I imagine many of us have seen the Guardian piece about reviewer/writer Jessica Mann's refusal to review any more of the almost pornographically violent books which are at the present moment bestsellers. The article and the response on Salon.com singles out female writers (though there are certainly male writers I can think of who fit the bill). The writers specifically mentioned were Tess Gerritsen, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter and Kathy Reichs.
There are several issues at play here, I think, and the article caught my attention because at Bouchercon there was a panel devoted to "Telling Women's Stories", where the ultra violent books were mentioned repeatedly by the panelists as undesireable. I contacted Mary Saums, who was on this panel and seemed to have especially strong views, and here's some of what she had to say: "Tess Gerristsen commented on Sarah Weinman's blog that writers who want to sell books should listen to what women want, and I agree, What she hears from women is very different from what I hear, that they're so happy to find mysteries without graphic insane violence."
Natasha Cooper, quoted in the original article, put it another way: "There is a general feeling that women writers are less important than male writers and what can save and propel them onto 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." Do these women then hate their sex, or are they looking for a career? As my own husand remarked, in a sadly casual manner,"What works in popular culture is dead women."
So some of this is actually about sales and respect, and some of it is about the level of violence. In my humble opinion, it's a phase, and merely a small segment of crime fiction. As a bookseller, I can tell you that the energizer bunnies of bookselling are not the big bestsellers (some of whom we don't even carry because they are so heavily discounted elsewhere) but the vast array of cozies, also written by women. Men may win many of the awards, but women are writing the books that people are reading, on both ends of the scale.
There's a reason that some of our bestselling authors are named (we sell lots of used books) Christie, Stout, Allingham, Doyle and Sayers. Eventually people come back to good writing and well told stories. I don't imagine that will ever change, no matter what form books eventually take. Saums also commented "Gentle readers have a right to their own reading preferences, just as much as gore lovers do." True. But I also am a fan of the writers mentioned in the article, especially Slaughter, Gerristsen and Hayder, who are often pushing boundaries and creating interesting characters. Sometimes I just skip the ultra violent parts, and read on ahead. For me, the good stories there are worth it.
I'm probably not reading the number of violent books that reviewer Jessica Mann is reading, however. I can pick and choose what I read, and I like a variety. To be fed a steady diet of this kind of thing would indeed make me weary and probably angry. I just think there's a bigger pictture. Mary Saums also said (she's a passionate woman):"It's the tired-ass cliche of Weak Stupid Woman Must be Mutilated that bothers me. No amount of high-and-mighty bullshit from bestselling authors, male or female, justify bringing more of those horrors in the world." While Saums and Mann may skip the books, and I just skip the "yucky" parts, it's a readers choice.
I had an ephiphany earlier this year when I paired a well known male thriller writer with an ultra cozy writer. He was selling a big stack of hardbacks - but we sold through her stack as well, and I realized that for every one of the male writer's books, we would ultimately sell 5 of the type this female writer produces. Maybe not five by her specifically, but five cozies. Everyone has their own taste. As a bookseller all I can do is push the books I happen to like. As a reviewer, Mann has taken the same stance. For the rest of you, read at will.