Driving home from a research mission yesterday I heard Peter Robinson discuss his new novel, When the Music’s Over with Samira Ahmed on Radio 4’s Front Row. (I haven’t read the book yet) As I’m sure you know, Robinson is a very successful crime writer and clearly puts a lot of thought into his subject and characters. It was interesting to hear him speak about how writing about the issues and subject of his novels, helps him understand them differently. He also discussed how he tries to ‘develop the victim characters’ and give them a voice. This is particularly interesting to me, as in writing a ‘crime’ story I want to subvert the usual conservative function of the crime novel (you can read more on idealogical complicity in crime fiction here).
But he went on to say, that he avoids talking to people about their experiences as victims of crime, preferring to rely on media reports and his imagination. I wonder if it’s possible to give a voice to victims if he hasn’t heard their story? Is it possible for a white, older man to imagine what it’s like to a female victim of violence and sexual crime, or even to imagine how it feels to live your life with the pervasive fear of potential assault informing all your choices and actions. Maybe he can, the imagination is a powerful thing.
Ahmed mentioned the discussions about extreme violence towards women in crime TV and literature, and that she felt uncomfortable about the description of the victim in the opening scene of Robinson’s new book, she asked if he worries about adding to the ‘exploitative treatment of crime’ even when trying to deal with difficult subjects. Robinson said, ‘No, I never do worry about that because I don’t think that on the whole I do it very much….’
Perhaps he should worry, perhaps all writers should. Now I know it’s not a new argument that media and culture shapes our society, our identities and our sense of the possibilities and choices available to us. But I think it’s important to consider if crime novels and TV are reflecting society, and in writing about crimes against women, does this give a ‘voice’ to the victims and create the possibility for empathy and understanding? Or does it confirm and perpetuate the idea that women are always victims and in danger? That we need to stay inside to be safe? (where we’re actually more at risk…)
Government statistics tell us, ‘Overall, a greater proportion of men were victims of BCS personal crime than women. While men were at increased risk of violence, women were more at risk of experiencing theft from the person and intimate violence’ (BCS 2009/10).
It’s time for change, and novels that unsettle the status quo. Let’s do it.