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?