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.