Monday, November 19, 2012

Violence: A question for readers

Or, as Mott the Hoople sang, "Violence, violence. It's the only thing that'll make you see sense."  The man who sang those lyrics, Ian Hunter, will perform here in New Hope, Pa., this weekend—for $50 in advance, $55 the day of the show. Why, in my day— But that's not why violence is on my mind.

I picked up Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!: Stories of Crime, Love, and Rebellion at Farley's Bookshop yesterday. I've read stories by co-editor Gary Phillips, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and Barry Graham so far, two of which contain acts of extreme violence. In both cases the violence makes perfect sense and occurs offstage. This is not always the case on crime stories.

So today's question is: What makes some violence acceptable in crime fiction and other violence not?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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10 Comments:

Blogger Christa Faust said...

I don't think you can make hard and fast rules, like no animal torture or no rape. A violent scene in a novel should be subject to the same rule as any other kind of scene. Does it move the plot or enhance our understanding of the characters? If a scene in which a cat is raped is absolutely critical to the plot and character development, then it is acceptable. If a mildly violent scene, like a gratuitous, cartoony fistfight, is just thrown in there because the author figures a crime novel ought to be violent, then it is not acceptable.

November 19, 2012  
Anonymous Eric Stone said...

I was going to comment, but Christa beat me to the punch, as it were. What she said.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What you both said.

What I hope with this question is to elicit comments from readers who objected to graphic violence in, for example, the Stieg Larsson novels, and to get them to think about why they might object to rape or torture in one story but not in another.

This may be beside the point, but I have often found that some of the most violent as well as some of the darkest crime fiction I've read also has some of the sharpest humor. Gary Phillips' story in this collection has some very funny lines. This was the first of his work I've read, and I plan to read more, maybe starting when I visit Mysterious Bookshop this afternoon.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. I can easily imagine how selective anger at scenes of sex and violence might be manipulated to shut writers up.

November 19, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Does it move the plot or enhance our understanding of the characters?

The amoral passivity of this "anything goes" stance is beyond my understanding. Do almost unimaginable, horrifying things happen between humans and between humans and animals on our planet? Of course, but that a writer or filmmaker would want to lavish his or her textual or visual skills on depicting these horrors in fiction is something I find appalling. Especially fictional depictions of crimes against children or animals. (What adults get up to with each other is another issue.) I presume authors who depict such scenes also claim that this kind of violence has no real detrimental effect on the reader. Yeah, right. The how-far-can-we-go coarsening of contemporary popular culture has no effect on people exposed to that popular culture.

I wonder if fiction with this kind of content is found only in contemporary North America and Europe, where horrors of this kind are known first-hand to so few authors?

I subscribe to the old adage (paraphrased) that whatever horrors you can describe to me are nothing compared to those I can devise in my own mind.

Go ahead, call me an old fuddy duddy who can't face "stark" "grim" "unsettling" realism in contemporary fiction. I'm used to it.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


Elisabeth: You could very well be right. We in North America and (Western) Europe congratulate ourselves for enduring horror in our fiction in inverse proportion to experience with the real thing -- except that the fictional violence that spurred this post happened offstage. And I would never call you a fuddy duddy; you do like The Glass Key and Allan Guthrie, after all.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger C.B. James said...

It's difficult for me to imagine when a graphic depiction of raping a cat could ever be "absolutely critical to the plot and character development." Seriously?

Putting graphic violence 'on-stage' is a choice some authors make because of the effect it will have on the reader. Some authors can do this in ways that work towards a purpose. But lets be honest about it. Many authors put the violence 'on-stage' for its own sake. (It has become a definate and disturbing trend of late.) It's never necessary. It can be effective, but its always only one choice amoung many that an author has .

A talented author can make the story do its work with on-stage or off-stage violence. A little economy goes a long way.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., a third possibility is that an author offer scene so over the top as to constitute self-satire. I think Jo Nesbo does this in the prologue of one of his novels.

As for raping a cat, who knows? A plot could be twisted enough to make such a scene necessary and author talented enough to make the scene effective. It sure would shock cozy readers, though.

November 19, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Over at the trackofthecat blog, we take cat-raping seriously--or as non-seriously as we take any fiction.

During the fall, especially in November when we anticipate our first trackable snow, we tend to read novels which feature cats in the plot, usually as symbols, usually representing naturalism.

Such classic authors as Joseph Conrad, Walter Van Tiburg Clark, and Cormac McCarthy all used the feline to represent the natural animal side of human nature.

So common is this use of the cat in fiction (including some very good crime fiction) that we have made an award list in honor of the authors who present the cat best in their work, overtly or subliminally, and another to the best book art featuring the cat in its various incarnations.

Last year's winner was Tea Obreht's elegant fable, THE TIGER'S WIFE. A worthy book to rank with the stellar past winners in this category such as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, and the previous year's winner, The Tiger by John Vaillant. HELL IS EMPTY took second-place in this category last year.

Some honorable mentions in the Book Art category were here:
http://trackofthecat.blogspot.com/2012/01/this-weeks-tribute-to-book-covert-tiger.html

By the way, this is also Big Cat Week on the Animal Planet Channel. And the movie adaptation of LIFE OF PI opens this week at a theater near you.

November 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And here I was going to defend the commenter by saying no cat had been raped in any of her work that I've read.

November 20, 2012  

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