Sunday, November 27, 2016

That's Entertainment! Or is it?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:   So here’s an easy question. And I say that because it isn’t.  First, let me preface by saying my new book, SAY NO MORE, tackles, as one of the story threads, campus sexual assault. And to the end of my days, I will be thrilled that Publishers Weekly calls it not only thrilling and gratifying, but “Unflinching.”
And I have told many audiences, if I can write a great story—one that allows you to see the world in a new way , through a new point of view, and think about an intensely important social issue—then hurray, that’s a good thing. But—and here’s where the debate is about to begin—I think my first task is to wrap that in entertainment.
But there’s another way—an opposite but equally compelling way—to tackle that balance.
Alex Sokoloff is one of the heroes of my life. An inspiration and a joy. If you know her, or have read (and studied) her books,  or have heard her teach, you understand why. If you don’t know her—hurray.  I am delighted to make the introduction.
And now—how Alex answers the question:
Is Crime Fiction Entertainment?
BITTER MOON, Book 4 of my Huntress Moon thrillers, is out this week, so thanks to the Reds for hosting this episode of my blog tour!

Here’s my discussion question for the day.

Is Crime Fiction entertainment?
I belong to several online readers groups and it’s a question that has been coming up frequently, lately.
A thorny issue, right? But I’m glad to see it being discussed. For me – no. I DON’T read crime fiction for entertainment. When I pick up a crime novel as a reader, I want to see intelligent treatment of societal evils that focuses on bringing awareness to problems and proposing activist solutions.
That’s my goal as an author, too.
My Huntress Moon series is intense, page-turning psychological and procedural suspense.  I worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for ten years before I wrote my first novel. I’m well aware that I need to deliver a satisfying genre experience to my readers. If they’re not biting their nails and staying up way past their bedtimes, I’m not doing my job.

But within the context of a ripping thriller, I am writing about issues I care passionately about and want to eradicate for good – meaning the good of everyone on the planet. Violence against women. Child sexual abuse. Human trafficking.

The last thing I want to do is show these scenes in a way that anyone could get pleasure out of. The few times I show anything on the page, it’s very brief and absolutely not there for entertainment. And I am very suspicious of any book that starts with a beautiful woman obviously being set up to be raped and tortured. Sexualizing rape and torture is not solving any problem – it’s actually contributing to the atrocity of sexual abuse.  Personally I won’t support any book or author, film or filmmaker, that sexualizes scenes of abuse.

But I used to teach in the Los Angeles County prison system. I want to explore the roots of crime, not soft-pedal it. For better or worse, my core theme as a writer is “What can good people do about the evil in the world?”

So my choice is to confront the issue head on.

The fact is, one reason crime novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is because it’s reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators – we’re the prey. Personally, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

But after all those years (centuries, millennia) of women being victims of the most heinous crimes out there… wouldn’t you think that someone would finally say – “Enough”? 

And maybe even strike back?

Well, that’s a story, isn’t it?

So my Huntress Moon series is about just that.

The books take the reader on an interstate manhunt with a haunted FBI agent on the track of what he thinks may be that most rare of criminals – a female serial killer.

And here’s what’s really interesting. Arguably there’s never been any such thing as a female serial killer in real life. The women that the media holds up as serial killers operate from a completely different psychology from the men who commit what the FBI calls “sexual homicide”. 

So what’s that about? Why do men do it and women don’t? Women rarely kill, compared to men — but when it happens, what does make a woman kill?

Because another pet peeve I have about crime fiction is the way so many authors presents serial killers for entertainment. So many authors seem to have no clue what a serial killer actually does. What we see on the page and on screen is criminal masterminds who stage their murders like artistic masterpieces or leave poetic clues in a cat-and-mouse game they're playing with the cops or FBI.

Well, bullshit. What serial killers do is rape, torture and kill for their own gratification. They are not masterminds. There is no art or poetry to their sadism.

Yes, two of my favorite books are Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, both of which deal with mythic versions of serial killers. But Harris was writing horror novels in which he created mythological monsters within the frame of very accurate police procedurals. And authors who don't really understand the complexity of what he did have been ripping him off - almost always badly - ever since.

Silence and Red Dragon are entertaining, no doubt. But they're also brilliant, passionate explorations of the nature of evil and the quest of good people to fight evil.

As an author, you can settle for writing entertainment, and make a living at it. But is that really all we're here for?

I hope not.

Within the context of my Huntress series I can explore those psychological and sociological questions, and invite my readers to ask – Why? I can realistically bring light to crimes that I consider pretty much the essence of evil – and turn the tables on the perpetrators.

And I’ve created a female character who breaks the mold – but in a way that makes psychological sense for the overwhelming majority of people who read the books.

Whoever she is, whatever she is, the Huntress is like no killer Agent Roarke – or the reader – has ever seen before. And you may find yourself as conflicted about her as Roarke is.

Because as one of the profilers says in the book: “I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more women acting out this way. God knows enough of them have reason.”

So what do you think?

Readers, do you read crime fiction for entertainment? Are you looking for something that goes farther and examines the root of crime, and maybe even solutions? Are you concerned about scenes of violence against women being presented as sexualized entertainment?

Authors/writers: is this an issue you grapple with? Have you found ways of exploring real-life issues of violence against women and children that both fulfill the conventions of the thriller genre and avoid brutalization for entertainment?

I’m always interesting in hearing!

-       Alex

     HANK: Told you she was fabulous! So--what do you all think? And see below--you can get a huge bargain, and maybe a FREE BOOK!

Alex says: 
"I strongly recommend that you read the Huntress/FBI thrillers in order. So…"

SALE ALERT: The first three books in the HUNTRESS series are currently on sale on Amazon US for just $1.99 each (and Amazon Prime members can currently read Book 1, HUNTRESS MOON, for free!

BITTER MOON, book 4, is now out in paperback, ebook and audiobook:

 Alexandra Sokoloff is the Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Black Quill Award-nominated author of the supernatural thrillers The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows, The Shifters, and The Space Between; The Keepers paranormal series, and the Thriller Award-nominated, Amazon bestselling Huntress/FBI Thrillers series (Huntress Moon, Blood Moon, Cold Moon), which has been optioned for television. She has also written three non-fiction workbooks: Stealing Hollywood, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, and Writing Love, based on her internationally acclaimed workshops and blog (, and has served on the Board of Directors of the WGA, West (the screenwriters union) and the board of the Mystery Writers of America.
Alex is a California native and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in theater and minored in everything Berkeley has a reputation for. She lives in Los Angeles and in Scotland, with Scottish crime author Craig Robertson.
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  1. Do I read crime fiction for entertainment?

    No . . . I do not find anything entertaining in violence against women, child sexual abuse, human trafficking, and the like.
    I don’t want those things presented to me in any context other than the horrific, despicable things that they are.

    Yes . . . At the same time, I do read crime fiction for entertainment.
    While I agree that what we read [fiction or otherwise] should be enlightening and intelligent, I think part of the appeal for crime fiction as a genre is that, in most cases, readers know the good guys will win in the end, the evil ones will get what they deserve, and the world will be set right. The entertainment, if you will, is in the getting there.
    Perhaps that’s simplistic, but there are many truly horrific things in our world. And, in an effort to banish them, many people face these sorts of things with some regularity. It’s nice for the reader to see that in the fictional world the writer has created for us, there is justice.
    Kind of gives you a bit of hope for this world of ours . . . .

  2. Whoa--this post woke me up this morning! Great essay, Alex! Yes, I read crime fiction for entertainment. I read fiction (and, let's face it, some nonfiction) for entertainment as well. Going to the art museum is entertaining, as is coloring in a coloring book. The latter is restful and even mindless entertainment, while the former can be many things--enlightening, provocative, deeply moving. So too with crime fiction. Like Joan, I don't read it for the crime that's been committed. I read for the characters, the plotting, the settings--for the story. In fact, I tend to avoid any book that has 'serial killer' in the jacket descriptions. I once threw a book in the trash--it was a mystery that dealt with the sexual abuse and killing of children for fun and profit. The writing creates the story, makes that world come off the page, but the violence is never gratuitous--or titillating--as in, beautiful women service the lone wolf hero, then die terribly. Repeat every book.

  3. Welcome back Alex!

    Yes, I agree with Joan's response--absolutely not interested in seeing violence transformed into entertainment. (In fact, I'm a wienie and not drawn to hard-boiled stuff much at all. I finally read SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and it's haunted me ever since!) And as a writer, I do have a theme/message in mind. But it seems to me it has to be subtle, something the reader will be left mulling over in the hours and days after she's finished it. As a reader, if I sense I'm being instructed or bonked on the head with opinions, I rarely continue reading.

    The hardest thing is figuring out how to pull that off!

  4. Thank you Alex, for coming here today. I was so impressed that I went straight to amazon and downloaded the first book in the Huntress series, which I plan to curl up with today. And what interesting questions you ask of us. I am a reader, and crime fiction is a favorite although I read everything, even including fantasy and sci-fi if exceptionally well written.

    "The fact is, one reason crime novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is because it’s reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators – we’re the prey. Personally, I’m not going to pretend otherwise." These three sentences -- frightening.

    Thank you for posing the following questions, although I have to say this has my brain spinning so early on a Sunday morning. I prefer avoiding thinking before several cups of coffee.

    "Readers, do you read crime fiction for entertainment?"
    Alex I read everything for entertainment, fiction, non-fiction, journal articles, Krishnamurti, cereal boxes. I am too old to waste time on anything that doesn't entertain me, no matter how enlightening, educational or informational.

    "Are you looking for something that goes farther and examines the root of crime, and maybe even solutions?"
    Honestly? Not really. Not any more. I am horrified at today's violence, not that it is worse than that in the past. As Thomas Harris and Stephen King so masterfully show us, evil exists. Our obligation as moral and ethical humans is to fight this, in the trenches and on the presses, everywhere we encounter it. I think we've explored the root to a fare-thee-well. And as of November 2016, I don't think we've learned much at all. I'd like to think there are solutions, but at present I have little faith.

    "Are you concerned about scenes of violence against women being presented as sexualized entertainment?"
    Of course, and writers and journalists, both of fiction and the media, must be held to a standard that prevents this. How do we do this? We mustn't read them, watch them on TV or film, give them any attention at all. Don't even get me started on this.

    Whew. I am so energized that I am off to walk my little dogs in the cold tundra rain. Thank you Alex.

  5. I read crime novels for the ride -- the "best" make me want to keep reading. And I guess illuminate something about the human psyche. But mostly I read to be entertained and I detest it when the story exploits women or children. Just for instance, it's why I enjoyed Owen THE STOLEN ONES which is about human trafficking... only the stolen ones are three-dimensional characters not just plot points to be manipulated, and they end up saving themselves as much s being saved. That's satisfying.

  6. So pleased to see all the red enthusiasm this morning…great! Because exploring new territories and new point of view, of course, is entertaining! If we read a book with the thought "wonder where I"ll go this time? " it turns readers into explorers, and exploring motivation is so valuable.

  7. When it first came out I read Red Dragon and swore I would read no more by Thomas Harris and I have not! I do not enjoy gruesome. Thrilling is another matter.

  8. Gruesome verus thrilling--that is SUCH a good distinction. I once started reading what seemed like a perfectly good thriller--but then, what the bad guy was doing to his victims was so awful I just thought--I don't want that picture in my head.

    I even sometimes wonder how authors even come up with that stuff. Their thought process. Yeesh.

  9. As a reader, I like COZY mysteries for entertainment. Although I am NOT a big fan of Thrillers, once in a while, I would make an exception.

    When a relative was pregnant, she asked her husband to read the new Dick Francis mystery / thriller to see if the level of violence was too high because if it was too violent, she did not want to read it while pregnant. I totally understand why.

    I do not like scary movies either, though I liked Beetlejuice, which makes fun of scary movies.

    And I do NOT like the violence against women. We already see too much of that in real life with human trafficking, etc. Then other day a father drowned his four year old daughter in front of his nine year old son. And this happened in church! Yes, this happened in real life.

    One of the reasons I loved the Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman was because they were strong and any violence against them would be rebuffed!

    As a general rule, I do not like violence in books nor in real life.. It depends on how the story is written too.

    Great questions!


  10. Thanks for all the interesting comments! I agree that it's wonderful to read a crime story and see justice done. How satisfying is that? Believe me, I wish!

    But I spent some years working in the LA County prison system, teaching incarcerated juveniles, and I'm passionately interested in the REALITY of the justice system. Which is often not anything like just. Not for kids, for sure. And for girls? You don't even want to know.

    But here's the thing.

    WE SHOULD KNOW. We absolutely should know what is happening to our kids, our boys, our girls, our daughters.

    So I choose to write books about the horrifying INJUSTICE of the system.

    These are not books for people who want a happy, resolved ending. They're about what really happens to kids. And women. And - anyone not white or male or straight.

    That's not an easy thing to read about. I get that. I would never try to force those issues on readers. But at the same time, aren't you sick about reading about a world in which everything works out A-ok for everyone? Because if this election year has shown us anything, it's that things are not so A-OK for America as we might have thought.


    Are we headed into a happy ending, here? Only if we work our asses off to defeat evil.

    Is that too edgy?

    Well, I'm sorry. But that's the world we live in.

    What I find interesting (by interesting, I really mean horrifying) is that so many readers are willing to read what I would bluntly call TORTURE PORN - graphic, exploitive depictions of rape and torture - as long as it's THRILLING. So many bestsellers - James Patterson, ML Aldridge, Saul Black - and TV shows like Game of Thrones, The Killing - are misogynistic torturefests.

    But people will happily read those unbelievably exploitive authors - and get turned off by books that actually delve into the reality of sex trafficking, child abuse, rape culture - from the survivor's point of view.

    I truly don't understand that.

    Can anyone explain it to me?

  11. FChurch says - I once threw a book in the trash--it was a mystery that dealt with the sexual abuse and killing of children for fun and profit. The writing creates the story, makes that world come off the page, but the violence is never gratuitous--or titillating--as in, beautiful women service the lone wolf hero, then die terribly. Repeat every book.

    YES. That is EXACTLY what I wanted to counter with the HUNTRESS MOON series. I am so absolutely SICK of that paradigm. Not in my books. Not EVER.

  12. Ann in Rochester, I am honored that you are willing to try the Huntress books, thank you!

    I know so very well that it's exhausting to try to read a book that wants to tell you something. Who has the time? :) But I hope that like most readers you'll find I'm a skilled (20+years in the movie business) entertainer and you won't even realize there's a moral message going on in the books until you're FAR too hooked to pull out.

    Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!

  13. I wish I could explain it, Alex--it is depressing and disturbing--what is it that people "enjoy" in that? There's a scene in Game Of Thrones that I seriously wish I could un-see. ANd again, it makes me wonder how people think of that stuff, and then, why they'd all agree to put it on TV or in books. And it is certainly contagious.

    And as I have seen in my recent book tour, it's really perplexing (and revealing and instructive) to see how people can talk about murder, discuss it and dissect it and analyze it, and all fine... but hen bring up rape and suddenly the discussion stops.

    I always ask--do any of you have kids or grandchildren or friends in college?

    But again, as you say, Alex, the key is to get people enraptured by the story...and treat the reader with respect.

  14. Hank, I stopped watching Rape of Thrones a long time ago - and started actively speaking out against it on every platform I have available to me.

    I know very well why Hollywood execs put that kind of exploitation on - the film business is a male dominated, misogynistic culture that revels in putting its own male fantasies on screen. What I don't understand is why any woman would support it.

    We don't talk about rape because the Bible doesn't even list is as a sin. Because that many thousands of years ago, rape was a patriarchal right, and we're STILL not saying THAT IS AN ATROCITY.

    So we have to talk about it. We have to NAME it. We have to call it out every chance we get. Silence is the enemy.

  15. Alexandra,
    Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post. Like Hallie, I read for the ride. Ideally, I'm entertained and pushed to consider an issue from a different angle.

    In my series, my main character, Fina Ludlow, is a champion of women and children and anyone else who doesn't have a voice or isn't represented. One of the things I try to shine some light on is the insidious tentacles of sexism and misogyny that so many women contend with on a daily basis. In the book I'm currently writing, Fina responds to a man at a bar who is offended when she won't accept a proffered drink. The man is angry that she didn't accept his offer, but as Fina points out, she's not obligated to accept any offer she finds unacceptable. I have fourteen nieces and nephews, and when I write, I always have them in mind and how I would like them to treat women and expect to be treated. We need to "normalize" girls and women having ownership of their own bodies, and I think as writers, we have a small opportunity to present the world as we want it to be, not as it is.

    Okay, done with the rant! Hope everyone is having a great Sunday!

  16. Hi Alex. Thanks for getting our brains firing on a Sunday morning. I don't read anything that exploits violence against women or children and I've never been able to understand why people would want to be "entertained" by portrayals of serial killers. I stopped watching Game of Thrones after the first season. Ugh.

    I am fascinated, however, by the fact that only men commit these repeated acts of sexual violence and torture (whether the victims are female or male) and also by the fact that mass murders are committed almost entirely by young men.

    But as a writer, I have to start with character and story rather than issues. It's the individual viewpoints that allow me to express how I feel about the larger issues.

  17. I absolutely read crime fiction for entertainment -- good, thoughtful, intelligent entertainment. Teach me something I don't know while the characters and story unfold; take me somewhere I've net yet been myself and make me feel like I'm there; explore a social issue in a smart and meaningful way...Any of these approaches will get me into the book and get me to stay through to the end of the book. I don't read just to keep myself busy and I don't read fiction to be lectured. Give me smart and interesting in a thoughtful combo, and you've got a reader for life.

  18. So agree, Alex, about silence being the enemy. Exactly why the title of my book is Say No More. Because silence is the weapon.

    Amanda, you are so right--and no audience wants to be lectured. And isn't that the tightrope for authors--to have a core theme, but to allow readers to discover it.

    Alex, what books/movies do you think are successful at this? What do you use as examples?

  19. Alex, I am getting to your Huntress books and hope to have them read by the next Bouchercon. I know I have the first on my Kindle, and now I will have to check about the other two offered at such a great price. Of course, I will eventually have to purchase printed versions for you to sign. I just know I'm going to enjoy them. I use the word enjoy in the sense of appreciating a story well told, with strongly developed characters and an intriguing plot. I do not enjoy reading about violent acts for the sake of reading about violent acts. In fact, I'm good with the before and after of the act. I don't need to read about every cut, every shot, every act of torture of the act itself. The reason I read crime fiction is about the why. What leads a person to commit a violent act and how does their life go on after. Why that particular victim? What is the effect of this loss on victim and perpetrator? Is the killer an accidental killer or an organized, methodical one? I'm actually more interested in the mind of a killer who isn't a serial killer, as serial killers can be a bit too twisted, but the serial killer can offer some interesting insights. And, with the unusual situation of a female serial killer in your books, Alex, it's a phenomena I want to explore. What is the evidence, how is it gathered, and how is it pieced together to catch a killer? And, I like my investigators to be hard-working, deep-thinking individuals who put the puzzle together bit by bit. They can have flaws, because don't we all, but I can't say I'm fond of the alcoholic or other drug addicted investigator who wallows in self-absorbtion.

    And the issues at the heart of a crime/mystery story. One of the things I love so much about Hank's books is the theme. Give me a theme with layers of connections, well-written, and intelligently explored, and I'm a happy reader. Say No More was so timely and so brilliantly written that it should be required reading by all university administrators.

    One more note. Those who attended Bouchercon in New Orleans will appreciate you, Alex, for your spirit of celebration and festivity in the different events of the con. I have some great pictures of you and Craig dancing in the cage in the Second Line Parade. Can one have a couple crush? If they can, then I do indeed have a couple crush on you and Craig. Of course, it helps that I have a fascination with all things and people Scottish, which you are by association, too. And, your singing group at the House of Blues? Outstanding! You are a force of energy to be envied.

  20. Hello, Alex -- so great to see and hear you on such an important topic.

    Love the distinction Joan made, and the variations others have added. I read to understand people -- and I write for that reason, too. I am much more interested in the why -- the psychology -- of what people do, how they hurt and betray each other, how they try and grapple and fail and succeed -- than in the violence that often happens as a result. So I don't read horror, or torture porn, or serial killer novels -- and on the flip side, I'm equally uninterested in books so light that they bare little resemblance to reality.

    So far, my published novels are cozies, but there is always a deeper issue, and I see that more with each book, which is probably why it's more predominant in my Seattle series. The WIP takes a new direction, diving a little deeper into the why and the darkness. As someone said here -- I've lost track of who -- the lighter elements keep the story moving and from getting weighed down, and that's where the entertainment is.

    BTW, if you're a SinC member and you're going to Bouchercon, AND you're intrigued by Alex, STAY TUNED for some great news!!!

  21. I reed to be informed as well as entertained. I long to visit the UK. i can do this by visiting the 13th Century, or Victorian England, or the modern day through Royal's, Conan Doyle's, or Deborah's eyes. I trust the good fiction writer who researches before the fingers hit the keyboard.

    Things happen in the real world, I can label an event as adversity, or as a challenge. That is up to me. In the fictional world, I can take a mental image and see it in on my terms. I can stop reading if the book becomes hard porn. Can't do that in real life. I can be inspired to take action by well thought out plots and character development. Is this entertainment? I think so.

  22. Kathy! Thank you! That is--lovely, and yes Ii wish all college administrators -and student, and parents--would read SAY NO MOREl Aw.

    Coralee, that is such an interesting idea about the control we have over books--versus the control we have over reality.

    Leslie--you are such a tease. I can guess..and I hope I am right!

    And may I say what a joy it is to read all these thoughtful comments? I am so honored to know you all..oxo

  23. ENTERTAINMENT. If I want a discussion of social issues, I'l turn to Public radio or public television, or one of the better newspapers or journals. For me, and I think most people, reading is entertainment. Enjoyment.

  24. Richard, I just burst out laughing! Of course! But don't you love it when you learn something new in a book… Well you're being entertained? But as an author, I have to say, I know my job is entertainment… And then I try to fold in some important themes and revealing information.
    Xxx. Because of course if a book is boring, no one would get very far! And I have certainly read some of those… But not very much of each one!

  25. Hi, Alex! Sorry I have missed this discussion. I wrote a long, impassioned reply this morning on my tablet, then accidentally touched "sign out" instead of "publish". So annoying.

    Anyway, put me in the column with those who can no longer read the disturbing. The genre once referred to as "fem jeop" is not for me, not any more. I used to read everything, including, as someone above said, milk cartons and cereal boxes. But life is too short for some things.

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  27. Alex, I finished the first book in the series sometime in the middle of the night, liked it very much, and am off to buy the next one.

    I am intrigued that I have so much compassion for Cara, who is capable of such brutality. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

    I'm enjoying your style, the scene setting, almost like a screenplay, how interesting.

    By the way, I took care of Swifty Lazar in about 1991-92, when he was a resident in an assisted living facility. We called him "Uncle Irving." No kidding.