Crime Collectives: Why ‘Killer Men’ Wouldn’t Work
Crime fiction accounts for a third of all UK fiction sold, and the majority of its readers are women. As the crime festival season gets into gear this weekend, starting with Bristol Crimefest, a new collective of crime writers has formed called Killer Women. A vast swathe of novels fall into the mid-list category, where good solid non-celebrity writing exists, and the idea is that as authors increasingly drive their own readerships to their books in order to lift them above a crowded field, they’ll use their new organisation to promote their work via grassroots book clubs, small festivals, the Women’s Institute and social media.
This is not a bad idea at all. Crime writer Erin Kelly explains; ‘An author’s life is quite bipolar: you’re either working in complete isolation or at a heaving literary festival having strained conversations over a glass of warm white wine,’ she says. ‘It’s quite rare for writers to meet formally without any agents, editors and publishers so the chance to form deeper friendships with other ambitious writers was a big pull for me.’
The idea of forming an all-female collective has cropped up several times before with different degrees of success. I remember Stella Duffy running the rather unfortunately named ‘Tart Noir’ (I first misheard it as Tartan Noir) a few years ago. Female writers already have the Orange Prize to claim as their own. The idea that writers have a place where we all hang out was once truer than today – the Literary Review used to have its own members’ club in Soho’s Beak Street. But now the only time any of us see each other is at such events as Erin describes.
It’s not about increasing the visibility of female writers in general, but of working toward a common cause. However, forming a balancing ‘Killer Men’ group would not work, partly because we’d be accused of protesting too much. Mid-list males are simply too diverse both geographically and in subject matter to find much common ground, and what would the meetings be for, to improve the lot of males? One thing the mid-list males do more than women is this; they are far less focussed in their writing subjects. Mo Hayder or Sophie Hannah, say, write in deep-focus areas of noir crime and psychological suspense respectively, whereas men frequently step outside their areas to write SF, horror, fantasy and comedy. Joanne Harris is one of the few writers I can think of who has switchbacked through a number of genres with ease.
However, I wonder if the Killer Women’s parameters are wrong; crime fiction has many subsets; domestic suspense, procedurals, psychological, thrillers, mysteries, whodunnits, noir and so on, and female writing is reflected in every one of these, so shouldn’t smaller, more manageable clubs be formed around specific areas of expertise? This week I’m up for a number of awards, including the Margery Allingham Short Story Award. Ms Allingham still has her own club, at which I was given the honour of being invited to speak, and it was wonderful to talk to a group of people interested in one specific subject.
And, realistically, how hard would it be to get us all together to agree on something, with only the general connection of being male? An all-female writers group will have a better chance of that. I wish the Killer Women all the luck in the world, but running a collective and getting results is hard work. A few years ago I helped to form a collective with a friend, only to watch all of its members fall out. Maybe the self-imposed solitary confinement of the writer is one of those elements necessary to produce a singular viewpoint.
The Killer Women group will work if it asks itself something publishers never seem to discuss with their authors; mainly, who is their readership, and what exactly do those readers want?