Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blunt Talk about Women at Bouchercon

Sandra Parshall

Sara Paretsky’s big black hat, red feather boa, and interesting footwear caused a lot of comment at Bouchercon last Friday, but as always, her words had the power to make you forget the visuals. Along with moderator Barbara Fister and writers Mary Saums, Kate Flora, and Liza Cody, Paretsky turned a panel with the deceptively dull title “Telling Women’s Stories” into a riveting dissection of women’s roles in fiction and real life.

Paretsky, who joined with other female mystery writers to
found Sisters in Crime 24 years ago in response to “being slighted at conferences” and overlooked by reviewers, sounded as if she’s given up on feminism. She said she believes SinC has brought a lot of women readers to mystery by making them aware of books that will appeal to them, but she questions ”whether feminism has made much of an impact” on society. Joking that she was “raised in the woods by wolves” and has “never felt at home in civilized society,” Paretsky spoke in the past tense of being a feminist who was “angry all the time” about the unequal treatment of women. Now she’s more focused on general issues of power and justice – and her protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, has changed along with her.

Other women on the panel agreed that inequality remains rampant in society at large, in the publishing world, and on the pages of novels. Mary Saums said she’s weary of witnessing “everyday abuses of women’s rights.” For the first 45 years of her life, Saums said, she was a “nice” woman, but she finally reached a point when she’d had enough of conforming to expectations. “Women have a right to be who they are,” she declared to applause from the audience.

All of the panelists deplored the prevalence of women characters as victims of brutal crimes in fiction, but none seemed to find it surprising. Paretsky pointed out that “the notion of a woman taking up space in the world still offends some men at such a visceral level” that they want to strike out, “slash and destroy.” Both men and women, Liza Cody said, “are quite comfortable with the idea of women as victims,” but men don’t want to read about male victims.

Kate Flora said she finds it “deeply troubling” that female authors are “increasingly writing about women as victims” of graphic violence. In her own Thea Kozak series, Flora is “exploring what it means to be a modern woman.” In a new series, her male detective owes his sensibilities to his mother, who “taught him to see” the reality of men’s and women’s roles in society.

Mary Saums perceives “a new wave of anti-female feeling in the book business” and some of it is coming from women. Popular female thriller writers are treated as the equals of their male counterparts, but some of those women, according to Saums, are openly critical of Sisters in Crime and “talk down to us.”

In society, Liza Cody fears, too many young women are moving backward. Rather than claiming the right to be unique individuals, they’re “trying to compete with porn stars” in a bid for male attention. (I couldn’t help thinking of the young female cops on TV shows who teeter around crime scenes on five-inch heels and lean menacingly over interrogation room tables with their cleavage fully exposed, inches from the suspects’ faces. The porn star effect is everywhere these days.)

Paretsky observed that both male and female writers all seem to want their women characters to be “five-six and 118 pounds.” She believes publishers are “not thoughtful” about what they publish, but simply put out more of what’s already selling until it stops selling. If books in which women are savaged happen to be selling, publishers will put out more of them. Publishers follow trends instead of taking the lead and breaking new ground.

The mostly female audience responded to the panel with frequent applause, and when the floor was opened to questions, a couple of the women present seized the chance to make speeches of their own.

All this was in marked contrast to an earlier panel called “The Dark Side of the Fair Sex” that featured Megan Abbott as moderator with panelists Chelsea Cain, Sophie Littlefield, and the lone man, Derek Nikitas. Cain, who writes about a gorgeous female serial killer named Gretchen Lowell and the mentally unbalanced male cop who both desires Gretchen and wants to lock her up, seemed amused by readers’ reactions to her characters. (She reported that her grandmother’s comment after reading the first book was that “it’s nicely bound.”) All of the panelists write dark, gritty stories about women who don’t meet society’s expectations, but I didn’t sense the struggle and frustration that was palpable when Paretsky, Saums, Flora, and Cody spoke. Why the difference? That’s food for thought in itself.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Wow, Sandra. That's a heavy subject and one that deserves a lot of attention. I'm mostly reading cozies, so I haven't really noticed that shift.

I *hate* the porn star effect, though, and have noticed it a lot on TV. Bleh.

I don't like reading books where women have been brutalized. It disturbs me that this is a growing trend.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. As a graduate of a women's college with a high profile, and as a life-long feminist, it's frustrating to fight these battles over and over again.

But...I think there are studies that have shown that men are less likely to read books by women writers, while women read books from both genders. Is it primarily the men's books that are victimizing women? Are women perpetuating this abuse?

And if you read past the initial traumatic event(s), do the women in the books fight back and achieve justice? Maybe there's a more complex message there.

Sandra Parshall said...

I believe there's a general feeling -- among publishers, writers of both genders, and readers of both genders -- that women make "better" victims. Females seem more vulnerable, weaker and more helpless, so the stakes seem higher. However, in some books, such as those in which prostitutes are murdered by a serial killer, the reader doesn't even get to know the female victims. They're faceless, often nameless, and worthless as members of society. The only thing that makes them suitable victims is their gender.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yesterday, BOOKSPOTCENTRAL, editor, Brian Lindenmuth chose his top fifty novels of the new century. Forty-eight of them were male-written. This is not a slam on Brian, it was his personal list of favorites and the list was a good one. I then sent him a list of twenty or so women who had written great novels over that time frame and he acknowledged he had missed reading most of them.

My personal opinion about the difference in perception: older women notice more than younger ones that things don't change.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Sandra, great report.

I've been fighting the gender battles since the '60s and feel like we constantly take one step forward and one step back. I don't want to read books (whether by men or women) where women are helpless victims. I also have a problem with books (although some of them are hilarious) where the female protaganist is hapless and ditzy, and solves the crime by dumb luck.


Anonymous said...

I agree with pattinase:older women do seem to react more to injustices than younger women do.

A lot of this is the fallacy that as long as something is entertaining or funny, it's okay. They dismiss a variety of social injustices under, "It's only a {book, movie, TV show.]}

It's not a new problem. Back in 1965, many veterans were upset about "Hogan's Heros." They felt that a prisoner of war camp was not an appropriate topic for a sit-com.

Sandra Parshall said...

That "as long as it's entertaining, it's okay" attitude no longer applies to ethnic groups (although it used to). It doesn't apply to children. It doesn't even apply to pets! How many times have we been warned that regardless of the other violence in our books, we must not dare to kill a dog or cat? Even Chelsea Cain said at Bouchercon that she will never hurt a child or a dog in her serial killer novels. The only group that's NOT off-limits is women.

Younger women today do have more educational and professional opportunities than we had when I was young (back at the dawn of recorded time), but far too many are still letting the desire for a man's love and companionship rule their lives. And about those professional opportunities... a study of working women showed that of the five jobs most commonly held by women, only two (nursing and teaching, I believe) required a college degree. The others were jobs like waitressing.

Kate said...

Now I'm feeling incredibly guilty because the victim in my first novel was a woman, and I didn't even think twice about it. Does it make it any less offensive if the killer was also a woman and a woman solved the case?

I'm in the middle of writing two novels at the moment the victim in the first is again a woman, but quite a powerful one. In the second novel the victims are both men. So maybe I'm redeeming myself in the last.

I think there is a difference between a woman who is portrayed as hapless and ditzy, and one who's life is fraught with normal mishaps. Stuff happens in life and, for me, part of the fun of reading fiction is seeing my favorite characters figure things out in ways that make me laugh. But perhaps that's because a lot of "stuff" happens in my life too, regardless of the fact that I'm smart and educated. I also happen to be a writer, which unfortunately means that I can't just toss the keys to the mechanic or plumber and say "fix this for me would you?"

Sandra Parshall said...

I've killed off both women and men in books, and I've written women as villains. Let's face it: we only have two genders to choose from when we come up with both victims and killers. What I'm very, very tired of are serial killer novels that wallow in details of women being mutilated, raped and murdered. The women are objects, not human beings. Obviously some people enjoy those stories, and they are free to read them, but I much prefer stories in which people are murdered for personal reasons, by people they know, not because they caught the eye of some nutty stranger. For me, a book is more entertaining and thought-provoking if a gruesome murder isn't the whole point. I want to see all the actions and interactions that led to murder explored fully.

Barbara said...

Thanks for writing this up, Sandy - I was prepared with questions, but wasn't at all sure how the answers would go. And once it started I just tried to hang on :o)

The panelists focused on female victims because I raised a question about why serial killer stories featuring (almost always) women as victims (rarely as characters; mostly as about-to-be-dead or dead people) were so popular. And I prefaced that with a quote from Val McDermid about women being better at writing from the victim's perspective because men aren't comfortable thinking about themselves as potential victims, but women are always conscious of the potential for being victims. She thinks they're less likely to have a voyeuristic approach, but I'm not totally sure about that.

I do think that "it's okay, because you confront your anxieties vicariously, but in in the end justice is restored" is commonly given as a reason why these stories work for women readers; I also had a member of the audience say she thinks they're popular because they're so unrealistic; real violence against women (or anyone else) would be too close to home, but these stories are kind of mythic in their storyline.

Anyway, it was an interesting panel. And for the record, I think feminism made an enormous impact on society - but it doesn't mean it's finished.

Rosemary Harris said...

I'm so sorry I missed this panel - there was an embarassment of riches at Bouchercon and I wanted to be in three places every hour of the day! I totally agree with Sandy about what I refer to as "How we chop up the woman this time" books. It didn't bother me in Silence of the Lambs because there was a real book there, not just an excuse for yet another outlandish mutilation, but I think that book started an unfortunate trend (and I can't think of any that have been nearly as good.)

kathy d. said...

This is such an important blog full of good points. I agree with Sandra in her exposition of gratuitous violence against women in mysteries--which I hate. I will not read mysteries which contain this type of violence and I will not read women writers who do this either.
I won't read any books by Lee Childs any more either for a scene of extreme violence against women in a recent book, where it seemed the Reacher character enjoyed perpetrating the violence and had no negative feelings about it.
It seems like this needs raising by women activists, writers and readers.
And on tv there are few programs with good women characters; many are ditzy. Even a new show with women lawyers had them in courtrooms wearing mini-skirts and tiny suits two sizes too small, and a camera shot zeroes in on a woman lawyer's legs from the bottom up. I was appalled. Things have gone backwards.
I agree that all of us need to keep on consciousness-raising and objecting to bad images of women in the media and gratuitious anti-woman violence in books and movies.
And I could add that I'm appalled that anyone in the arts could defend Roman Polanski--women or men. This stuff needs to be opposed.
I think this blog and responses are terrific. I hope women across the board stand up and make their voices heard.
Kathy D.

Old Fogey said...

I was grabbed by the comment that older women are more likely to notice change. Of course we are. So many of us come from the era of "Help Wanted-Male" and "Help Wanted-Feamle." I'm sometimes shocked by young women who have no sense of history.

I think we can write books with women as heroes, as victims, and as bad guys. What I'm striving for in writing is the human element--what motivates these crimes, what are the lingering effects on survivors, investigators, etc. It is when books, especially books by women, feature graphic violence without the human connection that the writers lose me. I gave up on J.A. Jance, whose books I used to enjoy, when one opened with what I felt was really gratuitous violence.

Twice recently in Maine, young men have used their collections of swords and knives to commit hideous murders of young women. Violence as entertainment without a moral component can desensitize.