Violence in Fiction

My book club read Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH last month. Other than a few picks about some occasional modern sounding dialogue, I absolutely wallowed in this big meaty historical. However, one member of my group couldn’t finish it and not simply because it’s a veritable doorstop of a book.

She couldn’t stand the violence in it.

It’s set in the 12th century, arguably a violent time period. Public hangings were considered entertainment. Bear baiting was a feature at most fairs. Hunger and plague were common. Stephen and Maud were fighting over the Crown, neither side caring particularly how their war affected the peasants whose hovels were destroyed and crops burned. Life was brutish and short. I don’t know how a story in this setting could fail to have some violent elements and be true to history. And I’ll admit to squirming through a few scenes.

However, the point of the book isn’t the violence. It’s the way building a cathedral pulls together a group of people. While they built this glorious house of worship, they also built a little enclave of civility and order in a chaotic world. Without showing the ugliness of violence in the existing system, would the hard-won peace of the cathedral town mean anything?

I was seated next to a horror author at a group signing once. This fascinating man explained that some writers in his genre resort to writing “gorn” (gore porn) as a way to hook readers. He resisted that and I respected him for it. That’s not to say he didn’t have some “gooey” moments in his stories, but he deemed them essential for telling the tale, not just for titillation.

That mirrors the way I feel about the love scenes in my books. If you’ve read my work, you know I’m not shy about writing a hot moment or two, or half a dozen…but unless a scene advances the story or deepens the characters, I cut it ruthlessly. That’s how I know I’m being true to the work. Since my stories also have an adventure component, I often write fight scenes as well which have the potential to get gory if I let them. Again, the rule applies–the scene must advance the story or deepen characters.

I will have to admit I laid down a book once because it made me nauseous. It was JAWS and I was trying to read it while traveling in a car. Since I’m prone to motion sickness, that may have played a part in my decision not to finish it. I do understand not reading something that makes you uncomfortable, but I would argue that part of why we read is to be made uncomfortable, to have our preconceived notions challenged, to try on another life so we’ll understand our own better.

What do you think? Have you ever stopped reading a book because of excess violence, or excess anything for that matter?

6 thoughts on “Violence in Fiction

  1. Mia: I can answer your question in one word: Yes. But of course I can’t just leave it at that.

    I have a pretty strong stomach for what goes on in both real life and fiction. I have to. Nobody can make it to my stage of life, and in a culture like ours, without seeing, hearing, and reading about plenty of nasty goings-on. And the Internet has intensified this barrage of gruesome details.

    This wouldn’t be possible unless quite a few people enjoy explicit sex and violence. Not just in context, as you were discussing. I mean explicit sex and violence for its own sake. Obviously I’m not one of them.

    If I might get personal here and describe my own experience, I can remember a time when, if I learned that a book or movie contained sex and (to a lesser extent) violence, I just had to see it or read it! This sort of thing was a big draw in the world I grew up in. It was naughty, forbidden. Or at least, disapproved-of by our moral guardians.

    And it was pretty rare and hard-to-come-by. We had to make some effort, shell out some money, for such a payoff. Which, of course, usually wasn’t much of a payoff; these books and movies typically promised a lot more than they actually delivered. But never mind.

    Now flash forward to today, an era of triple-X websites and porn TV channels and graphically violent video games. And yes, erotic romances that leave nothing to the imagination.

    There’s nothing special about sex and violence any more. I’ve seen and read—well, not everything. But as much as I want to see and read. And then some!

    So nowadays, a writer (or any creative artist) must deal with the challenge of making sex and violence meaningful and aesthetically effective. Just piling on more of it, and in greater detail, doesn’t work. Not with me, anyhow.

    So what does work? We’d probably have to judge that in a case-by-case basis.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I hear what you’re saying, Mary Anne. Remember the punch Rhett Butler’s parting words had? His “Frankly, my dear” was shocking as a slap in the face because the profanity was a one time occurrence. Excessive violence (or excessive anything) is numbing.

  2. Penelope says:

    I wish I had stopped reading Naked In Death. I kept on until the bitter end, but the violence in that book gave me a sick stomach ache. I am way too big a wuss to handle graphic rape/torture/mutilation/child abuse, etc. There’s a reason I read romance, and it’s to feel good. Reading about disturbing topics, including excessive and gratuitous violence, sort of defeats the purpose.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I can’t handle “child in jeopardy” stories, either.

      However, reading is a way to deal with tough issues, to work things out. Gratuitous violence I can’t support, but violence that has a purpose, to make me think, feel, re-evaluate . . . that I’ll work my way through.

  3. Barbara Britton says:

    Yes. I have stopped reading, but not very often. I stopped a book recently–by the 2nd chapter. The vivid details of strangulation and re-strangulation, of the same character, were so vivid, they made me uneasy. I knew I was in for more of the same with a serial killer, so I put down the book. Sometimes, you have to guard the images you put in your brain–especially if your husband travels.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      True. It’s impossible to “unknow” something.

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