Thursday, April 17, 2008

How much violence will you accept?

Someone asked during a panel at NoirCon why we seem more willing to accept violence on television and in movies than in books.

I was surprised that no one suggested one obvious answer: reading is a more intimate act than watching a TV show or a movie. It demands more of our attention and thus involves us more fully in the action. In reveals more easily a character's thoughts during an act of violence, which can make the depicted act more disturbing.

When a book describes violence deadpan, without such thoughts and reactions, a reader may feel their absence all the more because he or she knows they are possible and has been conditioned to expect them. Some of the most disturbing descriptions of violence I have read in crime novels (and at the same time the most anti-violence) have been flat and matter-of-fact.

How much violence are you prepared to accept in your crime reading? Is violence more affecting on the page than on the screen? Less? Why? Under what circumstances will you accept violence in a book, movie or television show?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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31 Comments:

Blogger Simona said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This issue lends itself too readily to glib answers that fail to do justice to the complexity of the issues involved. What is one to make of a titillatingly violent scene, for example? Is it simply pornography? Or will a reflective reader be shocked by his or her own excitement at the scene?

I first thought about this question when I read Ken Bruen's Ammunition, which contains a scene of violence horrifying for who commits it and for the matter-of-fact relation, in simple, declarative sentences, of its immediate aftermath. Ken Bruen has experienced violence, and I believe after reading this scene that he knows better than most how to convey its horror. I urge you to read the novel (it's short!), then come back for further discussion.

I posted a comment about the novel here, if you'd care to take a look. The heading for the comment was "Ken Bruen hates violence," which will let you know what I thought Bruen was up to in the violent scene in question.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

I find it easier to accept violence in books because my imagination plays into its depiction and pace. If I read that Character X is tortured, my mind can stage what I feel is appropriate to deliver the impact.

I don't accept as much TV and movie violence in part because I'm at the mercy of what the director feels is appropriate. If I don't like what I see, my only option is not to watch, which strikes me as drastic, naive, and ineffective.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Under what circumstance will I accept violence? I generally accept it if I believe it's appropriate to the doer's personality.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comments. I had a feeling I might hear from you on this, given the comments we've exchanged about books, movies and television.

There is a third option, I think, when it comes to TV: watching with the mind half-engaged, while one does other things. Whether this leads to more ready acceptance of violence, I don't know. One can always wince and turn away at painful moments in a television show and, when when one returns, the pain has passed. In a book, the words are still there when one returns.

With respect to the circumstances under which a reader or viewer will accept violence, Shannon Clute suggested on one of the NoirCon podcasts that readers may be more ready to accept violence if it is morally redemptive. This, he said, might account for the mass popularity that Chandler enjoys but David Goodis does not.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

You're right about the words still being there, but words are always filtered through the imagination, and readers are more likely than not to imagine something palatable.

In TV, the only filters are setting the violence offstage or having the camera cut away from the effects of violence.
Half-watching TV isn't really engaging the violence. Readers can have a similar experience by skimming violent passages.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

An excellent question, as per usual, Peter, and a difficult one for me at least. The only thing I will say about television is that this Brit living in Canada found it hard watching the George/Charlie/Hillary hit team doing their thing last night. The crime rate in your home town just went up a notch.

On the matter of crime fiction, one personal observation: my labours once led me, at the invitation of the relevant authorities, to read a very large number of prison files, many on sex offenders and murderers, and one thing anyone who does that will quickly learn is that those who are horrified by what they read in newspapers do not know the half of it. The worst never finds its way into the media, and people should be grateful for that. And so, if I read crime fiction, it hardly behoves me to clap my hands over my eyes if great violence is described in a novel. Sometimes, this is what does happen in life. But I am much stricter in applying the criterion of justification by the story to violence than I am to other possibly gratuitous elements often to be found, i.e., the love interest, musical interludes, scenic tours, and what have you, and I am pretty strict with those to begin with. I agree with you on Bruen. Val McDermid's The Mermaids Singing, singularly gruesome, I thought pushed it a bit, but I gave it a pass -- only just, because I was not convinced by the psychology, and if the psychology is not sound, the whole thing can seem like a contrivance to justify the violence. The greater the violence and the more detail is given, the more it must, for me, meet the criterion that it is wholly necessary for comprehending the book as a whole, and I stress those last three words. Even then, the author should have a keen sense of when enough has been written to make the point, otherwise we are en route to the gratuitous again.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I find it hard to read (or see) scenes of torture, scenes where children or animals are being abused, scenes where a complete innocent is suffering. So I take my violence in small, carefully calibrated and measured doses.

April 17, 2008  
Anonymous Amazone said...

Hello Peter,
(so long time...)
Je ne suis pas sûre de pouvoir répondre en anglais. Je ne serai pas assez précise mais le sujet m'intéresse, alors je donne mon sentiment.

Jusqu'où accepter la violence ?
Que ce soit en roman ou sur écran, le seuil est toujours repoussé. A peine croit-on avoir atteint le degré maximum que la limite est franchie, le record battu.

On peut détourner les yeux d'une violence à l'écran, pas des pages d'un livre.

J'ai encore le souvenir cuisant de la lecture du "choix de Sophie" de William Styron : cette violence sourde dont la lecture me fatiguait plus qu'une journée de travail...

Evanthia B. (Amazone)

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Wilfred the Author said...

I think it's a case by case issue and depends if it fits the story.

I don't want violence for violence sake, like the 60s & 70s gratuitous nudity.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, your latest comment reminds me of a famous scene of violence that demonstrates how a movie can do certain things with greater effect and economy. It's the scene where Lee Marvin's character flings hot coffee in the face of Gloria Graham's character in The Big Heat. What makes the scene so shocking is first, the violence of the act, but mainly that the horror is conveyed not through graphic depictions of Gloria Graham's suffering, but through the reactions of another character, sitting helpless at the card table as he watches.

A similar effect would be harder to produce on the page, but then, no director ever has had a greater visual imagination than Fritz Lang. Perhaps I should think less about books vs. movies or television, and more about how the greatest creators in each take advantage of their media's particular potential.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I wrote the headlines in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer about "Questioners put Obama on the defensive," and I was a short distance from the crime scene.

I'll keep the words psychology and justification in mind when considering violence and crime fiction, if not when considering the presidential campaign. What does a Massimo Carlotto do with acts of extreme violence? An Andrew Vachss? A Paul Johnston? I once attended a reading by Henning Mankell, where a member of the audience asked why the murders in his books are so gruesome and said she had a hard time reading such scenes. Mankell shrugged and said he put such killings in his books because such killings really happen.

Wilfred, welcome, and thanks for the comment. Much from the 1960s and '70s seems gratuitous these days because of much of what might have seemed liberating then seems less so now that reality and disillusionment have set in. What will seem similarly dated and gratuitous in a few years? Shaky faux or genuine handheld camera work, perhaps, or excessive jump-cutting, maybe more in TV than in movies. I wrote in a comment just above directors and authors who take good advantage of what their media have to offer. In the matter of shaky, jerky jump-cutting, though I don't like the style much in general, I thought Tom Tykwer did a fine job a few years ago with Run, Lola, Run. Similar examples must exist with respect to violence, but I'll save them for later comments so I can get dressed and go to work.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, your comment plays into the speculation I mentioned earlier about violence being acceptable to readers if it is morally redemptive. I found that thesis' possible application to the contrasting public fates of Raymond Chandler and David Goodis especially interesting.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Peter: Whether it books, TV or movies, I think writers are always looking for something new to write, and sometimes the something new is making it more violent in ways that were never seen before, as a way for the writer to stand out in the crowd.

As a criminal investigator in training, and as someone whose job it was to cook corpses at the MEO, personally I have a rather strong stomach.

As a reader and TV/movie watcher, I like it best when the violence is left to my imagination.

However, as I writer I recognize that extreme violence is a hot trend in noir, and writers who write that stuff (like me) are getting published; I think it's because I have written extreme violence that I've gotten published - I'm not saying this trend is a good thing, but it does seem to be the reality these days.

Food for thought.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Wilfred the Author said...

Thanks, Peter. Funny you should mention the handheld shaky camera. I thought that was made popular in '99 with the Blair Witch Project.

However, I happened to watch The Gauntlet (1977) with Clint Eastwood the other day. The scene in the boxcar where 3 bikers are beating the crap out of Clint uses the handheld shaky jump-cutting technique.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In my experience violence on the screen (large or small) is often telegraphed. When it occurs without a conditioned lead-in it's doubly shocking (Cagney slams that orange into whoever's face it was).

In books it's more easily a surprise, although I occasionally can see it coming and decide whether to skip those paragraphs.

April 17, 2008  
OpenID maxine said...

I don't mind violence in a book if there is a point to it (eg for the plot). I have gone off books that describe violence and gore just for the sake of it (or the sales) eg details of autopsies. In movies, I hate it if it is "realistic" - I always look away. Lord of the Rings movies is about my level. But I've read quite gruesome books and not minded because I've enjoyed the book. eg Karin Slaughter. (can that be her real name?) Whereas others, I've given up on because the violence has become a means to an end (sales).

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Josephine, and welcome. I took a quick look at your blog profile. Your favorite books and movies include some of each: titles where the violence is left to the imagination, and one or two where it is explicit.

You’ve given me a good teaser for your fiction. And you make a thought-provoking point about hot trends, of course. Since you, as a writer not named King or Rowling, have to consider commercial realities, have you written scenes that you might not have written a few years ago, before the trend toward extreme violence in some noir?

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Clair Dickson said...

I wonder if part of why violence on page is harder to accept is because what happens in a flash on screen (a bunch, a gun shot, etc) can take much longer on page-- sometimes going on for pages as the author tries to convey just what happened.

I'm one of them young 'uns so violence doesn't bother me unless is gratuitous or out of place. Give me a reason and I'll play along. Give me a good reason and I probably won't think twice.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bienvenue de nouveau, Evanthia/Amazone. Ne vous inquiètez pas; votre anglais est beaucoup mieux que mon francais.

Je suis d’accord avec vous en croyant que le seuil est toujours repoussé: Massimo Carlotto et Andrew Vachss sont parmi les auteurs de polars qui ne pourraient pas avoir écrit il y a à trente ans les livres qu'ils écrivent maintenant.

La violence fictive efficace se compose de plus que la torture et le démembrement. Jonathan Latimer pourrait écrire des scènes de la violence choquantes il y a soixante-dix ans qui demeurent aujourd'hui choquantes, quoiqu'elles ne soient pas particulièrement graphiques par des normes courantes.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wilfred, I'd forgotten about The Blair Witch Project for handheld camera work. MTV is often cited or blamed as the root of excessive jump-cutting, and as estimable a figure as William Goldman said that filmmakers would be unable to make a movie like Harper today because of its relative lack of visual action.

Clair, I met Matt Louis at the recent NoirCon in Philadelphia, so I’m not averse to hanging out with my younger, more violently inclined colleagues. I think your guess about the slowed-down pace of violence on the page is dead on. What are the two touchstone 1960s movies noted for their depictions of violence? Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. What did Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah do in those movies? The filmed the violence in slow motion. I don’t know if Penn and Peckinpah did so consciously, but perhaps they were striving to capture on film the effect the violence can have in books.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, Karin Slaughter is a good name for a crime writer, isn’t it? I have no grand theory of fictional and cinematic violence (I was going to say Unified Field Theory, but I would not use scientific metaphors and analogies carelessly in your presence).

Massimo Carlotto’s depictions of violence makes me queasy, but he does go out of the way to point out that every murder he describes in at least one of his books, no matter how baroque or over the top, is based on a killing he heard about in prison. They really happened, in other words, and there’s something to be said for that even if one turns away from the scenes in question or chooses not to read Carlotto. Paul Johnston’s violence, on the other hand, is so over the top that it’s funny, and I think intended to be so.

I think I may start a discussion about what realistic means. Graphic? Intended to produce the reaction one would experience in real life? Intended to make a reader reflect, consistent with fiction’s nature as a form of mediation?

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I found the seemingly mindless violence of No Country for Old Men disturbing, while the violence in Massimo Carlotto's books seems to have a purpose.
Retribution and revenge may not be the best of motives for violence but they do explain it and even justify it on occasions.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, what about when the violence in a book is telegraphed but you keep reading nonetheless because the author has, by a feat of magic, kept it funny? Ken Bruen sometimes does this, as in Cross?

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Justify it and make it morally acceptable sometimes, Uriah. I think I may finally have to overcome my bias against the Coen brothers and see No Country for Old Men.

What is the purpose of the violence in Massimo Carlotto?

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Simona said...

I thought I had written a comment to this sentence by Peter: "Perhaps I should think less about books vs. movies or television, and more about how the greatest creators in each take advantage of their media's particular potential."
Not sure what happened to it. Anyway, I think it is very well said. My reaction to violence on the screen (which I should have explained a bit more, but I am afraid it would be boring) in part comes from a sense of being so often forced. In a book, I feel more in control, in the sense that I can read at my own pace. Very interesting discussion.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And an interesting comment, Simona. Though this might contradict one of my opening premises, namely that violence in books can hit harder because reading is a more intimate experience, what you wrote makes sense, too. Perhaps a viewer is more likely than a reader to feel assaulted by a violent scene.

April 17, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Some of Massimo Carlotto's books are rather like the Dexter series. They show how ordinary people when pushed over the edge by criminal activity or tragic loss can flip out and become as violent as the criminals.
I think the themes in his books point out that if you are exposed to violence and corruption it becomes easier to commit and accept.

April 18, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

Great question, and obviously one that crime fiction readers think about. I actually am less tolerant of violence on the screen than in books. It seems less ... real? more pointless? I don't know, really.

In books, the question isn't "how much" it's "what's it doing there?" If it's simply there to ratchet up tension with a disposable character or (worse) if it's vapid entertainment (second cousin to a slasher flick or pornography) then any is too much.

I agree with Philip that it has to be psychologically convincing - but also sociologically. I am really tired of serial killers. The only SK thrillers I'm tolerant of are those that comment on our obsession with serial killers (Jess Walter's Over Tumbled Graves, for instance).

April 18, 2008  
Blogger Simona said...

Good point Peter, about the more intimate experience one has with books. Being an avid book reader, I certainly do. The other thing for me about reading a scene is that I can imagine it a certain way, while the movie scene does not allow me that freedom, so I must accept the director's view. For this reason, I believe I prefer when the violence is presented in a way that, like in a book, leaves me some space for creating my own vision of what happened. This depends on what kind of reaction the scene is supposed to generate in me.
Once again you used the right word: assaulted. That is certainly how I have felt many times watching certain scenes.
My first comment, early on in this interesting exchange, was poorly written, so I am restating it here. I personally have difficulty handling violence on the screen, especially scenes that involve blood. If I read a violent scene and I am convinced that its description is important, I usually read it a bit at a time.

April 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, I've never been a serial-killer fan, but I must admit that some of Paul Johnston's killing scenes are horrifying and funny at the same time because they are so over the top.

Uriah, sounds to me like I ought to read a bit more Carlotto. I'd probably wind up comparing him to Ken Bruen because both have encountered violence through being imprisoned unjustly. I have my own guesses about how this has colored Bruen's attitudes to violence. It will be interesting to see if Carlotto's writing gets me making similar guesses.

Simona, your reply reminds me of another fact about reading vs. movies. Just as it's easy to skip violent scenes in a book, or read them a bit at a time, it's also possible to flip ahead and linger on them. It's easier to give in to our fascination with horror when reading a book that it is while watching television or a movie.

April 19, 2008  

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