Crime fiction readers and writers, that’s who, according to the self-serving, publicity-seeking founder of the Staunch Prize, which was set up to encourage the writing of thrillers without any violence against women.
I wouldn’t normally be quite so sure I knew what someone’s agenda was, but I do have a rule which is not so much Golden (do as you would be done by), as Steel (do unto others as they do unto others).
Yes, I’m a bit cross.
In September, my own story about rape will be published in an anthology of #MeToo stories, edited by Elizabeth Zelvin. I’ve not read the rest of the stories, but I am pretty certain none of them will be celebrating violence. The emphasis of my story is on survival and revenge, and although it’s fictional, it is rooted in lived experience.
I’m not the only one who is angry about this claim. Crime writing twitter is up in arms, unsurprisingly. There’s a strong consensus that rape is not the fault of crime writers, and that the fall in prosecutions and convictions here in the UK isn’t either.
It’s always been difficult to get convictions in rape cases because of the difficulty of what is often a situation without witnesses, and where ideas about consent are so confused.
In fact, even though the English law on consent was updated in 2004 so that being mistaken about consent is only a defence if the jury thinks the circumstances are reasonable, there are still all kinds of misconceptions about how a rape victim acts. Sometimes victims freeze, they sometimes co-operate with a rapist if they are in fear for their lives, they sometimes pretend everything’s fine afterwards for a variety of reasons.
We also know that austerity has affected the police force and that the large number of historical cases has increased the work load. We know that the CPS is asking for access to victims’ phones and social media history – and we know what that’s all about, don’t we?
Obviously there have been some cases where text messages have caused the collapse of a prosecution, but there’s certainly an element of victim blaming involved – and a clear attempt to save money by cutting down on prosecuting cases which are difficult to prove. And as we know, they are nearly all difficult to prove.
How can that be the fault of crime fiction and crime writers? Are the CPS influenced by fiction and fiction alone?
Of course some crime fiction does focus on stranger rape. But again, that’s real – it’s a reflection of what happens in society. We know that in these cases victims are often blamed. What were they wearing? Did they go out alone at night? Did they lead the rapist on? Take John Worboys, the taxi driver rapist, for example. He was able to rape many, many women because the police didn’t believe the victims’ accounts. They’d been drinking, and anyway, people knew black cab drivers were safe.
I wonder if the attitudes of those police were derived from crime fiction?
Good crime writing reflects our experience of society – but we don’t directly shape it – not even en masse.
Crime fiction and crime drama doesn’t all focus on stranger rape. There’s a whole subgenre of domestic noir which confronts the fact that for many women, the main source of danger is at home, and that women are more likey to be raped by people who know them.
Then let’s consider the views from the judiciary too. There’s an extreme case being discussed on social media at the moment, based on a case in New Jersey, in the US.
This quotation is from the NYT story
“The 16-year-old girl was visibly intoxicated, her speech slurred, when a drunk 16-year-old boy sexually assaulted her in a dark basement during an alcohol-fueled pajama party in New Jersey, prosecutors said.
The boy filmed himself penetrating her from behind, her torso exposed, her head hanging down, prosecutors said. He later shared the cellphone video among friends, investigators said, and sent a text that said, “When your first time having sex was rape.”
But a family court judge said it wasn’t rape. Instead, he wondered aloud if it was sexual assault, defining rape as something reserved for an attack at gunpoint by strangers.
He also said the young man came from a good family, attended an excellent school, had terrific grades and was an Eagle scout. Prosecutors, the judge said, should have explained to the girl and her family that pressing charges would destroy the boy’s life.”
I can’t help wondering if the judge’s attitude to rape would be improved by reading a bit more crime fiction – he might have learned to empathise with girls and women and realised that their future lives might also matter, and that their recovery might just be helped by a just outcome in their cases.
In the Guardian article, the Staunch Prize founder asks “Where is the research that demonstrates that this kind of writing does anything positive socially?”
I’d like to know where the research is that shows that avoiding writing about reality, denying the part that violence against women plays in our society, does anything positive socially. We know that one in five women experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes. Are we really saying that ignoring it in fiction will make that go away?
If crime fiction really was celebrating sexual assault, that would be another matter. I read a lot of crime fiction, mostly written by women, and I really haven’t seen any evidence of that.
There may be a few examples, and I’d suggest they are more likely to be seen on TV or in film because the whole nature of the experience is different. Fiction, novels, focus much more on interiority. One of the reasons I love reading more than watching, is that we often get a much deeper insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
I can see the issue with some of the shocking images in TV drama – one which springs to mind immediately is that image of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. (If you don’t know it, google it).
We write fiction about our experiences and our fears. I can’t imagine an honest novel of any genre that totally ignores the whole category of experience we could label bad things which happen to women.
Let’s not forget that one in five figure – the number of women who are sexually assaulted. Now let’s add in the number of women who have fears of being assaulted, or whose lives are sometimes constrained by those fears. Whether it’s not staying at work late when there’s just this one guy in the office who creeps you out, not signing up for that evening class because of the bus journey home in the dark, whether it’s not taking a shortcut home because it’s safer to walk the long way round where there are more people and better street lighting. Whether it’s keeping your keys clenched in your fist when you’re out late, just in case, or arranging with a friend that you’ll call when you’re back from a date. There are examples ad infinitum, I’m sure, that must take it much closer to five out of five women whose lives are affected.
I’d also like to add that boys and men get raped too, and that boys and men are also more likely than women to be victims of violence – usually, but not always, perpetrated by other men.
That’s another aspect I can’t understand. If you’re going to sanitise crime fiction of all reference to violence against women, why allow violence against men? That too makes me feel very uncomfortable.
The best crime fiction shines a light on stuff that many people prefer to sweep under the carpet. It doesn’t cause reality – it reflects it.
No one has to read it who doesn’t want to, of course. There’s a place for all kinds of fiction, realist and escapist, and that’s just fine.
But there’s really no good reason to demonise those of us who write and read about crime – even crimes against women.
Guardian story about crime writers’ furious reaction
NYT story about rape
Wikipedia on English rape laws
Guardian on objections to rape victims mobiles being taken
Guardian on changes in CPS rape cases policy