Friday, 23 October 2009

Bouchercon Panel Report #4 - The Dark Side of The Fairer Sex

The Dark Side of The Fairer Sex

Panellists - Megan Abbott (moderator), Chelsea Cain, Sophie Littlefield, Derek Nikitas.

Megan - who was an excellent moderator - started off by pointing out that after all these years the idea of a female character is still focused on and there was no equivalent 'male' panel at Bouchercon. You can write from the point of view of a doctor, cop, serial killer and no-one says anything, but write from the point of view of the opposite sex and people comment.

Derek Nikitas said that his main characters are female and one review of PYRES said that he wrote the female characters better than the male ones. He had no good reason for why he chooses females as his viewpoint characters, he just likes to choose characters who are very different from himself. He said that one of the reasons we turn to fiction is to inhabit someone else's life.

Sophie Littlefield experiments with using male protagonists in short fiction. She felt that the idea that you should stick to your own gender is ridiculous.

Chelsea Cain has a male detective in her books. She also said that she dislikes some male written thrillers where the female detective solves a crime wearing stiletto heels (me: what's wrong with that?!)

Megan brought up the subject of female rage - the idea is really old but can still be an uncomfortable topic. She asked the panel how they treated female anger and whether they thought it was different from male anger.

Sophie Littlefield feels that people are uncomfortable around middle-aged female rage - apart from middle-aged females (me: as a middle-aged female, I'm pretty uncomfortable around any rage, but there you go). She felt that coming into your forties is freeing and liberating.

Chelsea Cain has a female serial killer in her books. She noticed that when women kill the media goes into overdrive to try and figure out why. She was very interested in that phenomenon and wanted to write about someone who killed just because she wanted to.

Megan said that Ian Rankin got in a lot of trouble for saying that a lot of graphically violent fiction was written by women.

Chelsea Cain said that her own books are pretty graphic and she had a lot of attention because of that and men seem to be very upset that she "writes that sort of stuff".

Sophie Littlefield felt that there is a continuum of comfort and we all have a place on it. Her roots are in romance and, apparently, romance writers have the same discussions about sex.

Derek Nikitas said that PYRES was violent and that the company who are working on the movie version have said that there is no way that they can film the scene which happens at the end of the book (me: you could see people feverishly writing down the title to go and get this one straight after the panel). He made a conscious decision to make violence less at the forefront in his second book.

Megan then asked the panel whether the fact that there seemed to be many more female readers than male readers affected the way they wrote.

Chelsea Cain said that it is simpler not to think about the readers. Women buy the most books, but you don't know who they are. Her grandmother comes to her readings and she censors herself as she reads when she is in the audience. Her grandmother sent her a lovely card on the publication of her first book and, obviously thinking of something nice to say she said that the book was "beautifully bound".

Derek Nikitas said that he tells his grandmother not to read his books. She came to one of his readings but he said it was OK because all the swearing was in Spanish

Sophie Littlefield said that not many people had read her book yet and she knows most of them - and they're her childrens' teachers and her church group. When it came to her first reading, she realised that the first page she was going to read contained 'f***' (me: asterisks are for my Dad), 'bitch' and 'ass' (me: I think my Dad's OK with those). When she then went to a mystery bookstore to do a reading she felt that she could read something a bit more 'out there' so she read a scene about sex toys made in prison. After the reading, she discovered that her friend had brought her parents along.

Megan asked the audience to note that she was the only one of the panellists not to have used "the F-Word". the reason for this was that her parents were in the audience.

Megan then asked the panellists who some of their favourite female characters were. Chelsea Cain said Nancy Drew, Sophie Littlefield said Megan's characters, Elizabeth George's Barbara Havers and Denise Mina's characters, Derek Nikitas said Joyce Carol Oates' female characters.

Megan asked whether villains need to have a redeeming quality. Derek Nikitas said that he doesn't believe in villains as characters. His job is to ensure that all his characters are given an opportunity to have their minds shown in some way to allow the reader to empathise with them. There are people doing bad things all over the place in his book but they are not 'villains'. Chelsea Cain said that her serial killer doesn't have a point of view because she feels it is scarier that way, and she also does not want the reader to know what is happening. Sophie Littlefield felt that villains should be layered.

Megan then asked about writing violence. Derek Nikitas said that one of the keys to crafting violence well is a sense of balance - if you have too much it loses something. Megan said that withholding can sometimes have more impact. Chelsea Cain said that she developed an insatiable appetite for thrillers and blood and guts when she was pregnant.

When asked whether there was anything they wouldn't write about, Chelsea Cain said that killing dogs, small children and cats. Sophie Littlefield said that she now wants to write that book.


  1. Thank you for this, Donna. Very interesting, and occasionally rather quirky, stuff, presented with crystalline clarity. Never have I read a better report on a conference panel.

  2. I love your write-ups on the panels and in-between. I hope you went to more!

  3. Well, Donna, you have to see that poor Helena would have been better off if you and she knew the meaning of the word 'run', and used slightly more run-friendly footwear. I think stilettos are better used as a weapon, only.

  4. Thank you both very much for your kind words! Much appreciated. Karin - I think I have two more to write up.

  5. Bookwitch - I see I shall have to learn this strange word :o)Thank you for setting me straight.

  6. Fine post!

    "He said that one of the reasons we turn to fiction is to inhabit someone else's life." So true. I am not sure I am good enough to write a whole novel with a male protagonist (yet), but I wrote one from a boy´s point of view. No problem at all, but then I am not really a stiletto girl.

  7. Ah - now you come to mention it, I've started 3 new things (I am such a butterfly) and all 3 are written from a male POV. Hmmmmmmmm. And I AM a stiletto girl :o)

  8. I'm with Donna where the stilettos are concerned. I wish to make it clear that this has nothing whatever to do with possible adaptations for the screen and whether or not I'm a leg man. (Actually, I am a bit of a leg man, but even more of an onion man.) No, such vulgar matters do not enter into it and must not be allowed to debase this conversation and divert us from its philosophical concomitants. The heart of the matter is my suspicion that in real life, detectives never run. Uniformed police, yes, though usually in pursuit of relatively petty criminals. But detectives galloping across fields and through shopping malls in pursuit of serial killers and such -- I think not. So, they can wear whatever they like.

  9. Philip - you made me really laugh with the onion comment! I am gad that you are keeping the philosophical concomitants pristine. And you are very true about the running thing. I'd not thought of it before but I've never seen one run. And even when uniformed police run, they are weighed down and jingle and rattle with all that hardware they have to carry, so I'm sure a pair of nice kitten heels wouldn't up the difficulty quotient much. Thanks for the laugh Philip.

  10. Donna, this panel was one of my biggest 'conflicting panels' decisions, and I chose the other. THANK YOU so much for telling us, in such grand detail about this one! I've read Sophie Littlefield's book, and she gets rural Missouri dialogue and people very well-that is where I grew up. :-) I love Megan's introduction-how true! And yes, stiletto heels can do wonders, in many ways. Remember Catch-22? I do. And there is nothing wrong with looking fine and walking in them also. :-) It is so odd how some people have to use gender as a 'tag', and how it is often judged wrongly and silly-ly. Any problems I have with reading by any writer, is how good the book is, not whether another gender wrote it....and what about aliens??? ;-) And what if they are wearing stilettos? See, tricky! And then there are onions. ;-)

    Thanks for another wonderful panel review Donna!


  11. Bobbie - I know what you mean about conficting panels. And stiletto-wearing aliens? What a thought :o) I totally agree with you on the gender thing. The sex of the author is the last thing I care about - just give me great writing.

  12. Donna - middle-aged? Never.
    The gender thing comes up regularly at conferences. Harrogate last year it was debated whether or not men read female authors. The panel opinion was that they didn't. I almost shouted out - POOPYCOCK. Typo intended. I don't give a stuff about the author's gender - like you, Donna just give me great writing.

  13. Even though I was there, you distilled it brilliantly.

  14. Michael - I totally agree. And, as it happens, I know of no men who say that they don't read female authors, but I DO know females who say they won't read anything by male authors. And cheers, but technically, I AM :o)

    Patti - thank you!