Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Is Crime Fiction Too Sadistic?

by Matt Lynn

There's an interesting debate going on over at The Bookseller. The reviewer Jessica Mann was reported as saying she was giving up reviewing the genre because she was fed up with "outpourings of sadistic misogyny" that now characterises so many crime thrillers - although, in fairness, Jessica points out out later on that she is only giving up on those kinds of books, not the entire category.

Still, it's a debate worth having, and one that authors should take seriously. At some point in the last decade, the crime genre seems to have transformed itself into a 'serial killer' genre. A lot of the poster campaigns you see for books these days appear to be designed to be as gruesome as possible, and may well be putting off as many people from the genre as they attract.

I don't have anything against violence in books myself - and I don't suppose that someone who has written a book called 'Death Force' is in any position to complain about it. It has always been a big part of the crime and thriller genre, and there are good reasons for that. We are all fascinated by death. And, of course, it is only life and death situations that really create the necessary drama and tension that writers are seeking to create.

There are two problems, however.

Much of the crime genre appears to have slipped into a kind of torture porn. The crimes get more and more horrific, much of it dircted against women and children. I'm not convinced that is either healthy or wise.

Next, it isn't really very realistic either. Unless I've missed something, this country has hardly any serial killlers. The US has a few more, but not that many. At yet the bookshelves are groaning with serial killer stories. They aren't reflecting the world around them.

I wouldn't want to dictate what people should write about. But I can't help feeling that Mann is onto something when she complains that the genre is disappearing into a ghetto which, while it may do something for a minority of readres, alienates the mainstream audience.


  1. Thanks for posting about this. I'd be interested to know who it is that buys books with crimes in the sex-torture-of-women category. And what is it exactly that appeals? Is the draw similar to that of "horror" novels? I can't figure it out from inside my own head because I don't like these. The images taint my head for too long. That said, there are plenty of other crime novels to choose from, and not all of them fall under the "cozy" label. Oh, and while we're griping, I'm getting tired of the entire fictional universe of "men being really mean to each other." Surely we can have a little sophistication with our crime?

  2. This one was widely misreported in the media as I noted here
    I then heard Mann on the Today Programme where she emphasised that this "small proportion of books will not be in my review list any more." She said that of about 600 crime novels published p.a., less than 10% of them were in the category she described. So perhaps there's not such an appetite for the bloodthirsty stuff she describes.

    It's certainly not to my taste and I was all serial-killered out a long time ago. Some of the authors cited in other related articles are also ones with whom I became bored some time ago, their books and not personally.

  3. Not everyone enjoys reading - or writing - about violence. I include it in my writing if it is necessary - to establish character or heighten tension for example. Violence doesn't interest or inspire me in reading or writing.
    What concerns me is the glamorisation of violence. If we have to write about it, let's be honest about it. There's nothing admirable, heroic or exciting about one human being causing another human being to suffer.
    Perhaps a few men should give birth - it might change their attitude to physical suffering!