Women's appetite for explicit crime fiction is no mystery
Brutally detailed murder stories appeal to female readers both for the real anxieties they tap into, and for their metaphorical resonances
Source of article: the guardian online.
“Women love crime fiction, and not just in its cosy, sanitised, Midsomer Murders version. The trend towards ever-more explicit accounts of murder, rape and torture in crime novels, often involving a female victim, is led not by men but by women. Why?"
At this year's Theakstons Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, roughly 80% of the audience (and half the 80 or so authors appearing) will be women. We will also make up around 80% of those signing up for writing workshops where aspiring crime writers learn their craft. Though only a third of published authors in almost all genres are women and media outlets scandalously persist in reviewing disproportionately more books by men, women have long made up the majority of adult readers and, increasingly, both as readers and writers, we are turning to crime.
Women love crime fiction, and not just in its cosy, sanitised, Midsomer Murders version. The trend towards ever-more explicit accounts of murder, rape and torture in crime novels, often involving a female victim, is led not by men but by women. Why?
Well, partly because we understand what living with fear feels like so much better than men. Germaine Greer once wrote that "women have very little idea how much men hate them," but actually, if you add "some" to "men", we do, only too well. Girls grow up inundated by messages about our vulnerability and learn to interpret the world through that lens. We're conscious of the statistics, alert to the long shadow, the unexpected turn of the door handle and the sound of boots on a lonely night-time street. We drink in dread with our mother's milk. In crime fiction we can explore those feelings safely. Resolving the crime helps resolve the feelings.
There's a well-worn argument that the over-reliance on women as murder victims in crime fiction not only defies statistics (in real life men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than women) and good taste but actively encourages misogyny. The trouble with this view is that it's far too literal. Most women don't think of ourselves as victims, nor are we naturally masochistic. Something much more interesting and nuanced is going on.
Fiction is a medium of metaphor. In both crime fiction and TV drama the reader or the audience is aware that the female "victim" is only superficially "real". At a deeper level she's a blue-lipped, blank-eyed metaphor. And that, precisely, is her power.
Greer also said, "Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves". For women, so powerfully socialised to conform to particular roles as sex objects, mothers, wives, in a society where being a man is still the default position, inventing ourselves can be a particular challenge. We are used to our bodies being appraised and poked about, viewed as vehicles for procreation or male pleasure – or as symbols first of beauty and then, in later life, of ugliness. What better metaphor for the feeling of annihilation which follows the common female experience of being valued primarily as the sum of one's body parts than a murdered woman on a slab? No wonder we're so into forensics.
For women required in youth to be decorous and in maturity to be invisible, crime fiction gives us permission to touch on our own indecorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we're encouraged to pack away somewhere, along with the big underwear and the tampons, where they won't offend. In my novel White Heat, the protagonist, Edie Kiglatuk, tiring of a persistent sex pest, turns around and punches him in the face. When my then US editor balked at this, I held my ground, explaining that I'd written the scene precisely because it's something I've wanted to do myself and would have if I hadn't been so squeamish about the repercussions.
The murdered woman in a crime novel stands in for our vulnerability or for our sense of being mere meat puppets, but she also symbolises our struggle to get out from under what can sometimes feel like life-sucking roles as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and carers, in order to claim our own identities. The most enthusiastic female crime readers are often those in mid-life who have not only got more time to read and more disposable income to buy books, but also more space in which to lead self-determined lives.
Let's not forget, either, that much of the crime fiction popular with women features a female protagonist. She's usually strong if a little frayed around the edges; in other words, an everywoman. The reader identifies with her, as the author intended. The protagonist not only solves the crime and restores the world to its proper equilibrium, but in another, deeper, symbolic sense, through her skill and persistence and downright doggedness, she avoids the fate represented by that lifeless, bloodless female corpse lying on the path lab slab.
Melanie McGrath, writing as MJ McGrath, is the author of the Edie Kiglatuk series of Arctic crime novels. The Theakstons Old Peculier crime writing festival takes place 17-20 July at The Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate. Melanie will be a tutor at the Festival's 'Creative Thursday' on 17 July – a day-long workshop for aspiring crime writers. For more visit: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime/