Good Girls Do

September 9th, 2004 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

We’ve always been big on the idea of the collective unconscious. Sarah of the Idiosyncratic Mind (and we mean that as the sincerest of compliments) has read our mind, proving that brilliant thoughts can cross continents. She’s had a series of posts this week revolving around a set of themes dealing with men, women, writing fiction, and gender differences (lots of links at the end of our rambling thoughts). It’s not just about leaving the seat up or down.

As she looks at a recent Financial Times article on female (crime fiction) authors who depict graphic violence, she starts with the Good Girl syndrome. You know, you can experience violence, but don’t talk about it. Same with sex. We suppose this make violent sex the ultimate female taboo.

The article excerpt (see the first link below) discusses how exploring violence against women is part of addressing the human experience honestly. This echoes the comments we linked to from Joni Mitchell, where she talked about her need to probe the emotions and thoughts that she finds most difficult to face. So often, there is often a lack of humanity when violence is depicted. This, in and of itself, can be a rightful commentary on our species. We are not the kind, gentle creatures we want to believe we are. Fiction exposes the dark side of our experience in ways the news media never can.

The idea put forth in the original article was that female authors look at violence differently than men (not always better, as Sarah notes). Many times we’ve read male authors who treat violence on par with a trip to the gas station. It barely raises the heart rate. If there’s a reaction, it’s physical and fast. Characters vomit, they turn away, then they suck it up and do their jobs. Sometimes this is the right approach. There are times for intense character introspection and times when characters are too involved in the action to navel gaze. But far too often the action propels forward until we hit resolution and a character who has shot, killed, maimed, whatever hasn’t been affected by their actions. At least not on the page.

As Sarah moves into her next topic, the gender divide, she explores the approaches of male and female authors in more depth. As she reflects upon the work of Elmore Leonard, she says:

But as written by Leonard, the subtlety of [Karen] Sisco is lacking, and I know less about her than when I started. Somehow, she—and many of Leonard’s characters—come across as less human. That somehow, Leonard is so into giving his characters cool things to say and weird tics that he forgets that the parts have to add up to an appreciable sum. That the reader has to be engaged in some form or another.

Sarah checks her reaction to Leonard against other male writers, and notes:

It’s a tale of crooked cops, drug hits gone horribly wrong and has a pile of moral ambiguity (Karras and Clay are unbelievably flawed characters) but even as crack invades the DC ghettos, people are still cheering on their hometown boy Len Bias, just about to embark on seeming stardom with the Celtics. Bias didn’t have his happy ending, but in spite of that, there’s still the sense that eventually, Karras, Clay and the other major players in the book will climb out of their holes and burrow their way to a better future. This theme of hope and redemption in the face of bad tidings runs throughout the DC Quartet (and also in HARD REVOLUTION), but less so in the Strange/Quinn novels—which may explain why I don’t like them quite as much.

What Sarah seeks is depth of (and in) characters. It is a basic rule of writing that your character should end up changed in some manner — what do they know that they didn’t know before? What can they do? If a character undergoes a set of experiences, and you’re putting them on paper, why? What makes this story worth reading?

We don’t think it’s a male versus female thing, at least from a writer’s perspective. There does seem to be a style that is, for lack of a better description, manly. For far too long, we found Ernest Hemingway too manly for our tastes, preferring F. Scott Fitzgerald. As we’ve learned more about the craft of writing, our appreciation for Hemingway has grown. However, we often find that other women find Hemingway’s style less comfortable reading.

By all accounts, women make up the majority of fiction readers. The continued popularity of women’s fiction attests to the fact that there is appeal in works that explore the emotional impact of events. They like novels that end with a sense of hope, a belief that there’s a chance for something better. On the other hand, it’s not just men purchasing and reading Elmore Leonard. We cannot explain the success of Nicholas Sparks in this equation.

She posted Part II of her Gender Divide article today — we may have even more thoughts on this topic after we have a chance to read and think…

File Under: Tools and Craft

1 response so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Sep 9, 2004 at 9:12 am

    I’ve been reading Sarah’s posts as well on the gender divide. Despite my devotion to noir fiction, I’ve never cared for Elmore Leonard or even Carl Hiasson. I don’t like everything SJ Rozan writes, but Winter and Night was spectacular. The same for Laura Lippman’s Sugar House. Rudolfo Anaya, everyone should grab one of his books. I think the only divide is between writing readers find accessible and enjoyable and lousy writing. Or lazy writing. Robert Parker and Patricia Cornwell have gotten lazy, to name but a few among the megastars.