Women and the Pulp Crime Tradition
(The second of two parts)
By William E. Wallace
The assumption that all serious readers of hardboiled detective stories are men is widespread . . . Although some of these texts are now available as Vintage Crime Classics trade paperbacks with arty black-and-white photos on the covers, they were originally published in cheap pulp magazines whose Technicolor covers featured tough-looking men with guns and gagged, terrified women falling out of their low-cut dresses.
-- Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith (Temple University Press; 2000)
Given the long history of women writing crime stories in the pulp tradition, why is the genre so often associated only with such male writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain?
|Why do male writers like Raymond Chandler (above) |
get most of the credit for hardboiled crime fiction?
Perhaps the Erin Smith quote above is the answer. Some female writers contacted by Pulp Hack Confessions seem to think so.
"So much of this [the failure to recognize women who write noir and hardboiled crime fiction] comes down to marketing," said Hilary Davidson, whose debut novel, The Damage Done, (Forge; 2010) won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, said in an exchange of e-mails with Pulp Hack Confessions.
"I think there are misconceptions about what men write versus what women write, and what male and female readers are interested in," she said. "When I was publishing my first book, someone in the business told me that men would never read a novel with a woman's name on the cover. That sexist nonsense hasn't been my experience at all. But that thinking definitely exists in the publishing business."
Jen Conley, an editor at the crime fiction magazine Shotgun Honey who has written for her own publication and a variety of others, including Thuglit and Beat to a Pulp, tends to accept Smith's thesis.
"Maybe the pulps were originally targeted towards men and perhaps we haven’t broken out of that old mold," Conley said. "Or maybe because these male writers tell stories about a violent and gritty world--something that is considered masculine -- we use male writers to hail the genre."
Her view could be seen as ironic considering that Conley has an expert touch in rendering the violent and gritty. Her short story, "It's Coming!" in the anthology Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. 2) is full of verbal violence that barely conceals the physical brutality simmering between two primary characters -- brutality that ultimately bubbles to the boil in the last few hundred words of the tale.
Or maybe it doesn't? Hatred and a concomitant threat of violence are so heavy in Conley's story that the reader is left wondering whether one of the main figures died accidentally or at the hands of someone else.
Similarly, in "Visitor at Copenhagen Street" in Thuglit, Issue Nine, the action spins out in a run-down flat in London where the heroine lives with her ominously loutish boyfriend -- and has an encounter with his violent "mate," Nigel.
The story features a series of psychological threats that eventually ends up in a physical assault. The woman eventually realizes she is living a cycle of victimization.
In both stories, Conley shows dexterity in handling brutality. Her touch is as sure as any man's -- perhaps even more so. If the purpose of fictional violence is to shock the reader and help him or her understand what is at stake for the main characters, I can tell you that Conley's mere suggestion of violence is more compelling than all the bare-knuckled beatings in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels put together.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose collection of short stories, American Salvage, was a finalist for both the National Book and the National Book Critics Circle awards, echoed Davidson's view about the differences between the work done by men and women in the noir genre.
|Bonnie Jo Campbell|
"Gosh, there's a mistaken idea floating out there saying that men's and women's writing is fundamentally different, that women write about softer or more domestic subjects, while men engage with the exterior world and the big issues," Campbell said in an e-mail interview.
"That is clearly untrue," said Campbell, who admits she doesn't consider herself a crime writer per se. "V. S. Naipal just recently said books by women weren't important or worth reading, which makes him sound like a knucklehead."
"I also don't know what it means that Men's Bull Fiction literary Magazine named me one of the ten "Manliest" writers working today. I'm reading Sara Paretsky's Critical Mass right now and she doesn't shy away from the tough stuff."
Kim Cooper, whose novel The Kept Girl (Esotouric Ink; 2014), features real life noir stylist Raymond Chandler as a central character, said she thinks unfamiliarity with hardboiled fiction is part of the reason women who write in the pulp tradition are on their contributions to the genre.
|Kim Cooper's The Kept Girl |
follows the hardboiled tradition
"With occasional exceptions, critics have neglected the hard-boiled genre, offering grudging respect to its most financially successful practitioners, but ignoring the qualities and creative development of the genre as a whole," she said in an e-mail interview. "The misperception of the hard-boiled as exclusively masculine and unworthy of analysis is changing, and I think it helps that a critic as respected and widely read as Sarah Weinman shone a light on mid-century female crime writers with her recent anthology."
(Weinman's collection, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Storiesfrom the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin; 2013), was mentioned last week in the first part of this essay).
"As always with mass media entertainments—like Bubblegum Music, the focus of my first book in 2001-- the true story of any vast body of work gets written retrospectively, by observers who weren't the intended audience. It's exciting to be on the cusp of any reassessment."
"And honestly, I think lurid paperback cover art has had a lot to do with the mainly masculine perception and the critical neglect," she added. "The stuff just looked too trashy (in the best way) to take seriously. Even the art is getting fresh critical eyes, and doing well in the marketplace, now."
Others think that there is merit to the theory that women and men working in the hardboiled tradition have a different approach to the stories they write.
"All of the women mentioned here do something that many men who write in the field today don’t do: they present females as fully realized characters-- as more than femme fatales, sidekicks or victims," said Patti Abbott, the author of Home Invasion (Snub Nose Press; 2013), which has been described as "a novel in stories that examines a dysfunctional family across fifty years."
"They make a very concerted attempt to look at their characters, both men and women psychologically," she said in an e-mail to Pulp Hack Confessions. "They rarely are content with just presenting plot and action. Now this approach can be pleasing to readers or not; I think a lot of men would just as soon skip over what are my favorite parts of a book to get to the car chase, the kidnap note, the gun to the head, the woman tied up in the corner."
"I am surely being unfair but based on the books I hear mentioned by men, I have to assume a lot of them prefer books where there is mostly action."
"Every year I look at lists of favorite books from the year, and almost every male’s list is comprised almost totally of men," Abbott said. "The books they list are similarly about men. On my blog, I have been doing a feature called 'Friday’s Forgotten Books' for more than six years and many of the men that contribute have never or almost never reviewed a book by a female author. They review great books —don’t get me wrong -- but not ones written by women. Although women seem to read male writers, many men do not read women writers."
Given this lack of recognition, why do women continue to work in the pulp genres? Those with whom we raised the issue seemed to agree that the internal conflicts of characters who find themselves up against the wall are a major part of why they were attracted to the pulp tradition.
"I think I’ve always been attracted to characters who have limited choices, who are close to the edge," Conley said. "I like stories where people survive on their last hopes or have done something desperate because there was no other way."
"I wrote 'Pipe' [a short story about a kid who seeks revenge on the school bully by arming himself with a length of pipe] with this in mind," she said. "My main character had no other choice—he had to defend himself. That story was actually based in some truth. A kid in my high school was being harassed so he hid out in the bathroom with a pipe and a plan. He was caught before he could strike and for some reason, when I learned about the story, I felt bad for him. I didn’t know him well at all and I can’t recall his name, but I do remember he was picked on and the story stuck with me for years until I gave him some vengeance."
"Growing up, I remember things going violent very quickly among my peers," she said. "I don’t know why—it wasn’t a terrible place or anything, but people didn’t have it easy."
Conley's response was similar to that of Davidson, who said she liked the hardboiled tradition because of the motivations that drive characters.
"I'm not particularly interested in hardboiled detectives, per se, but I love the themes that hardboiled fiction deals with," said Davidson. "It delves into the deepest recesses of human psychology and hits us where we're most vulnerable. That's what makes it so timeless."
Campbell offered a similar explanation:
"I live to write difficult characters and situations," she said. "I mean, if I see problems that are easy to solve, I don't bother writing about them. People sometimes call my writing 'Rural Noir,' but I'm not trying to write in any particular style. I write in the manner that tells my story most richly.
"Because my characters face a lot of difficulties, I cannot in good conscience make light of their troubles. I do like to see my characters gaining some insight into their own lives. There is often violence and despair in my stories, but, I feel I come by it honestly, which is to say, it is realistic. I avoid gratuitous violence, if that means anything."
She said her attraction to the noir tradition stemmed from reading Dashiell Hammett, whose Maltese Falcon (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard, new edition published in 2013) and Continental Op stories helped set the standard for hardboiled crime fiction.
|Dashiell Hammett influenced Bonnie Jo Campbell's interest in noir.|
"His sentences cut to the bone, dispensing with all nonsense," she said. "[Hammett's] amazing ability is to make the reader give a damn right off the bat."
"He does objectify women sometimes, and that's too bad . . . unfortunately some [others] writing in the style assume it [hardboiled fiction] has to be sexist, but of course that's not true."
Patti Abbott said her own work in the genre is an outgrowth of the subject matter she explores.
"I see myself as writing stories about a certain sort of person: one that’s faced with a dilemma but often not the tools or wherewithal to get out from under it," she said. "Even when most of my stories were published in literary journals, the characters in them were like this. It’s my personality—I am not a cheery person. I am amazed at anyone who is."
"Having said this, I am very grateful to occasionally stumble on a writer that knows how to make the world seem more hospitable, more palatable. It may be an illusion, but one I am grateful for."
The hardboiled and noir tradition "suits my world outlook," Abbott said. "I am interested in people pushed to their limit. Sometimes they survive but often they don’t. In a short story, readers will accept a character not overcoming that dilemma. In a novel, less so. The time commitment kicks in."
In Cooper's case, the use of the hardboiled formula was a one-off and whether she uses it again or not depends on what she writes about in the future.
"My debut novel The Kept Girl contains elements familiar to the pulp genre, particularly in the escalating state of anxiety as the heroine Muriel is menaced by members of the cult she's infiltrated," she said. "The style served this story, and might serve another, but I wouldn't say I'm married to the hardboiled."
"At its core this is a book about human relationships, love, need, faith and regret. In crafting the largely fact-based narrative, I enjoyed using the genre's quirks to file off some of the rough, factual edges that makes true crime such a demanding format. Fiction is forgiving. History is not."