The X-Factor

I’m just back from Monterey and Left Coast Crime.

Incredible. Energizing. Inspirational!

How inspirational was it, you ask? Enough to make me start blogging again. And anyone who has ever stopped blogging knows exactly how much inspiration restarting it takes.

So … welcome to the new Writing in the Dark! My goal is less dark and more writing. Wink

The Left Coast Crime X-Factor Panel (from right to left, Sara J. Henry, Robin Burcell, Lisa Brackmann, Marcia Clark and Kelli Stanley)
The Left Coast Crime X-Factor Panel (from right to left, Sara J. Henry, Robin Burcell, Lisa Brackmann, Marcia Clark and Kelli Stanley)

On Saturday at LCC, I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel  called “The X-Factor: Responsibilities and Issues for Women Writing Women”. My stellar compatriots included Marcia Clark, Robin Burcell, Sara J. Henry and Lisa Brackmann. We discussed whether we do, in fact, have responsibilities as women in a male-driven but female-consumer-based creative industry; whether “torture porn” is more even more objectionable when written by women; how some of us have dealt with the sexism we’ve encountered in writing and other careers; how we aim to write believable human beings first and foremost, and many other aspects of the topic.

What did we discover? That we could have gone on discussing this subject—and this alone—for the length of the entire conference. We barely got a chance to scratch the surface, both in relating experiences we’ve encountered as writers and women or as police officers (Robin Burcell) and prosecutors (Marcia Clark). My hope is that we can make this panel a regular feature of Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon.

Here are some follow-up considerations I’m thinking about this morning …

Metrics. Sisters in Crime, a number of years ago, gathered metrics that showed an alarming discrepancy between the the likelihood of women writers versus male writers getting reviewed. A male name is far more likely to generate a “serious” look.

Based on our own experiences, we know a portion of the male reading public will not read a book by a female writer. [Some female readers won’t read books by male writers, but I think we’d find that the percentage is far smaller.]

Likability. Women writers are expected to produce “likable” female protagonists. My own work has been attacked by online reviewers because Miranda Corbie isn’t “likable.” Sam Spade is not likable, either, but no one really expects him to be. “Likable” seems to imply a certain ability to “put up and shut up.” You know, accept your lot in life and don’t make too much noise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider “likable” to be a particularly memorable epitaph.

Language and Behavior. As part of that “likability” quotient, things long accepted as typical male behavior—smoking, drinking and swearing—immediately push your heroine toward the “unlikable” category. You can get away with it more easily if she does these things with humor or in a self-deprecating way. If she does so with any attitude of defiance or confidence, you run the risk of seeing her called even worse than “unlikable.”

Expectations. Women are expected to behave in certain ways. Hell, women are expected to behave, period. As female writers, we are already transgressing the boundaries. We’ve found our voices and have stories to tell. So the stories we do tell—if they are to succeed as profit-making entertainment for a wide audience—had better fall within a certain acceptable range.

That’s where labels come in.

I write a hardboiled female P.I. with a sense of time, place and (in)justice centered squarely in noir. I’m at the far end of what is acceptable (and some of what I write isn’t acceptable to some readers). Thrillers and procedurals—particularly those that deal with violence—are also flirting with the borders. The undeniable areas that seem to fit squarely into the expectations we meet as female story-tellers are traditional mysteries (with the hobby-cozy on the opposite edge of the spectrum from the noir end but still very acceptable for women), romance and humor. Paranormal—as long as it’s not “Exorcist” levels—seems to be acceptable (psychics, whether genuine or not, are usually female) particularly if mixed with romance.

These are the boundaries of expectation.

The X-Factor Panel ... smiling faces and some serious discussion!
The X-Factor Panel … smiling faces and some serious discussion!

I’m thinking (with my tongue only partly in my cheek) of a color spectrum from dark to light that we could use as a clear warning on our books: this one fits the expectations in setting but might rock your boat in terms of character. This one has a very likable, funny protagonist who falls in love within the first twenty pages, but there’s a female friend who swears a lot. This one is traditional but features a male protagonist who is curiously asexual, very OCD and vain about his mustache … but no swearing, so it’s OK.

[As an aside, Miss Marple is clearly the smartest character Agatha Christie created: a dark genius of crime in a physical embodiment society always takes for granted and always overlooks, a person for whom there is always the injustice of expectation … the “little old lady.” Dame Agatha was transgressive.]

There is much  more to be thought, and much more to be said, and hopefully we’ll get to those conversations at later conferences and perhaps in later blog posts. But at LCC this weekend, I think we all discovered—and this is perhaps the best takeaway from the panel—that we are all stronger people and writers because of the challenges we’ve endured as women. Because of what is expected of us as women. And because of what we hope to give our readers—and ourselves—as women.

We’ve come a long way, baby. And we’ve got a long, long way to go.