The problematic issue of graphic violence in fiction
December 19, 2011 § 23 Comments
As a writer myself, I confess I’m pretty horrified at the drubbing Joe Abercrombie is getting here, first and foremost because the overall implication of the drubbers seems to be that certain things are simply off-limits to a writer, that said writer must navigate narrow corridors of tasteful should and ought – which to my mind puts us a short hop, skip and jump away from Satanic Verses fatwa territory.
But I’m also horrified because, frankly, you’d have to have a reading age of about twelve to believe that Abercrombie’s intent here (conscious or sub) is to browbeat lesbians for their temerity in not liking cock. You’d have to never have heard of things like dramatic irony, variable p.o.v, the unsympathetic protagonist, horror by implication, subverted trope, unspoken authorial critique, show-don’t-tell, all ‘at good shit. In short, you would, in literary terms, have to be a child.
Honestly, in the last ten years I’ve seen some astonishingly poor (and/or willfully obtuse) interpretative reading of genre text, but I think this one takes the crown.
But despite the round-and-round nature of the often-derailed discussion, I think the core issue (or “core” to me at least, but then again, I was the one who initiated that discussion there) is the problematic issue of graphic violence in fiction. I am not a pacifist; sometimes violence is a regrettably necessary last resort to aggressive violence. But I have experienced enough over my professional career (which at times has involved me working directly with or teaching teens that have suffered emotional, physical, and mental traumas, including sexual abuse) to abhor graphic violence for the sake of “authenticity” in fiction (read “violence for violence’s sake).
It is strange to read comments arguing that violence has to be included in order for something to be “real;” especially odd when the works in question are epic fantasies. Yes, yes, I can hear almost the thoughts of those who are thinking, “Hey! But if the setting is a violent world, shouldn’t one reasonably expect there to be violence?” This of course presumes that violence is somehow necessary in order for the story to be told, something that often is not the case (I doubt Patricia McKillip’s The Riddle-Master trilogy would be improved with gore, explicit swearing, and a rape or three thrown in to show how “dark,” “grim,” and “gritty” the setting is).
But let’s humor that train of thought that says in a violent world, violence must be shown. How explicit should it be? Should there be an unrelenting amount of violence described in detail, down to the downy ass hairs of those being raped in every possible orifice? Most people would probably say no, that there are limits to the effectiveness of depicting such violent acts. Yet “too much” is a blurred line.
For myself, I take issue with the need to use graphic acts as a stand-in for true character and plot development. It is often lazy writing in which a character is shown to be “bad” or at least “not all good” by having him (usually a him in these situations, although not necessarily) go out and kill or rape someone in cold blood. What often happens is that the person that suffers the violent act/s exists solely for that moment, like the infamous Star Trek red shirts. Ironically, the things that Morgan decries in the quote above do not occur very often in these scenes. Instead, it is just an explicitly-shown action in which the recipient (and sometimes the initiator) is interchangeable for purposes of the event because s/he has no real development. Writers who take these deplorable shortcuts should be criticized for not developing something powerful from such exceptional, traumatic events of violence; settling for clichéd commentaries or a narrative shrug and a move on to the protagonist’s next fuck/slaughter moment is what happens too often, with the victims being mute witnesses.
This is problematic because, to me at least, it cheapens the effect. Murders and physical/sexual abuse are exceptional events; we frequently act shocked when we know someone who initiates or suffers from either violent action. Yet many of us watch “body count” movies or read novels in which the death tolls mount and little to nothing affects the protagonist (or even the villain). This distortion of the traumas explicitly revealed makes me wonder about the narratives and if there is something endemic about the genres in which this occur that numbs readers to what is truly shocking. Perhaps for some, the true issue is not if these types of stories influence others to commit said acts but if they are just numbed to what many consider to be horrific, unconscionable acts.
Others doubtless have other takes on this. What do you think is the issue here and how it should be addressed?