Sunday, December 17, 2017


So, how many prostitutes, call girls, sluts and/or whores does your book have?
Any of them men?

I'm so so so tired of prostitutes of all kinds and stripes in crime fiction that I've reached the point that when I see it I stop reading.

Here's why: prostitution isn't interesting. Not then, not now, not ever.

All too often I believe female characters are cast as prostitutes because the author (usually a man) finds it titillating.  May be to them the whole idea of a prostitute is titillating...but it isn't actually titillating on the page.  In fact, to this reader it's essentially two dimensional characterization and thus boring.

There are exceptions of course. Off the top of my head Michael Connelly; I'm sure there are others. The reason it's not boring in Michael Connelly's books is because the character is Bosch's mum first, and a prostitute is just PART of who she is.

In movies, setting a scene in a strip club is an excuse to show naked women.
In a book, I have no idea what it does.

If I had to guess, I'd say more agents feel this way than not, particularly lady agents.

Any questions?


The Sleepy One said...

David Swinson's prostitute character in THE SECOND GIRL worked because it felt honest to the story and the novel never showed her at work. I'd argue Swinson did an excellent job choosing where to linger in his story in general. Connecting to yesterday, the character's personal code was also well-defined without mentioning it directly, too, which helped with where the character's gaze lingered when it came to violence, etc.

Unknown said...

Prostituting a body on a page is boring. Prostituting a soul? That's a good story.

John Davis Frain said...

Ah, but my Fred Garvin, who returns in chapter 2 as the genderfluid Frieda Garvin while appearing exclusively on Saturday nights ... might be an exception.

Fred's a commercial sex worker in the morning. Frieda is a high-class call girl on Saturday night. S/he just can't book threesomes.

Okay, back to the reality of my fiction.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

It's also lazy. And it keeps otherwise interesting women in a passive role - it's easy to write a prostitute without her own agency. If she were a small time drug dealer or a loan shark or ran a gambling ring, she might get into conflicts of her own making and, God forbid, become interesting. Most prostitutes I read about in fiction only suffer conflicts of someone else's making (usually beaten by pimps or clients. But I'll skip my 20 page dissertation on what THAT says about our national psyche for now). Of course, prostitutes can be written well, but it's astounding how few times the prostitution actually becomes an important part of the story, as opposed to a convenient plot escalation when she gets beaten.

Elissa M said...

I have a scene where one male character suggests to another (young, inexperienced male) that they might be able to infiltrate an enemy camp as prostitutes. When asked, "You want to dress as a woman?", he replies, "Not all who sell themselves are female."

But my novel is epic fantasy, not crime fiction. So, more fitting to the genre, I should perhaps mention I have no women (or men) in plate armor bikinis, either.

julieweathers said...

Larry McMurtry does a pretty good job with prostitutes I think. In Lonesome Dove and Buffalo Gals they are vibrant characters, but he excels at wonderful characterization.

I have a brothel in the second Far Rider book. The madame is actually a very deeply embedded spy and has been for years.

At a writer's retreat we were balled up like contented cats in our respective chairs or corners writing. Jo Bourne sat, tapping a pencil on her chin. "I have my main character holed up in a brothel. Now what other horrible thing could I do to her?" She paused. "And I wonder why I don't get invited to polite dinner parties."

I laughed like a loon because Jo is so soft spoken and sweet looking like someone's little librarian grandmother and she's contemplating mayhem.

I suppose it depends on the situation. I've stopped reading one fantasy writer because invariably his female protag winds up in sword fights naked while all of the others are fully armored. It's like teen fan fiction and this guy is a very well known author.5

Lennon Faris said...

I think it's a weird crutch. The author finds that life intriguing (from about a thousand miles away), and so they think the inclusion will automatically make their character/ novel more interesting.

It's like cursing in comedy for me. Sometimes a well-placed swear is hilarious. But if you use in place of actually being funny, (sh)it just gets old.

Donnaeve said...

I think the act of a character prostituting her/himself out when they are not prostitutes could work. It would be this one time thing, done out of desperation for a good cause.

If it's simply the same old, same old, yeah, I hear ya, and agree. Tired. Overused. Boring.

Joseph S. said...

Bosch's mother is a prostitute? Really? At what age? I need to read that book.

I hope this posts. I had to go through FOUR of those pick the squares with (Storefronts, Roads, Signs, etc). I reported it here (or tried to),but by the time I typed it up, it made me go through two more of those exercises. Then Google asked me to log in, but it wouldn't accept me because I don't know my password, and Google said it would send me a six digit code, which never arrived.

So if this does post - you have witnessed a Christmas season miracle.

Joseph S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Lowe said...

Don't be derogatory to your characters. Their revenge will be that nobody reads you.

TS Rosenberg said...

Slightly off-topic, but this essay is the best I've ever read about being a sex worker, and who controls the narrative.

Unknown said...

Heh. The book I started reading last night began in a brothel. I like it so far though. I have a character who used to prostitute herself for weapons training. But I cut all mention of her backstory from the novel, so I guess I don't have to worry about it.

Andrea St. Amand said...

Agreed. Problem is, lots of stuff that we find titillating in real life don't translate to the page!

One real life vignette I thought might translate: We live in a transitional but historic neighborhood. Daughter is a well-educated, financially independent woman, who grew up in the neighborhood when it was at its criminal worst and moved out. She gets a call to come pick up Mom. Daughter returns to the neighborhood, notes all the families who still live there, folks she's known all her life, and sees Mom, staggering down the street. Daughter observes Mom is on drugs/inebriated and tries to get Mom in the car. Mom picks a fight the entire block can hear and screams, "Just because I suck d*$% for a living doesn't mean you can tell me what to do."

How humiliating. From that, if Daughter were a character, Mom never needs to appear again, but you understand what Daughter is struggling with and what she has had to overcome to get where she is today. I still think about that woman. Both of them, really.

Joseph S. said...


There's a dramatic story behind that vignette.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Um...they say write about what you know.
I'm an essayist and columnist (subject usually me) so I'm at a bit at a loss here. I certainly could delve into the subject first-hand (for research purposes only) but at my stage in life I'd have to pay them.

Craig F said...

I think part of the problem is how lazy some writers are when they toss in the occasional hooker, all strung out and pitifully at risk. Many of them are as dated as 1940's noir.

I have just the rumor of 4 missing hookers in the one book that has any. The reason is because each of their disappearances is within a day of each of the missing girls of Putnam County. It gives the MC another reason to feel the danger to his employee is more than just her abduction.

The coming problem is in the opioid epidemic. Consider Andrea's story. Unknown to the girl, her mother broke her arm last winter and was given a script for opioids. She got addicted and then the doctor wouldn't give her more. Blackmarket prescription drugs are fifty times the price of brown heroin.

How about a cheerleader whose screwed up knee got her addicted, with the help of her doctor. Now her world is spiraling down the hill faster than she can control.

I would rather read that than the old model damaged MC

Colin Smith said...

There shouldn't be anything gratuitous in a novel, least of all sex. I don't know about any of you, but so far I have struggled to find much that's plot-relevant about the sex scenes in the Game of Thrones novels. Sure, characters have sex, but there's not much subtlety, or saying just enough to allow the reader to figure out what's going on. But maybe that's just me...

Steve Stubbs said...

The larger problem is, most people do not have a clue what titillating is. There is an organization in Britain that used to (and may still) give a Plaster Foot award to the author who wrote the worst sex scenes in fiction. The scenes they considered for the award make hilarious reading, they are so badly written. Naturally one of the winners was Norman Mailer.

Anyway, your post made me feel better. I am having trouble finishing my WIP because I am plagued with doubts about characters who are not prostitutes and so far from being cardboard cutouts that I have trouble remembering they are not real people.

I call that Contrarian Fiction. No cliches, no caricatures. (Or none that I am aware of, anyway.) Now to see how the public feels about that.

Megan V said...

Any writer can make a particular job or lifestyle into a caricature. It takes a good writer to develop a character who is more than that caricature. It takes a great writer to not only show how someone in a job or lifestyle is more than a caricature, but that there's far more to the job/lifestyle than what people see on the surface and to use that depth to propel the story they're creating without relying on the same old trope.

Any job or lifestyle can be a trope. Lawyer. Doctor. Cop. Dealer. Farmer. IT tech. Writer. Cab Driver. Snob. Elitist. Bro. Emo. Jock.

To single out any of them as useless is pointless. It's part of a writer's job description to go beyond the 2nd dimension and take what some see as a whole, and show 1. that it's part of the character (the significance to the whole of that character varies from person to person) and 2. that that part is significant to the story as a whole.

Mister Furkles said...

One reason why prostitutes and strippers show up so often in crime novels is that they are often involved in or witnesses to crimes. On DI this afternoon, it was a stripper who turned in her abusive boyfriend as the murderer. DI shows true crime stories. The woman was always well attired and the police did not visit her place of employment.

Of course, in North America, there are almost no prostitutes who are not involved in crime. In some European cities, prostitution is legal.

Kate Larkindale said...

What an interesting and timely post! Not to mention a little frightening considering my new book has several sex workers in it, but it's not a crime novel - it's a YA about sex and disability. And I don't think any of the prositutes are at all titillating.

RachelErin said...

I thought Leigh Bardugo did a brilliant job in the Six of Crows duology, where one of the ensemble was kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel for a bit. I also have a soft spot for Belle Watling, but I know she's cliche in the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold way.

But in general, I agree. I think in addition to possibly finding it titillating, lots of writers use it as short cut to make someone pathetic so we feel empathetic - their life is so horrible and they have no control, etc. I find it both boring and vaguely yucky. (most fiction portrayals, not actual individuals)

Joseph S. said...


and Paul Simon scored a big hit with

Asking only workman's wages, I come lookin' for a job,
But I get no offers,
Just a come-on from the whores on 7th Avenue.
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.
La la la

roadkills-r-us said...

So far, no whores. None planned. I can't rule them out, but there would have to be a point, and the point would not be T&A.

Tom Clancy used them wonderfully in Without Remorse. But the point was that prostitution was something vile done to them. Two of my favorite old-school detective authors (Sayers, Doyle) use them sparely but to great advantage- again without lurid detail.

I think sometimes an author finds it titillating. Other times they are simply going for the easy money with readers with pathetic lives or porn addictions. It's revolting (on both personal and literary levels). It's sad.