18 February 2015

Our dirty little but highly efficient secret

(Bcon photo by Diane Vallere, by permission.  Craig Faustus Buck, Travis Richardson, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti, Paul D. Marks, and Art Taylor discuss short stories with ruthless efficiency.)
One of the highlights of the recent Bouchercon, as fas I am concerned, was getting to meet Thomas Perry  Actually meet is probably too strong a word,.  In reality I shook his hand while gushing a lot of very sincere compliments.  He's probably my favorite living mystery writer with whom I had never before had personal contact.

And if you look at the compilation I did here of wisdom from the conference you will see that I
quoted him frequently.  But there was one lovely line which I set aside in my notebook in order to give it its own consideration.  And that time has come.

On one panel Perry reported that a reviewer had described his novel The Butcher Boy as "competence porn."
  That struck me as perfect.  The Butcher's Boy is the first of three novels about a hitman known only by that nickname. And BB, if I may be overly familiar, is staggeringly competent at his job, the kind of guy who can kill a motel full of mob leaders one by one without being noticed.

It struck me that there is a lot of competence porn out there, so there must be a market for it.  Another example is Perry's books about Jane Whitefield, who is a sort of anti-detective.  (Instead of finding criminals, she helps them disappear… but only if their crime is small compared to the danger they face.) And while Jane does make mistakes (my favorite book in the series begins with her falling into a trap that gets two colleagues killed) the major fascination in the books is her training her "runners" in the minutiae they need to keep in mind to avoid the bad guys who want them dead.

I am halfway through the latest Whitefield book, A String of Beads, in which she tells a  construction worker, wanted for a murder he didn't commit, to dress and think like a businessman, and to go back to college, because no one would look for a runaway there.  Those are just a couple of details out of a thousand.

Another example of competence porn: the Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake).  Parker the thief is always the best crook in the string, and better at what he does than the cops are at theirs.  The reason he gets in trouble (so that the books don't end around chapter 4) is that he has to work with people who are not as competent nor as ethical (in terms of treating their partners) as he is.  I tried to think of mistakes he made and came up with two; in both cases the goof was not killing someone.  Welcome to Parker's world.

I suspect that a lot of the books called techno-thrillers are competence porn, but I don't read them, so I wouldn't know.  Your thoughts on all this are most welcome.

And that brings me to another related subject.  A few weeks ago someone on FaceBook was complaining about the use of "porn" to describe something, well, attractive but bad for you.  Like competence porn, for example, or as they describe musical instrument catalogs in my crowd, guitar porn.  The complainer was tired of the phrase and I think didn't appreciate associating pornography with these other interests.

And that reminds me of the recent pieces by Melodie and Fran in which they each used the term "literary sluts" to describe themselves, because they write in several fields.  One of the commentators, Anonymous, said:  

This really shows me how different writing is as a profession from the sciences. (Not that you asked.) I am a woman scientist and we are constantly fighting NOT to be thought of as sluts of any kind, especially not in a supposedly joking manner (which is what our male colleagues say, is that they are just joking around). If you read the way Watson and Crick talk about Rosalind Franklin in "The Double Helix" you will see what I mean -- and things have NOT changed since then. Some of our younger woman scientists have tried to adopt this playful language, which embeds a sort of alternative approach to being a woman in science the way that they do it, and it's destroyed their careers. So the idea that women are so well-established in the writing profession that you all can afford to use this kind of language is just mind-blowing to me.

 Of course, mystery writing has had issues with sexual discrimination (look up the origin of Sisters in Crime), but is Everything Just Fine now?  I'm not the person to judge.

So, how do you feel about the term "slut" in this case?  Is it "taking back the word" as some marginalized groups have said about their use of epithets? Or a harmful dead end?  

While you debate this I am going to go finish reading A String of Beads.


  1. Regarding techno-thrillers… It’s kind of ironic but I read a computer thriller by a favorite author and was devastated to find so much wrong. In that case, it was incompetence porn.

    I’m not wholly comfortable using ‘sluts’ and ‘porn’, but that’s my limitation. I recognize and respect the right of others to toy with words and reshape them for their own purposes.

    And yet…

    I’ve begun to think of the e-mailings reviling congress and the president as ‘political porn’. It’s not that I’m apolitical, but I detest dishonest bullshit regardless of the source. Thanks to annoying ‘friends’, I’d been getting quite a bit of right wing nonsense, so much so that the left must have felt left out and doubled down. Crap from both sides struck me as similar– especially naked mindless glee and onanistic breathless excitement that can only be described as political porn.

  2. Rob, I have no intention of "debating" whether Melodie and I have the right to use any term we wish when referring only to ourselves, and I refuse to accept that my gender dictates what words I can and cannot use. I don't speak for Melodie, only for myself.

  3. I think this is a symptom of the current state of our society and its tendency to be offended by everything. I take serious issue with "Anonymous'" statement that "I am woman scientist and we are constantly fighting NOT to be thought of as sluts...". This seems overstated in the fact that I work in an industry that is primarily men, mostly blue-collar, and I can assure you they are not arbitrarily calling women sluts for the heck of it. That being said I find it doubtful highly educated men of science would think of their counterparts as sluts.

  4. For the record, I am a second wave feminist (fought my way into business school in the late 1970s, and believe me, it was a fight!)
    But I am also a comedian. Some would say the two can't coexist in the same person.

    My take? If you are going to write comedy, you are going to offend someone ALL THE TIME. Even gentle, good-natured comedy like mine, will offend somebody (as it apparently has.) Even when you had no idea it would, and didn't see it coming. My point? To write comedy, you have to be able to take the heat, especially as a *female* comedian.
    And that's a subject for another discussion, in person, over a pint or two.

  5. And of course I left my comment before reading Fran's!
    Love her comment "the right to use any term we wish when referring ONLY to ourselves." Wish I'd said it.

  6. Apologies if I offended anyone. It was not my intention.

    Rick, there is considerable anecdotal evidence of women in the sciences dealing with a lot of garbage of that sort that effects their lives and careers. I don't have time to dig deep but off the top of my head, Google Elevatorgate or look at this for a hint of what goes on. http://wehuntedthemammoth.com/2014/11/13/woman-slams-sexist-shirt-twitter-douchebags-tell-her-to-kill-herself-worst-offender-a-contributor-to-a-voice-for-men/comment-page-3/

  7. I have to weigh in here, since I am the original anonymous who was quoted. I did not say that anyone should use or not use a term. I said it blew my mind to hear that women in writing could use it without worrying about the professional consequences. I was envious, frankly. And I will say to anyone who thinks that science does not have a strong bias against women, bsed on sexism, to read The Double Helix as a beautiful example. Watson and Crick would never have written such things had they not known that it would not be questioned in our field. And it's not. It does not change things in my profession to say that they are fine in yours, any more than it works to say, "There is no such thing as racism against Black people because I never see it where I live." Injustice exists, and it should not be tolerated. But -- and I will say this again - I did NOT say the term should not be used by women writers or anyone on this board. I said it could not be used in my profession. I think it's not me who's showing a thin skin here.

  8. Speaking of competence porn, and Parker the thief, I really did know an extremely competent thief who never, ever, ever got caught for B&E, which is how he made his living. Instead, what got him in continual trouble was violence towards women, specifically, his girlfriends. Every damn time.

    Re words - I'm with Fran. Or, as Owen Wister said, "When you call me that, SMILE."

  9. This is a more thoughtful post about my previous comment and how it was taken. To clarify my POV: I am a scientist who works on a number of high-level panels at the National Science Foundation, has been awarded numerous NSF grants for research, am a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, am involved in science and policy boards, and am on committees set up to figure out how to retain more women in the sciences.

    The problems women face in science are well-documented. Scientists rely on data. The work in which I am engaged is driven and informed by statistically-significant evidence regarding the salaries, promotions, grant awards, and other career-related measures of women in science compared to their male counterparts. The federal government does not pursue this work primarily as a justice issue but as an issue of “human capital” shortages in the so-called “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that can most easily be met by increasing the numbers of women in science.

    I did not cite any of the hundreds of studies that document the disparities for women in science compared to men in science, or that document the pervasively sexist atmosphere (primarily expressed in language and in imagery) that have been shown to correlate with the situations of greatest disparity, but instead cited a book that I thought people on this forum might enjoy reading if they were so inclined. Watson and Crick are still revered and “The Double Helix” is such an overall enjoyable read that I used to use it in my freshman courses. The dominant scientific culture does not question the way these men admitted to stealing Rosalind Franklin’s work in order to complete their own or the clear connection between this act and their disrespect for her based on her lack of worthiness as a sexual partner. You really should read it. This book stands there, with all that language intact, and is no embarrassment to either man or to the profession. That says a great deal. And it’s not just me who says it.

    As a woman in the sciences, I have a lot of colleagues – male and female, both – who collaborate on how to change the scientific culture so it no longer drives away brilliant women who may have been able to produce solutions to the problems we all face. One of the things we do is mentor younger women coming into the sciences. The current cultural trends in society to re-appropriate sexist terms in order to defang them influences these young women. We see them writing blogs where they refer to themselves as sluts, for example – and we also hear what happens to them when their grant proposals or their papers are peer- reviewed. In a nutshell: they are no longer considered serious scientists worthy of financial or professional support.

    It’s a complicated situation, as most cultural things are. And it’s complicated in large part because language carries so much emotional content and that content varies so much among different subpopulations. But of course, this is something you writers would know more about than I do. Words and the emotional baggage they convey are your stock in trade. You know how to use them, and you do it very well. This is a compliment, I want to add, given that I have been so seriously misunderstood and apparently projected upon.

    Right now, in the sciences, a woman cannot refer to herself even playfully as a slut. That’s all there is to it. I sat down with my morning tea to read a blog I enjoy and saw that apparently women mystery writers can – and it blew my mind because it showed me a different world from the one I live in. The way I felt reminds me, in hind sight, of a story I read in the early 70s (I believe) about a Russian leader who came to the US, walked into a grocery store with its ample displays of fresh produce, and burst into tears. He had not realized how the world could be. He had not realized until then just how impoverished his own life and people were. That’s how I felt.

    And that’s what I said.

  10. Love your fresh produce example, Anonymous, and remember it from when I was actually in business school in the 70s! Would love to sit down with you and other women in the Sciences to discuss this and many more things. I've enjoyed your thoughtful comments here.

  11. It's always tricky to manage with a shifting language. It strikes me that "slut" can be hurtful but referring to glossy magazines as "house porn" or "football porn" is just an almost-accepted new usage that harms nobody. Still, using the term "competence porn" for a story where somebody doesn't screw up grates on me. Are only the inept lovable or believable?


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>