I think this is one of the reasons I like Golden Age mystery and suspense and classic noir fiction. It was all before the cult of the serial killer. Which I guess really took off with the success of Silence of the Lambs — a movie that I was quite uncomfortable with when it came out, what with the way it made the Hannibal character into a hero (an idea which has become mainstream now).

    I don’t think it’s a real slippery slope. But I think it is a depressing comment on the way we look at the world.

  4. Jessica Mann says:

    I never said and it is not the case that I’m giving up reviewing. What I did say is that I’ve had enough torture-porn – which is a very small subsection of crime fiction – and won’t review that any more.

  5. LH says:

    Torture porn. Exactly.

    I can’t watch those programs that are all about describing how the victim–usually women and increasingly children–was killed, how much she struggled, etc.

    Ick, ick. Never in a book, not for me anyhow. Have no idea how that can help anyone “tune out,” which is what people often say in defence of such programs/books. “Oh, I just tune out…I don’t want to think…”

  6. This is an interesting issue. I sympathize with not wanting to read books that take such a grimly voyeuristic approach to violence, though I think Don Doggett makes a good point that it does something of a public service to review them and call them to account–otherwise we’re accepting that tastes differ, some people’s taste is for morally abhorrent material, and we ‘ll just leave them to enjoy it.

    The comparison to golden age detection is an interesting one to me. I teach a class on mystery fiction and one of the things we talk about when we ‘do’ Agatha Christie is whether it is actually a bit ethically problematic to treat something as serious as murder so lightly. In Roger Ackroyd, for instance, there’s a scene where a bunch of characters all stand around the corpse (who has a dagger sticking out of his neck, mind you) chatting quite casually. In Raymond Chandler’s essay ‘the Simple Art of Murder,’ that’s a big part of his point, of course–that Hammett had made crime realistic, and and thus crime fiction important. The whole idea of a ‘cozy’ murder mystery is odd, when you think about it.

  7. Alex says:

    You could take a different point of view. I’ve never been present at an actual crime scene, but I’ve attended on a few emergency medical scenes. People do tend to stand around chatting quite casually.

    Is Chandler’s “hard-boiled” style more realistic than Christie’s cozies? I’m not so sure. Where Christie really edges into fantasy is in the wildness of her plots.

    As far as being ethically problematic, Christie has Poirot frequently make strong moral pronouncements against murder (even in sympathetic cases). Poirot is a far more upstanding moral figure than detectives like Marlowe and Spade. Your students sound terribly judgmental.

  8. Actually, I’m usually the one being judgmental, though often it is in the spirit of provoking debate. I agree about Poirot: he always brings a certain gravitas, especially to the conclusion of the novel (the ending of Ackroyd is actually a good example of this).

    I don’t think Chandler is talking about style so much as setting (broadly understood) and motives, as well as means. Certainly his style is not at all straightforwardly realistic, any more than Hammett’s is. The morality of their detectives seems to me a complicated question. They often stand on principle (or believe they do) even if their principle takes them outside strict legality or conventional morality; how far we are willing to follow them depends, I suppose, on how far we accept their premise that their whole world is corrupt, that the laws may not lead to justice, or that sometimes the ends justify even the shadiest means. Mind you, proximity between detective and criminal is an old problem (or pleasure) in detective fiction, right? Poe’s Dupin and Sherlock Holmes both make people in their stories uncomfortable with their sometimes unscrupulous methods and their uncanny ability to think like a criminal.

  9. August says:

    The best look I’ve seen at what happens at a crime scene is David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Jokes, trash talk, casual conversation, even the odd practical joke. The only ones who are serious all the time are the ones who won’t last at the job. Having read Simon’s book, I would now have a hard time seeing much of that behaviour as ethically problematic; investigators simply couldn’t survive as human beings without it. (And really, aren’t all students terribly judgemental?)

    Alex: I’ve been reading Chandler’s oeuvre slowly over the last couple years, and ‘hard boiled’ isn’t really the first word I’d go for. There’s a lot of that in there, of course, but he writes with tremendous wit and humour. Marlowe’s inner monologue is so relentlessly clever that it can be laugh out loud funny at times.

  10. Alex says:

    @ Rohan: Spade and Marlowe certainly have a moral code, but it is as you say complicated. Spade in the Maltese Falcon is my favourite example, screwing around with Archer’s wife and then standing up for him at the end with a big speech about principle. But noir was all about shades of grey. I agree that the proximity between detective and criminal is a pleasure. And maybe some of Vidocq’s legacy survives in Hannibal helping Clarisse find Buffalo Bill. The only interesting part of the movie, I thought.

    @August: Of course Chandler is a howl. Not just the inner monologue but the dialogue as well. But he’s no intellectual crime-solver. He’s a tough guy at bottom, always ready to play hardball with cops and bad guys alike, slap around a few “pansies”, etc. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I think the genre carries with it a sense of self-parody. Even Spillan’s Mike Hammer, though a brute creature devoid of wit, can be inadvertently hilarious.

    Sort of wandering off topic here into the thrilling days of yesteryear, I guess. But maybe that only highlights how uninteresting today’s serial-killer/torture-porn thrillers are.

  11. August says:

    Also, might I say that much of this discussion seems like mainstream folks bumping up against Rule 34 in a way they might not have expected.