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?