On Violence by Tom Rich

by JHow on February 5, 2013

in Announcements, Lies, Damned Lies, and Fiction Writing

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I’ve been thinking about violence lately; it’s been in the news, with the far and away too frequent tragedies we’ve been having of late, and, as one might expect, people are asking whether movies and video games and music which portray violence in some way lead to real-world violence.

What I noticed, though, is that while we’re discussing whether or not watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game has any impact on a person, we don’t often ask whether or not reading a violent book has any impact. Comic books get (or got, at one point) a fair amount of flack, but the written word seems to get a sort of pass in these arguments.

Certainly books are violent. I read mainly science fiction and fantasy growing up, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more visceral bunch of stories. I can distinctly remember a dwarf warrior smashing a man’s head with a battle-axe; the scene was presented with the sort of clear, almost medical detail that would prevent it from being shown on screen. The current reigning king of fantasy fiction is George R.R. Martin and his Game of Thrones series, in which characters behave in all manner of nasty ways.

The blood and guts aren’t limited to genre fiction. Shakespeare racks up a considerable bodycount, and anything written about colonialism is likely to feature some vivid brutality. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. Once, I was discussing The Road with a friend in the bar, when another member of our party chimed in that he’d refused to finish the book after getting to the bit where some post-apocalyptic cannibals had spit-roasted a baby. It’s there, is what I’m saying, the sort of violence that would have everyone all up in arms in another medium.

It’s worth mentioning here, of course, the frequent drives to ban books and book burnings and whatnot, and that books have found themselves linked to actual tragedies before (see Stephan King’s Rage, which the author allowed to go out of print for this very reason). But it seems like the hyperbole and the accusations of cause and effect never go to the same histrionics as they do for movies and video games. I haven’t seen a call for people to put ratings on the covers of books, for instance, or the publishing industry establishing a ratings and content board to give everything its stamp of approval.

Is this just evidence that books are irrelevant in the modern world? I tend to doubt it, and find the question boring, so I’m going to ask a different one: is violence in text somehow different from images of violence and interactive violence simulations? If I read about the above mentioned dwarf smashing a skull open, is that a different thing than seeing him smash a skull on TV, or causing him to smash a skull by pressing a button? And, if it does, would we as writers have an obligation to be careful what we write? I have no idea, but they’re interesting questions.

Personally, I’ve noted one thing about violence in books that’s distinct from other forms of violent entertainment: it never seems to stop with the violence. This may just speak to the kinds of books I’ve read, but even when the hero of a fantasy story was fighting the good fight against a horde of dark and evil creatures, there always seemed to be a scene where he was overwhelmed by the horror of it all; Dennis L. McKiernan, for example, was always having his characters reflect on, and be appalled by, the violence they had just committed, even if it was justified within the narrative. Similarly, the violence in The Road was horrific, but not in and of itself entertaining; the draw of the story was the father and son and how they survived and endured amid horrors. Conan the Barbarian didn’t really reflect on whether or not he should have killed all those henchmen, but his narrator did, frequently discussing the barbarism of Conan’s world. There was always some thought, some philosophy, if you will, encompassing the stabbings and shootings.

The whole business is well over my head; I am but a simple man. But I did get to thinking about the stories I tell and the way I tell them, and how violence is a great tool for injecting some drama and conflict into a story: everyone’s motivations and desires are clear when one person is attacking the other. But it can just as easily be a crutch, particularly in genre writing, but certainly in literature with a big L, too. Of course the hero is going to be a sword-wielding warrior by the end of a fantasy story; of course the detective will shoot his way out of a cop drama; and so on. But what fun might it be to tell a fantasy story without violence. I mean capitol-F fantasy: secondary world, weird languages, Important Things Happening, the works. But no violence. No wars, no assassinations, no dragons torching villages. I’m sure it’s happened and I just  haven’t read it.

The nice thing about writing stories is that they’re entirely constructed, which means we can use whichever blocks we want. For the sake of a challenge, if nothing else, I’m making it a goal to see how many of the blood-red ones I can move from the foundations of my work to the edges.

I’m thinking plaid to replace them. I like plaid. May your work contain a variety of blocks, and happy writing!

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