Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Behind the Veil"

"Do women kill for different reasons than men?"

This was one of the topics discussed at a panel I attended recently, "Women Mystery Writers: Behind the Veil," at the New York Public Library. The panelists were Mary Jane Clark, Liz Zelvin, Mary Ann Kelly and Robin Hathaway. Truthfully, I haven't read any of them, but Kelly and Clark piqued my interest because they set their stories in Queens (yay!) and among the newsworld of a fictionalized CBS (and I'm such a media maven).

The panel was meant to discuss the intricacies of writing female characters, on both sides of the law, but it was a strangely stifled debate. Jane Cleland moderated, and she was lively and affable, but mis-stepped dreadfully right off the bat when she opened with the following question: "Are you a feminist?" There was a moment of awkward silence before two panelists answered yes and two answered no (a pretty representative proportion of feminists to non-feminists among women). I won't say who answered which way, to protect identities, but even those who said they weren't qualified their stance by adding that they just weren't fond of labels or "-isms" although they believed in the principles of feminism itself. For some, it was a non-issue ("women just assume they're equal"), for others remnants of old-school anti-feminism seemed to cling steadfastly in their psyches ("I don't like women who stomp around with 'metal things on their shoes' and [are] very aggressive and hate men," said one, laughably). Most of the panelists acknowledged the "subtle objectification of women in pre-feminist novels and mysteries," noting the long legs and good looks of the traditional femmes fatales, and all acknowledged the greatness of the new crop of female PIs like Kinsey Milhone and VI Warshawksi (to which I'll add Arly Hanks and Claire Malloy!). Clark summed the issue up nicely: "I certainly don't think that the purpose of women is to serve and support men."

End of discussion. And unfortunately, end of panel discussion.

The rest of the session was extremely muted, and nobody seemed willing to offer any opinions on crafting female characters, villain or detective, or holding forth on the differences between male and female murder/crime-solving styles. When asked, "Do women kill for different reasons than men," lame, non-committal responses ensued: "I don't know if motive is gender-specific" and "This business of gender is overdone a great deal." Now that everyone was enmeshed in a fine net of political correctness and fear, no one was willing to go out on a limb. No one wanted to talk about sex or power or revenge or lust or hatred or frustration or stereotypes or strong women characters or things they loved or hated -- no one seemed to want to say anything at all.

I was a little surprised that, on a panel about female characterization, nobody talked about -- or asked -- who their female characters were, or got into any specific writing techniques. I blame it all on the awkwardness ensured by the divisive opening question. Had I moderated, I might have asked that question last.

In any case, another surprise was that these authors didn't seem to be very avid readers. With the exception of Kelly, they didn't seem to read many novels at all. Kelly cited Jean Rhys (yes!), Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble, making her head and shoulders the most literary of the bunch. Hathaway went in for the classic British and golden age mysteries (Sayers, Tey), as well as Highsmith. And Clark confessed to reading very little at all as an adult, but professed to love Nancy Drew as a child (which put her in my good books, as did her statement that she "wrote visually" with little description, and was inspired by Hitchcock). Almost none read contemporary crime fiction!

(Which lead me to an interesting stream-of-consciousness debate in my own mind about the relationship between reading and writing. Of course, I didn't ask any questions at the Q&A, because I'm far too shy.)

I'll probably give Clark and Kelly a whirl sometime ... I'll let you know what I think!

1 comment:

Michael W. said...

Most writers, when asked to give advice to the aspiring, will say that avid reading is the most important thing, aside from developing a daily writing routine. Or at least that’s been my impression. I mean, why write? On the one hand you might need to get that stuff out of you, much like speaking, or much like various other kinds of expression, but you might also want to participate in the discussion. You get drawn into this discussion by reading. Otherwise your writing is more like a series of declarations, announcements sent out into the world without an intelligible context. Well, potentially. Such is what I’m declaring right now, at any rate.

Also, I totally want to change my name to “Irish Murdoch.”