Dirty, violent, foul-mouthed, love stories Something to write home about

There have always been shocking novels by men. Now women are writing them too.

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Has fiction become "sleazy, foul-mouthed and violent"? And are young women novelists particularly guilty of these sins? Graham Lord, one of the judges for the Betty Trask Prize, suggested last week that they were and saw "a brutal new coarsening of British womanhood". This was somehow linked with their abandonment of "elegant blouses and pretty summer dresses" in favour of "ugly leggings and filthy trainers".

The next day, the Betty Trask Prize - ostensibly for first novels of a "romantic or traditional" nature - was awarded to John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, a fine book indeed, but one that deals with particularly creepy serial murder. Mr Lord was duly mocked by his colleagues in the media. It is easy to have fun at the expense of someone who can describe, say, Louise Doughty's Crazy Paving as "awash with foul dialogue, graphic descriptions of masturbation, menstruation and vomiting" when the Times' reviewer had dubbed it "an accurate satire on modern office life, and one which should amuse commuters".

Sleaze, then, is in the eye of the beholder, but does Mr Lord nevertheless have a point? He does, in a way: quite often the book reviews I commission for this newspaper are delivered with quotes that have to be edited or deleted. I wonder if that ever happened to Addison and Steele. And if I were now to quote passages from, let's say, Linda Jaivin's Eat Me - which opens with a young woman in a supermarket taking her sexual pleasure at the fruit counter by means of figs, grapes, kiwis and (although her hunky friend Adam gets this one) the inevitable banana - this page would either be a blizzard of asterisks or the cause of many cancelled subscriptions.

And the worries are not confined to the columns of the Daily Mail, where Mr Lord's article appeared. Candia McWilliam, a novelist and a regular reviewer for this paper, found, as a judge for the Vogue talent contest, that the entries made her "worried by the amount of violent death and bodily grotesquerie - eating disorders, knives, self-mutilation". (She also believes, though, that "in the hands of a real writer, these things aren't gratuitous"; what's more, when she judged the Betty Trask last year she found plenty of fine entries that weren't using these things just to show off.)

No, it was not what he said, but Mr Lord's surprise that was surprising. It showed him to have a very short memory - or perhaps a very slight acquaintance with fiction of the last decade or three. In 1993, there was a row over Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, a short and nasty novel about a female serial killer, which was hailed (sympathetically, I think) as "feminist revenge splatter fiction", and it was both loved and loathed with Lord- like ferocity by critics. In 1994 came Karen Moline's US bestseller Lunch, whose sado-masochism proved strong meat here; Maureen Freely's Under the Vulcania, about a sex-farm for fulfilling female fantasies; Michele Roberts' superb novel Flesh and Blood ("shades of the Marquis de Sade and the period romance of Georgette Heyer"). These women seemed to be doing their best to shake off the goody-goody, straitlaced image of Eighties feminism - and they certainly succeeded.

Go back another few years, and we find the vogue for glamorising highly inventive (and sometimes violent) sex in "bonkbusters", when Shirley Conran's heroine famously discovered an interesting way with a goldfish, and Sally Beauman's proved that diamonds really are a girl's best friend. Yet these S&F books (it stands for Shopping and the other thing, and turned out to be a fairly short-lived trend) never moved anyone to much moral outrage. Perhaps they were just seen as Mills & Boon with knobs on.

It is a truism to say that each generation of writers wants to shock, and that this gets harder and harder to achieve - but they do, and it does. Inflation in the shock-market affects every art-form. Look around at a sawn-up cow or a head sculpted of blood-plasma in leading art galleries, or at the rivers of gore running in any cinema near you, and it's easy to track the shock-nerves of our era. Other times had their own, sometimes incomprehensible to us now. When Dostoevsky put Raskolnikov, his hero in Crime and Punishment, alone in a room with a prostitute discussing religion, the blasphemy was extreme. Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, a sadist and psychopath if ever there was one in fiction, horrified his author's contemporaries but his image has now been prettified into a hair-tossing romantic hero in Mr Darcy breeches. Even from our own recent times, descriptions of straight sex that were once outrageous are now commonplace, and once "hot" titles are on school syllabuses. The ante has been upped.

The point about shocking people is that they are supposed to react. It's such good fun. Graham Lord and Charlotte Bingham (chairwoman of the Betty Trask judges, who shared his sentiments) did what they were meant to do. The Independent printed a reply to Mr Lord by Tania Glyde, whose novel Clever Girl he had most deplored, and its tone was one of triumph: "Here we go again, two nations at war; the old chintz contingent covering their ears against the repetitive beats of the new gang". How miserable she would have been if he'd liked her book. And how much poorer: her sales quadrupled in the 48 hours following Mr Lord's article.

Writers want not merely to kick against the conventions of the day, but also against the generation of writers immediately above them. In this country, the golden boys of the Julian Barnes / Martin Amis / Graham Swift generation produced novels with fewer explicit descriptions of sex or violence - although both were often powerfully implicit. Younger writers of both genders want to mark out their difference from this daunting wave of talent by going boldly into other territory.

And if the boys do it, why shouldn't the girls? The calculated nastiness in, for instance, Will Self or Irvine Welsh has earned them notoriety and success, but not the same degree of opprobrium. Especially to men in late middle age, anything shocking is much more shocking if it comes from the word processor of a young woman.

There is also a darker reason for young women to confront such subjects in ways that are deliberately in-your-face. They are exploring not only the aspects of society that shock us, but those that frighten them. Young women believe their lives are largely within their own control: they can, if they choose, enjoy education, career and family prospects more or less equal to men's, and most under-30s say they have suffered little overt discrimination on gender grounds. But one issue remains, and gets worse - that of violence against women. Writing about this is a form of protection, a way of exploring risk and lessening fear, of exorcising demons and of venting anger.

Helen Zahavi suffered the real terror of being stalked by a man, and her violent novel was her reaction: "Suddenly... I didn't have to be afraid of him any more. I realised that he ought to be afraid of me. For the first time ever, I was thinking the unthinkable and they were profoundly comforting thoughts. I slept the sleep of the just that night and when I woke up, I knew I wanted to kill him. It was the most liberating moment of my life. The surge of brutal energy was so powerful and so irresistible that I began to scribble down what was running through my head." Her heroine, Bella, "is every woman's suppressed side, our dark side. We are capable of killing to defend ourselves''.

This is frightening testimony, but - as she herself pointed out with some humour - she kept on writing, and the man stayed alive. Not all women can endorse her violent vision, though Carmen Callil wrote that "she has ... a fatal flaw which makes her novels almost unreadable: her authorial brain is totally focused on masochism, lust, violation and revenge".

Susanna Moore's terrifying In The Cut focuses on a male serial killer, and the critic Elaine Showalter brilliantly summed up its literary and psychological background: "[she seems] to be challenging some unwritten macho literary code: to be taken seriously, a woman writer must look at the body and get right into the wounds. Then she will get male critical affirmation and respect, find a critical Mr Goodbar who gives great blurb ('stunning, erotic thriller'). [Moore's heroine] often worries about acting 'like a girl'. Writing a diary is 'a safe, girl-thing to be doing'. Even struggling for her life, she worries about being too feminine: 'I bit him again. Just like a girl'." But for all her sympathy, Showalter concludes that "these ugly fantasies of female vulnerability cannot be indulged in without messy wounds or lasting scars".

Michele Roberts, talking a few years ago about her book Flesh and Blood, made a writerly point, refreshing because it crosses all boundaries of gender and age: "Since we no longer write about the union with God, writing about sex has become the ultimate test for the writer: to communicate the incommunicable". Surely today's young women should be allowed to have a go at that.

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