not entirely coherent thoughts on crime and representation

Recently I saw a poster for the upcoming movie The Great Wall, which is a movie about the Great Wall of China that stars prominent Chinese actor Matt Damon. After my eyes rolled right out of my head and onto the floor, I checked to see if my go-to site for discussion about such things had posted about it, and they sure had. I’ve also recently gone over Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, which isn’t crime but an excellent sci-fi YA space story (and I’m chairing a session with Amie at MWF) and the whole time I felt so desperately pleased at the range of characters in the book – there are female pilots and captains and many MANY characters with non-Anglo surnames. And every time you see a sci-fi movie (I don’t read enough sci-fi to make much of a declaration about books) you always think – why, even in a speculative future/dimension, do we not have more ladies or more racial diversity?

Writing stories set in the current world make this a little harder. I mean, not really – just make more diverse characters – but we have the actual history of the world and its gender politics to work with, not an invented one. Yet in crime, with its high rate of successful female authors, there are a lot of women starring in these books. Sometimes they suffer from sarcastic male colleagues who don’t think they can do very well, since they’re women. Sometimes they’re competent and others are critical of their coldness. But since there are so many women in crime, it’s not something that strikes me as bad – because there are books where young men are intimidated because of their youth or criticised because of their coldness as well. I’m not giving crime books in general a free pass, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, crime authors are a little too eager to make women victims, especially of sexual assault, which is lazy and overdone (are there no other crimes to invest in?), but there’s probably a higher representation of female serial killers in fiction that there is in reality. (This is the part where you note the “probably” and see that my research capabilities are limited to leaning back in my chair and staring at my crime fiction bookshelf.)

But what about representation of other cultures? Crime, like other fiction, loves to explore other countries, but who is telling the story really depends on where it’s set. If you want to read a Scandinavian-set book, the majority of the time you’ll be reading it from the point of view of a native of that country. Likewise for America, Australia, and England – and most other European countries. But when it comes to books set in the Middle East or Asia, well, the books I’ve read have almost uniformly been about westerners who are over there and reeling from culture shock. It seems difficult to set a crime book in the Middle East without making it a military or espionage-type thriller, where John McSmith flies in there, cops a few punches to the face to make him look daring and then smooches some lady who is native to that country and will wind up shot by bad guys, putting McSmith into a fiery rage so that he escapes from torture, slays everyone and flies back home looking morosely out of a window. Likewise, it seems most books with expats in Asian countries end up busting a drugs ring, and I don’t want to distill real issues into a criticism of books that cover those issues, but I just wish there was more (MORE!) books set in these countries so there could be a wider range of crimes and themes to cover. I just want all the books in the world: is that too much to ask? Surely not. Translators are falling over themselves to get all these German and Swedish books to the English-speaking world, but guys, go find those Chinese crime books, those Indian thrillers, those Nigerian mysteries. And I know they’re probably out there – mostly I only read what publishers send me – so do also take this as a “please let me know of crime books set in lesser-read-about countries especially if that author has something new coming out because I pretty much never have time to read anything older than a week old which is a real shame but that’s how it is”.

(Also, I did mean for this to have a tighter theme, but my carefully planned quiet time ended up with me writing this with a four-year-old in a light-up headband on my lap, or yelling about buttons when she had to have a post-soccer outfit change, or crumbling chips into my new rug. I considered putting this in drafts and finishing it another day, but I think we all know it would be forgotten until archaeologists discovered in in 3016 and marveled at how scattered it was.)

on girls in titles

Well, you’ve heard my feelings before about the ridiculous amount of books with Girl in the title that are about grown women. One of my many friends who have suffered though my in-person rants sent me a link to this LitHub article by young adult author Robin Wasserman on the topic, which you can read here. It’s a pretty interesting analysis, but I wish she’d touched on the part that bothers me the most – that there’s no male equivalent, that you never* see books called The Boy on the Train that are about middle-aged men in business suits. But an interesting piece, nevertheless!

december reading

I’ve been a bit slack on the reviews front lately. I always try not to post about not posting, because it’s not what any readers signed up for, but, well, I never listen to my own advice. In the lead up to the ridiculousness that is Christmas in retail, I’ve been trying to read a little more broadly so that when customers come up and say, “What would you recommend for my aunt?” and refuses to listen when I take them excitedly to the wall of crime books, I’ve got some other advice. (This includes reading kids’ books, because I don’t think the new Robert Galbraith is really what I should be recommending for the under-8 market.) (Incidentally, one of my colleagues thinks The Vale Girl, by Nelika McDonald, is an excellent YA crime book, and I’m going to try and track it down.) Anyway, this all means my crime reading is a little thin on the ground at the moment, even though I have that enormous tower of crime in my house. You know the one. I originally said I’d only keep crime to this one bookshelf in the hall, but now it’s taken over the entirety of underneath the coffee table, a considerable space that was meant to be used for other things. But reading is more important. The new Sulari Gentill is more important. And the Aoife Clifford. And the aforementioned Galbraith, though, to be honest, I think she could do with a sound editing, and I’ve been putting it off. I also tried to read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, so I could offer a contribution from the Booker list, but jeez, have you seen the size of that thing? One of my friends declared it too “sappy”, and everyone else seemed quite traumatised, so I gave up. I never used to be a quitter, but between reading and other reviews and working and parenting (including the recent line, “I want a different mummy!”, so this job may soon be vacated apparently) and writing something new at a frantic pace, I am finding time this impossible thing to come by. I know, I know, everyone has to time-manage. This is one of the first times reading has become lower down on the list, but I’m trying to make writing a higher priority so that I can become ridiculously rich and spend all of my time reading books in a floating recliner on my giant pool filled with swans. Because if I’m going to have unrealistic expectations, I may as well take them all the way.

wordcount2Also, you can tell I’m making writing a priority because I’m doing this post, which is, of course, procrastination at its very best.

Here’s to some time on our collective horizons – all the better to read with.

on realising authors are people too

Like most of you, I’ve loved reading since I was a kid. Presumably in my situation this was because my parents read to me, but I can’t really remember this in specific moments and I hate having things read to me now unless it’s my two-year-old doing the reading (because it is never quite how it’s written on the page, and she does excellent hilarious voices.) When you’re a kid, authors seem completely magical. They can create anything – characters you feel as close to as your own friends, worlds you wish fervently were in your back garden (how many times I tried to eat the plants in our backyard like fairies do in Enid Blyton books I can’t even count), entire alternate realities and new ways of looking at things that blew my mind (and can continue to do do today.) I started trying my hand at writing when I was a kid, from my four-sentence reimagining of Alice in Wonderland when I was five to elaborate stories of my dogs getting up to shenanigans as I became a canine-obsessed upper-primary bore, and I realised that everyone had some of this power inside them. Despite this, authors themselves, ones who wrote the books that I read over and over again curled up in bed, seemed like an entirely different species. I saw them talk about readers writing to them but the idea of actually doing so seemed terrifying and pointless. I loved them, so surely everyone else did too, and they must have hundreds, thousands, BILLIONS of letters sent to them each day. So why bother? And, bar writing to Margaret Clark after seeing physical evidence of a reply from her from someone else I knew, I never did. They remained these distant, wonderful creatures, impossible to know and perfect in my unknowing.

So I wonder what my youthful (sporty, healthy, sigh) self would think of me now? Young Fiona, I have news for you: you’ll meet writers. So many of them. You’ll get a job in a bookshop for work experience when you are fifteen, and seventeen years later you will still be working in bookshops, because they have always felt like the right place to be. You’ll meet writers because they need somewhere to buy their books too, and eventually you will work in a place that holds author events and you will meet mountains of authors. You will – and hold onto your hat for this one – actually be friends with them, sometimes dear friends with them.

And some of them are jerks. Some of them might get anxious before their events and be short with you, because – don’t forget – they are people, not unicorns. Some of them have politics you don’t agree with. Some of them just aren’t good with people, and that includes you, even though you shouldn’t take it personally. The rise of the internet (you don’t know what this is but trust me, it’s great) will sometimes break your heart when it makes it easier to hear your favourite author saying something stupid, or finding out that they like to eat small white puppies for lunch. It can hurt you, a little.

But then sometimes they can be wonderful. Sometimes if you are anxious before an event (because sorry, young Fiona, but you grow up to be a fairly anxious person) they are kind to you even though the night is about them. They brush off your mistakes and thank you profusely for your help. They give you a hug or a book or a smile and all seem like such gifts. Sometimes they are just normal levels of friendly and that is fine, too. I would like to tell you that you become so blase around all of them that you no longer blush when they talk to you, but you will completely forget how to speak when you meet Jane Hawking, past wife of Stephen Hawking (you probably don’t know who he is either but trust me, he’s important) and she won’t be even slightly mad about it. Because she’s a person, see. (And she’s the subject of a movie coming out soon and you can look at the previews and squeal, “I met her, you know!” and also still feel a faint tremor of anxiety about her.)

Eventually, though, you will get to a place where you have a bestselling author’s number in your phone and other famous authors who are frequent customers and who smile at you when they come in and it won’t seem like such a big deal, because you do know, on some level, that they are not frightening or otherworldly; they are just good at their job, and their job is one that benefits you directly. Like doctors, but for your imagination.

And the best thing is, even though they lost some of their lustre when you realise that writers are people, just people who go out and buy carrots and say stupid things at parties and burp when no one is looking, you will still pick up a book and read it and it still feels like it came from somewhere else, somewhere magical, somewhere not in a person’s mind but just them writing down something that is already true. Young Fiona, I wish so much for you: don’t get that perm when you’re twelve, and write to those authors, tell them how you feel. Maybe they would like to hear from you. Maybe they’re jerks. But discover they are people and break that illusion earlier. The real world is a fine place to be.