Monday, November 27, 2006

Violence in Crime Fiction: The Forgotten Factor

Again, the debate is raging on listserves, forums and blogs: Are we getting too dark? Where do we draw the line with violence in fiction?

It’s a topic that feels to me as though it’s been done to death. I have read listserves and forums long enough to see routine comments from people, about the fact that they won’t read about the torture and murder of children, or book with rape. Someone from a forum once emailed me and said they were disgusted with Mo Hayder, because she’d written an extremely graphic and violent book while pregnant. I think it was Tokyo she was referring to. But the point is, not offended by the violence, but offended the author wrote it while pregnant.

You never know what it is that will offend readers.

I can even tell you more than one person expressed some misgivings about Cold Granite because of the murders of children in the book. And yet Stuart doesn’t think he writes dark stuff.

When I think of Stuart’s first book, I think of one scene that gave me a good laugh but I think of a lot of other scenes that were pretty grim.

In the intro to The Flood Rankin mentions Reader Response Criticism Theory – which basically states that it isn’t what the writer was trying to say that’s important, just what the reader got from the book. This theory infers one thing we all know: sometimes people see things in books that authors don’t intend.

I happen to know some people who wouldn’t let their children watch The Lion King because they thought it was too graphic. I have a really good friend who won’t even watch the news. A Field of Darkness wouldn’t get to me the same way a book like To The Power of Three would get to someone like her.

Face it. A woman who’s just been raped isn’t likely to find a book like Wire in the Blood to be an easy read. I think we can all understand that.

All of this to say that I believe violence is relative. And I believe that there are two key components that affect how people perceive the violence in books. One has to do with who the reader is. A friend of mine always asks for referrals. Bear in mind none of these friends I’m mentioning are mystery readers. They only read what I refer to them. When I make those lists I consider their threshold. One friend, who has young children, can’t handle anything with violence against children. I respect that. It’s enough that I’ve won her over to the likes of Rankin and McDermid. I’m not going to stick a book in front of her where young children are being killed in a graphic manner. Give her a few years. Then she’ll probably want to read those books. (Joking…)

So, one key component is the reader. The other is who the victim is.

This connects to recent discussion on DorothyL about Joe Konrath’s books, particularly the belief of some readers that the books contain excessive, offensive violence. Joe himself commented in response:
“I write just enough to set the scene, then let the reader fill in the blanks. Don't agree? Please try to point out one of these vivid descriptions of torture.
You'll find that it's really less vivid than you originally thought, and that your imagination made it worse than it actually was.”

(Kevin’s waiting for him to write a cozy called Shirley Temple, but I suspect that’s not coming any time soon.)

I needed a diversion between edits of my own work this weekend, something to clear my head at night. I didn’t think it was a good idea to watch a ‘mystery’ movie, so I picked something I hadn’t seen for a while.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

I picked a movie with plenty of violence, battle scenes and some brutal deaths. Meanwhile, in the discussion on DorothyL most of the people commenting have been readers. Whether I agree or disagree, these are the ones who may pick up my work and dissect it. I am always curious about how they respond to different things. And some of them have been quite critical of violence in fiction.

Joe’s response was also interesting. I completely agree with him about what the mind fills in being worse than what writers actually put down on the page much of the time.

In The Two Towers there is a fierce battle, the battle for Helm’s Deep. The great moment is when the elves come, to honour their old allegiance with men and fight by their side once more. Haldir leads them.

But the battle does not go well. Helm’s Deep is breached. King Theoden calls Aragorn to fall back to the Keep. Haldir is wounded. And then he is struck from behind.

You only see the Uruk Hai swinging the weapon down. You see Haldir’s body lurch forward, presumably as the sword hits him. You see the look on his face as he falls, you see what he sees, the bodies of the other elves who’ve fallen in battle. You don’t see the blood spatter or the wound.

And Aragorn reaches him just as he dies.

That is the only point in the movie that almost reduced me to tears in the theatre. It is by no means as graphic as when some people are skewered by spears, heads are severed, some are eaten by wargs. The truth is, there are a lot of points in this movie where more blood is shed, yet it is the scene with Haldir that affected me. Why?

Because I liked him.

I can think of similar examples in fiction. Val McDermid has written her share of rape scenes in her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. The extent of the mutilation of one character I really liked in The Wire in the Blood really bothered me. Of all of the rapes, it is the rape of Carol in one of the books that stays with me. The characters of Shaz and Carol weren’t just objects that violence was done to. They were characters I cared about. I felt their pain in a different way.

Beyond crime fiction, how about my favourite of all of the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine? In the last season there’s an episode called The Siege of AR-558. Ezri Dax becomes friends with one officer, who is ultimately killed. The tension, the desperation, the very real stress on soldiers and the effect of the violence they’d seen on them. It’s a rarity, because this is an episode where they’re fighting a ground war, and there are aspects of this episode that make you think of classic war movies.

I remember watching that and feeling like someone had just punched me in the gut, because they’d put a real human face on the losses. Not just numbers of people killed in war, but people with names, hopes, dreams killed in a battle.

To me, this is one of the critical things we overlook when we’re addressing the subject of violence in our fiction. It is not always about what we do and don’t show. It is often about who the victim of the violence is.

It is my personal belief that when we care more about the characters, when we empathize with them, we feel any violation on a deeper level. And in situations like that we’re inclined to infer more into the violence than the author necessarily writes or intends.

At the end of the day, each reader has the right to decide what goes too far for them. Each author must accept the fact that not everyone will like their work. There are some people who might like my first book who will not find my second book easy to take.

I have stated elsewhere that I write the level of violence that I believe is appropriate for the story I’m trying to tell. I do hold to the idea that less is usually more. The only thing that I take exception to is violence that, to me, reads as showy or unnecessarily gratuitous. And even I must say that applying that label is a highly personal thing. I mean, I’ve written my share of assaults, rape scenes and murders, but the one thing I’ve taken offense over recently was Gingerbread cookies in Nazi uniforms.

This is, ultimately, an issue where there is no right or wrong. Everyone will put that line in a different place. We aren’t always going to agree with each other.

One just hopes we’ll try to respect the author’s right to produce the work they see fit… and the reader’s choice to embrace it or reject it. However, the fact that this is such a subjective issue means that, while I think the stuffing has already been beaten out of this topic, undoubtedly it’s one we’ll continue to hear people discuss for years to come.

My question for you is, where’s your line? Is there anything you won’t write, or won’t read?


Anonymous said...

A while back, someone (I think it was John Rickards) posted a list of things that readers said would make them not want to read a novel. The list had things like child murder, murder of gay people, murder of clergy, the killing of pets, etc. It was quite pathetic, the number of people who would shy away from a book if they knew a pet died in the story. If you ask Rickards about it, I'm sure he'd remember.

I remain a proud advocate of violence in crime fiction. Fourteen people and a cat get killed during the course of my novel, and I don't think any of those scenes are gratuitous.

Steven said...

Well, as you know my last book was about pedophiles. There isn't a single sex scene in the book, but PW still cited it for "deviant sexuality". That said, I don't think I would ever depict an actual rape scene (man, woman or child). Too intimate/painful.

I don't see the problem with killing off pets, certainly not in a story where humans are killed.

I don't like it when the people who are killed are not people I am forced to care/think about.

Frankly, I don't see the point to objecting to violence in a murder mystery. Rape is the one thing that might be even worse than murder.

Interestingly, I have the feeling that many of the people who might object to violence in books will watch CSI which gets pretty graphic with the aftermath of violence.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was convinced my cousin was "marked" because my aunt saw The Exorcist while pregnant. I haven't detected any devil horns on my cousin though.

People are weird, and I think my choice to stay away from these email lists is a good one. Shit happens in crime fiction. Sometimes it's bad shit, but hiding it behind a doily doesn't make it good.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patrick, I knew there was discussion about this on John's forum. As to the issue of killing pets, it's definitely an element that offends a lot of people. When Val McDermid was in Calgary two years ago she talked about the TV version of Wire in the Blood and said they'd wanted to kill Carol's cat in an episode and she was the one who said they couldn't do that, they could make it look like the cat was dead, but she'd be banished in America if they killed the cat.

Steven, that's unreal. There's no sex in the book at all... You handle your subject matter with such sensitivity, never in a graphic way. And you're probably right about CSI.

Bill, the lists can be very helpful. At the very least, you end up with a bit of an appreciation for the kind of things that will potentially offend readers. And I think there's a certain wisdom in authors understanding that their work might not be suited for everyone.

I've thought about how I deal with my victims a fair bit recently, and wondered if I do enough to develop them. What I will say is that I'm paying more attention to that aspect of the book.

That said, it's also a bit overused, the idea of the personal connection between the detective and the victim, some relationship prompting the detective to act recklessly or defy protocols or whatever. That's one thing I've been trying to avoid.

angie said...

I'm not sure there are hard and fast rules for this - at least for me. I don't like animals getting killed, but that won't necessarily stop me from reading a book. (I might skim that part, though.) Cold Granite didn't bother me at all - mostly I remember the quirky, dark humor. And the steamed up car windows...there were an awful lot of steamed up/fogged up car windows and defrosters that couldn't keep up.

Having said that, I don't enjoy reading violence for the sake of violence - unless, of course, that's the point, and that's a whole 'nother ballgame. My biggest beef is something you touched on in your post. Real people suffer in real life. If you can't convey that in a novel, you're basically creating a poorly done graphic novel without the cool artwork. Boring. Souless. No thank you.

There's not much I wouldn't write about if it made sense for the story. However, I tend more to the "leave it up to the reader's imagination" school of thought. I've always been much more upset with what I imagine has happened than with graphic, blow-by-blow descriptions of violence.

Anonymous said...

And yet I already know my work my might not be suited for some readers. Am I supposed to change what and how I write because some scold on a listserv might disapprove? I simply suggest that people who might be upset with darker subject matter look elsewhere.

Sandra Ruttan said...

First Bill, I suppose I was thinking more for me. It never occurred to me when I started writing what people would take offense to. What they'd ban an author for.

So, for me, it's been very insightful. I've gone through the shock, surprise, disbelief, blah blah... Now, I'm just interested to find out what people react to. Sometimes, as I tried to point out in my post (about writing while pregnant) it isn't even the content so much as the context.

Angie, I completely agree with you about real people suffering. And that victims shouldn't be people you don't care about. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Is this a sign of my age? I have long been aware that there is someone out there who will be offended by . . . anything and everything. Honestly, I think there are many millions of people who get their energy and sense of meaning in life from the feeling of being offended.

I not offended by much, except for people who try to suppress the voices of others because what they have to say is "offensive." That gets my hackles up fast.

As a writer, I don't go out of my way to be "offensive." I just tell the stories I want to tell, in the way I think they need to be told. I know I'm bound to bother someone -- partly because lots of people are out there on the hunt for something to be bothered by so they can soapbox about it. But also because not everyone wants to confront stories the same way I do.

And that's fine. Cats will be solving crimes for as long as there are crimes, cats, and writers to write about them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I guess the thing with me is, I've always just read books and enjoyed them, or not. And if I enjoy them, I tell others about them. That's been my way for years.

I never had a list of 'absolutely will not read'. I'm reluctant to try another Mo Hayder book, for example, but I fear creating an actual list of "will not read". I mean, if I read an author and don't like their stuff, I don't continue reading them. But in this particular case I feel the main reason would be the violence. And I have a hard time even accepting that myself, as a legit reason to not read someone, so I actually feel as though I should try again.

Okay, we have proof. I'm weird.

Karen Olson said...

Since I became a parent, I have a much harder time with reading about violent crimes against children. My friend Alison Gaylin's first book HIDE YOUR EYES was a tough read because of that, and when I told her, she responded that she'd written it before she had her daughter. It sounded like it would have been more difficult to write if she'd already been a parent.

That said, I've never put down a book by Karin Slaughter, despite the graphic violence against women in her novels.

JamesO said...

I've yet to read something that was so graphically unpleasant I put the book down (still looking, I guess), but I remember as a teenager walking into my local newsagents, and seeing a video magazine (this was pre-DVD days) on the lower shelves. I picked it up and flicked through a few pages of reviews for movies like Star Wars and other harmless stuff, then suddenly came across a full page ad for Driller Killer. If memory serves, it showed a crazed killer drilling a hole into his still-living victim's temple with an electric drill. Something about the ad made me feel physically sick, and I had to go outside for some fresh air.

I had the same feeling a few years ago, when flicking through the telly channels I chanced upon a 'hard-core' magician show where the performer did the sawing in half trick, only it was faked to go wrong and the poor victim died spewing blood from her mouth and twitching as the saw ripped through her vitals. (oops, sorry, a bit graphic there)

I've never liked slasher movies, seing people getting decapitated or otherwise mutilated, with loads of Kensington Gore flying around. Both of these incidents affected me because of their unexpectedness - if I'd known they were coming I'd have avoided them. And yet I can write scenes which are as dark and violent as you can imagine and they don't bother me at all. I can read far more graphic nastiness too, and I reckon it's because it is my imagination that is painting the pictures, and my imagination knows exactly how far it wants to pursue any given image. Film and television don't give you that luxury.

That said, I think it's the movie Privates on Parade (got to be a porn title, that) where for the first three quarters of the film the cast are playing around and laughing and bickering in a splendid comedy, and then at the end most of them get gunned down in a brutal and graphically-depicted attack. That shocked me, left me physically shaking, but didn't sicken me like the previous two.

I guess with writing, you just have to do what you feel is necessary for the story you're trying to tell. And if that offends some people, there's plenty more readers out there.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Violence for the sake of violence is just plain boring. I'll avoid books or movies like that, not because of the violence itself, but because it generally points to bad storytelling.

My line? I suppose I wouldn't be into reading hardcore erotica mixed with a lot of gratuitous violence.

It's a question of room separation and function: I like my violence in the lounge room or the kitchen (Daniel why didn't you do the dishes?!), followed by sex in the bedroom (Darling, I've done the dishes AND vacuumed).

Maybe I'm just a prude.

Daniel Hatadi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

Karen, I think it would be a challenge, as a parent. Perhaps that's also why some women are far more sensitive about, well, who writes what book when they're pregnant. I don't know.

James, those are interesting examples. I suppose with that movie it would be because of the comic element, as well as the fact that you weren't prepared for it. I mean, you start a movie and it's one way. It would be like Father of the Bride and someone jumps out with a machine gun and kills everyone at the wedding or something. Incongruous.

That said, there are some manners of death that are nastier than others.

Okay, Daniel, a prude? Tee hee. Right. Your comment about rooms and erotica makes me think of a Shield episode... it might have been called cherrybusters or something. If you've seen it I don't have to say another word. If not, well, let's ask a new question. What defines kinky?

Because some of those guys were definitely not sexually...average, I'd say. For lack of a better word.

I don't like violence just for the sake of violence. If I feel that's the only reason it's been put in, I'm turned off.

But sex only in the bedroom? I thought that was only the rule after you had kids. ;)

Anonymous said...

What bothers me about recent films is that horror filmmakers have lost sight of the fact that scaring people involves more than just grossing them out. It seems that some of you agree with me on that.

Isn't it interesting though, that nearly all of say that there is little or nothing that we won't read. It appears that what bothers us isn't the idea of violence, it's the visual proof of violence.

When you read a book, no matter how descriptive the author is, your imagination is in control of how the scene plays out for you. I think that perhaps that's why the few times I've been truly bothered by something I've read, it's been a true crime book. Knowing that what's being described really did happen somehow slaps the image home in a more visceral way than fiction does.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree about horror films. Most guys I know just laugh at slasher films because they're so unreal.

Now, that's an interesting comment about true crime. I think it would disturb me for the same reason.

You know what's funny? I never stated where my line is in the writing, and still haven't, really.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Aside from the bathroom, the bedroom's the only room we can lock the cats out of. And the bathroom has the kitty litter box. Not conducive to a romantic atmosphere, that.

Dr. Lisa said...

Just to break up the groupthink here, I think readers just have different levels of empathy, and if you are sensitive, you just don't *want* to read about rape and pet snuffs in your free time. If readers don't like something, that's their perogative, just like it's your perogative to write what you want. As a storyteller...your audience doesn't owe you their free time or their money if they don't enjoy stories about rape or animal/child killings.

Frankly, I find pet snuffs hackneyed and useless 96 percent of the time. It's cliche by now, bottom line. If you count the number of dogs that have died recently in movies, tv, and books..X-files, Signs, Secret Window; Fatal Attraction; Stephen King had a graphic scene in The Dead Zone...just to name four instances that pop into my head. Oh, and it's not new either: Rear Window killed a family pet.

When most writers use animal snuffs for mysteries/thrillers, it's usually just to show his/her perp is monster. Oh, lookit him/her--they killed a kitty! Monster! Villain! Well, come on. Like that hasn't been done a million times? It's almost inevitably a point of characterization--and as I said, one that has been done to death (get it--ha! to death, I slay me).

The animal isn't going to "out" or foil the villain; killing it doesn't move the plot forward usually in any appreciable way--although the use of the animal snuff in Rear Window was pretty clever. So as far as I am concerned, the action has to move the plot forward. If you have monster for a perp, you have to have a *really clever* monster with lots of suspense and twists and turns to keep me engaged. Otherwise, I'll leave it in the bookstore with the 100 other softcovers that have "atrocity of the day" written on them.

Sorry--just one customer's opinion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Daniel, you're subjecting your cat to a life of censorship?

Dr. Lisa, I actually think you make a lot of good points. I've never killed an animal yet in fiction, that I can recall. And I don't have any particular plans to do so. I would never do it just to do it - it would have to be warranted.

And there's nothing there to apologize for. I think you've made excellent points. That is, I think, part of what makes some violence read as gratuitous. It's window dressing, precisely because it doesn't advance the plot in a meaningful way or do anything to develop the character.

Good points!

Daniel Hatadi said...

At least that way the cats will have a life.

Anonymous said...

The groupthink? Condescend much?

You know what has been done even more than killing a pet? Killing some person. I mean, good grief, you can't read a murder mystery these days without someone being killed. How cliché. Talk about done to death.

JA Konrath said...

Coincidentally, I just blogged about this same topic.

Part of writing is to provoke emotion.

If you really want to see how much you're able to take, pick up a copy of Hogg by Samuel Delaney. It'll cost you a lot of money (it's out of print and worth around $100), but it will really make you question the meaning of 'too far.'

For something even more revolting, but not as thought provoking, read The Bighead by Edward Lee. Lee has his tongue in cheek (much like Ellis in American Psycho) but some of those images stick with you.

Justine by DeSade is every bit as revolting today as it was when it was first published.

I find Mo Hayder's stuff very hard to get through, as well as early Jack Ketchum (Girl Next Door, Right to Life.)

But I sort of knew what to expect before reading these books. In my case, readers look at a bright friendly cover and comparisons to Evanovich and think they're in for a romantic comedy. There is comedy, but there is also horror.

Expectations matter. Biting into a hot dog and tasting a chocolate bar would freak anyone out.

Sandra Ruttan said...

All I know is, it takes considerable talent to make people laugh. To be able to entertain people through comedy as well as make them recoil from pain in the same book is a skill. It's not something I feel is my strength, so I stand in awe of people who can hit the full range of emotional responses.

I look forward to reading your post Joe. Yes, you're right. Expectations also matter. Another important element for us to consider...

Dr. Lisa said...

Clearly, murders form the basis of crime fiction, but you can't conflate the defining story arc of a genre like crime fiction--murders and injustice--with the plot devices that push the arc forward.(Even if doing so makes you feel like you just scored off somebody who bruised your ego). Just because somebody is an avid reader of a genre doesn't mean you can't bore him/her if you use the same plot devices over and over; some writers--really special ones--got away with it (like Rex Stout; P.G. Wodehouse, etc.)

So the dead pet is one of those plot devices that says "lazy writer" when I read it. Sorry.

This is one of the challenges of genre fiction. You have your formula plots, and readers come looking to the genre for the standard entertainment value of those plots. But at the same time, it gets really hard not to repeat yourself and/or the greats in that tradition as a writer.

I suspect this need to do something different has led to the increasing "darkness" of the fiction. Ha! You carved up people? My villain carved up human babies! And puppies and baby chicks! And cheated on his SmogCheck!!!