An award-winning author decries crime fiction’s violent misogyny
Talking about novelistic violence crossing the line into torture porn is a tricky business, in part because it sounds too much like a call for censorship. At Bouchercon (Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention) this year in Albany, NY, I was on a panel about noir fiction when the question came up. Our moderator, Reed Farrel Coleman, said he’d noticed a trend toward violent misogyny and asked each panelist to weigh in. I took a very deep breath before answering. For the record, I have no interest in banning books. If it turns a person on to read about women being boiled alive, that’s his or her business. But when a number of crime fiction authors—many of whom are women—appear to be in a competition to hack female characters to pieces in the most vicious ways possible, that suggests crime fiction has a problem.
Sadistic violence on the page has been on the rise for some time. I don’t think it’s fair to pin it on one book, but in my mind, there’s a divide between crime novels published before 1988 and those that came after. That was the year Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs came out. That title was brutal, but its violence was essential to the psychological underpinning of the book and to the development of its characters. Its massive success inspired imitators, but many of those seemed less concerned with psychology than splatter. There was an escalation of torture described in painstaking detail. Lately, I feel like I’m watching an arms race: once the major players have displayed the most horrible weapons in their arsenals, there’s nothing to do but up the sociopathic slasher ante—and that drags crime fiction down.
Violence as Entertainment
There’s unquestionably a place for brutality in crime fiction. Part of the dark beauty of the genre is that it explores the consequences of violence, the way it can twist a soul and the fallout it leaves for the next generation. What turns my stomach is violence as entertainment. The victims, so often beautiful women, may be mutilated, raped, and repeatedly tortured in myriad ways that do nothing to advance the story or develop character. Reading these scenes is not unlike having a snuff film described in all its lurid, stultifying detail.
I’m aware that the erotic thrill of an attractive dead woman—the Death and the Maiden trope—is nothing new. Renaissance artists painted eerily seductive works of Death clutching a lovely young woman. It’s a truism in publishing that gorgeous female victims sell books—so much so that some publishers have been known to slap an image of a dead woman on the cover of a book with no female victim.
Too often, these doomed beauties aren’t really characters at all, just flimsy creatures whose only purpose is to suffer. They are props to show how vile the villain really is (as if the audience couldn’t figure that out). They exist as an explanation for the hero’s desire for vengeance: the greater the maiden’s ordeal, the greater the justification for the hero’s rage. Her anguish provides the impetus for his action, but she is nothing but a sacrifice, and the author who lovingly lays out her graphic torture and death is trying to make the audience squirm with hollow delight. On the writer’s part, this is simply a lazy way to horrify the reader. At heart, it’s pure misogyny.
Using Torture Porn To Sell Books
Crime fiction has had a fraught relationship with women in the past. The hard-boiled, hackneyed 1940s concept of a femme fatale is as old as Eve: soulless temptresses who manipulate men and precipitate their falls. These ladies are bad because women are born bad. But the torture porn that’s become so common today desensitizes audiences to violence. Once a writer manages to shock, the next has to aim so much lower to hit the spot.
At its best, crime fiction holds up a mirror to society, stripping away the lies we tell ourselves. It reminds us of the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots. It speaks to the empty parts of our souls, whispering of the things we do to fill our sense of aching need. It chips away at smooth, measured facades, shining a light on the rot and misery lurking just under the surface. I’ve read interviews with writers defending their graphic descriptions of brutality by saying that such violence exists in society. While that is true, torture porn teaches us absolutely nothing about misogyny except that some authors will exploit it to sell their books.