No Blood for Book Reviews!

Crime novelist and book reviewer Jessica Mann isn’t going to take it anymore. In yesterday’s Guardian she was quoted as saying that she will no longer review crime fiction that features “sadistic violence” against women. And guess what? That seems to eliminate a sizable chunk of the genre.

Oh, and it doesn’t stop there. The New Yorker posted a piece on this topic as well yesterday, pointing out that the reaction to Mann’s decision not to review books she finds offensive has pissed off a lot of people, most of them women who love themselves some misogynistic crime fiction.

Now I am not a crime fiction aficionado, but according to Mann (who is one), things have gotten pretty out of hand. She says,

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.

Boiled? Eaten? I wonder, How anyone could find this problematic in any way? (I don’t actually wonder that, since it seems pretty gross.) Of course, if you are reading a crime novel then you are going to expect some crime. Mann’s problem is not the crimes per se, but the ways in which women are singled out as the ultimate crime victims.

Apparently, women are pretty popular victims in the crime fiction scene (no big shock, that – it proves true on crime television and in films as well). Mann even recounts receiving a book recently with a dead female body on its cover, even though the story inside was about a male crime victim. When the author of the book (a woman) complained to her editor, the reply she got was,

Never mind that. Dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or geriatrics.

Aha. So just go ahead and slap a dead (and dare we guess young, white, and attractive?) female corpse on the cover of something and watch the sales roll in. It doesn’t matter what the story is about! (Methinks we’ve just figured out our next Bitch cover…)

With all of this anti-women craziness it’s no wonder that Mann might feel compelled to take a stand against the books that she finds offensive by refusing to review them. She is a powerful force in the genre, and by speaking out against this gratuitous woman-hating violence she might be able to change things. However, many people, women in particular, disagree. What is about female victims that attracts female readers? Is it simple escapism, or is it more insidious than that? Is there a part of some women that likes to see other women victimized? Does it make them feel more powerful somehow, or like they’ve won a battle in the perpetual women vs. women war? Or is it just that people like to be scared from behind the safety of a paperback?

According to Mann (via The New Yorker) some of the most graphic and innovative crime novels that victimize women are also written by women. She posits that this might be because women grow up knowing that “being female is synonymous with being prey.” Natasha Cooper, former chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, agrees.

There is a general feeling that women writers are less important than male writers and what can save and propel them on to the bestseller list is if they produce at least one novel with very graphic violence in it to establish their credibility and prove they are not girly.

Ah, the old “prove they are not girly” tactic. It’s been helping women act like assholes for generations! Isn’t writing about brutal crime enough of a “non-girly” move without unnecessarily murdering the shit out of tons of women? Maybe not.

There is clearly a lot that is problematic with these types of books, so what’s the problem here if Mann wants to check out of the violent and sadistic crime genre? She is still planning on reviewing crime novels, just not those that she finds full of “sadistic misogyny.” Why are some people (women in particular) upset by this? Is it because her decision is forcing other women to examine their own motivations when it comes to writing and consuming these books? Do you read violent crime fiction? If so, why?

[image via photobucket]

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Hi Kelsey, This was a great

Hi Kelsey,
This was a great post and a cause for celebration as far as I'm concerned. The more women with literary clout that speak up about excessive woman hating in media, the better.
So dead women featured on the cover sell books but any other dead human repells the reader? This speaks volumes about our society no?
I personally choose not to read crime drama anymore primarily because I find that this genre is indeed very (increasingly) brutal towards women. For this same reason, I avoid watching most horror/torture/murder flicks because all too often, it is women (often sexualised on top of being victimized) who are tortured and killed in more gory, stomach churning detail than I can handle. It seems only to get progressively worse and I get more depressed after I watch it. I would rather immerse myself in those cheesy lighthearted rom-coms just to avoid wanting to cry and/or vomit because of the sheer gratuitous violence.
A good example of a recent unpleasant encounter with crime fiction was when I read my brother's copy of "Darkly Dreaming Dexter", one of the books which inspired the Dexter series, which I happen to actually quite enjoy. I found the book far more disturbing and hateful towards the women characters than I was expecting as the series seems to (delightfully) portray women in far more positions of power and authority. These women are strong, brilliant and feminine while remaining on an even keel with the major male characters. I was disappointed about the book but nowhere near surprised. It seems that authors are feeling compelled to shock, disgust and horrify in unique new ways to have their material make waves and keep the masses pleased.
I think that males should have equal opportunity to be tortured and murdered in creative new ways in all forms of media too, don't you?...;) Well, not really but all kidding aside, where does it end? Does it have to get worse before it gets better?
Here's hoping there will be more critics/reviewers brave enough to say what's been on the minds of many--not just women either.
On the sunny side of things, I hope to keep seeing more ass kicking done by women in the more violent genres of media if I choose to see it at all. I recall one movie: 'Joyride' (not sure which but an earlier one) where the girlfriend was the one left standing bloody but alive in the end. You could tell people were not used to this concept as one comment made by a male in the movie forum post was complaining about how bloody unlikely this was and that now they should all 'bow to their female superiors'! Needless to say, I let the loser have it and hope it encouraged a few more girls to see themselves as a possible hero in the end. :)

It's not women hating you

It's not women hating you reactionist; its subtle and not so subtle biases that women are weaker, more vulnerable and therefore more pitiable. There's definitely the sexualized violence factor as well, which is why old people and children generally don't cut the mustard. Sheesh

I said generally; because

I said generally; because people sexualize cars and somtimes farm livestock, that doesn't mean that it sells to the mainstream. Can you say with a straight face that women authors like Kathy Reichs and Anne Rule hate women because there is a running theme of violence murder of women? Are there people that get off on their work because its sexual and violent towards women, sure, but don't you dare tell me that the authors wrote it simply to sell to that niche!


I think they probably write those things because they sell. And I think those things sell because woman-hating is ingrained in our culture. The point I was making is that people who fetishize the torture of women <i>are</i> hating on women. I didn't mean the authors specifically, as I assume most women authors writing these things aren't getting off on it. They're following a formula. I meant the huge amount of people who seem to enjoy reading about women being torn to bits.

Also, your statement that women are chosen as the victims in these books because of subtle and not so subtle biases of female weakness does not make sense, because children and the elderly seem inarguably weaker than a full grown woman. In fact I would be willing to argue the opposite, that women are chosen as the victims because they are powerful and that power is something the attacker wants.

The way I see it, the

The way I see it, the problem isn't that a woman reads about women being raped and tortured every day and finally decides she's had enough. The problem is people who read these things every day and don't flinch. Good for Mann for taking this stand. Anyone who attacks her for her decision is likely just being forced to take a harder look at him or herself.

Great article! Thanks.

Thank God, but...

I am extremely grateful for Mann's assertion. However, I do wonder if you or I would have had this same reaction if a male had publically said this. Hmmmm-- interesting.

High five

I give a high five to Mann for publicly refusing to review these books. Of course, I wish she would take it a step further, but that's just wishful thinking.

I don't read crime fiction, but sadistic violence against women is apparent in many films and television. A problem is that when men who watch these things, and I'm assuming, if they read crime fiction too, they watch it as the role of the perpetrator. I've had experiences when there was an awful rape scene in a film and some jackass was laughing. These brutal scenes in film really need to be taken out. If a film needs to portray that a rape or other sexual violence occurred, it doesn't need to show the actual event taking place. A good filmmaker will make the implication and we will still get the seriousness of the scene and pain of the character.

Hm. I'll read gory

Hm. I'll read gory horror-like crime novels, but entirely sympathize with Mann. Describing torture for scene after scene is, IMO, far worse than endless purple romantic prose. Purple prose makes me laugh. Endless scenes of torture gives me a headache and makes me feel sick.

That said, has anyone read <ul>Heartsick</ul>? I will cop to picking it up just because the scary Hannibal-like serial killer was a woman. It's still problematic, but I think it's a good example of a book that has torture porn elements and doesn't encourage the reader to salivate on the sexualized torture and murder of women. Most of the explicit torture is done to the hero, and while sexualized violence is hardly unmentioned, sexualized violence done to women is mostly off-page, or described purely for shock value. IMO, it helped that there were a LOT of fascinating powerful female characters, and although the hero is... well, a hero, the narrative mostly follows the female character and another female character is, for no reason, suddenly the focus of a few chapters. Finally, the book ties the sexualized violence in the book to sexual coercion, rape, and consent in a pretty unique way.

I still feel squeamish about the book, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is. But I enjoyed it and think it has some interesting things to analyze from a feminist perspective.

I took a half course in

I took a half course in Mystery and Detective Fiction when I was toying with doing an English degree, and Mann's decision sounds very well-timed for the whole crime genre right now. We went through the history of the genre pretty deeply, considering the length of the course, and I don't think we encountered <i>any</i> writing as violent and as descriptively sadistic as is out there right now. There have been other periods of excessive misogyny (Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett spring to mind), but even then, most of the actual violence was given no more than a few sentences of description, or was described in remarkably metaphorical slang. We read in twisted times, I guess.

I don't read crime fiction,

I don't read crime fiction, but I do consistently watch crime shows. I think that the reason crime fiction is growing more and more gruesome may be because now it has a huge competitor in TRUE CRIME shows and information being much more accessible to the public.

I often feel guilty about my desire to read about True Crime. My boyfriend used to be very disturbed by it and confronted me years ago. We had a long talk that ended with me realizing that in some ways my fascination was a way to feel like I had control. I don't mean in a 'Good, look what happened to her and not me!' kind of way, but in a 'If I read all of this I'll be more prepared to prevent this horror from happening to me'.

It doesn't make much sense, or very positive, but I've had so many close calls to my life reading about what could have happened to me is like bizarre therapy.

a suggestion for female crime fiction

I have recently gotten back into reading Crime Fiction after watching the Wire. I read a bunch of books by George Pelacanos and had a meltdown about how sexist he is (although I think he's an interesting writer) and reviewed him here:

I started reading Sandra Scoppetone, who is a lesbian crime-writer who also wrote childrens books (Suzuki Beane) and YA fiction (Happy Endings Are All Alike). I highly recommend her Lauren Laurano series. The Faye Quick series is great too.

Not all crime fiction is exploitative and sexist. Try Dorothy Sayers "Gaudy Night" if you want an English detective story, it's known as the first feminist crime novel.


Thanks Tobi! As a huge fan of "The Wire" I will totally check out the writers you recommend. Hooray for feminist crime novels!

Re: Thanks

Kelsey if you like The Wire you might like Pelecanos, he was one of the writers for the show.

Also, I'm reading an anthology called A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir ed by Megan Abbot, forward by Val McDermid. Scoppetone has a short story in it that's pretty well-done. Her writing tends to be funny and character driven--it's not like The Wire, but reading her after Pelecanos was a treat, because her stories are built around a female (often lesbian but not always) perspective and reflect the way I see the world.

Regarding Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is the 3rd novel in a series starring Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Whimsy. The first is called Strong Poison (I think, you might wanna check that...)

For classic crime/noir fiction I like Dashiell Hammet, who Gertrude Stein was fond of...Raymond Chandler is good, but very sexist. I don't find Hammet offensive, but he's no feminist. Great writer though, one of the best.

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