Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How Much is Too Much?

By R.J. Harlick

This week I get to write on whatever topic I want to write about.

I had intended on writing on a completely different topic until I finished a book last night. It was a recent book from William Kent Kreuger’s Cork O’Connor series. I won’t say which one, so as not to spoil the ending. I had hesitated reading this book, primarily because of a concern over too much violence. A number of years ago I had picked up a much earlier book in the series, thinking it was my kind of book. And it was until I reached the ending.  Kreuger could have ended the book by a perfectly legal take down of the bad guys. Instead he chose to do a vigilante massacre of all the bad guys. I was so turned off by this, I vowed never to read another Kreuger book, until my ebook seller offered me one at a price I couldn’t refuse.

I was thoroughly enjoying this latest book. But when the ending loomed into view I prepared myself for a barrage of flying bullets and a pile of bleeding bodies. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Cork, instead of reaching for a gun, grabbed a baseball bat. It turns out after retiring from being a sheriff he gave up his gun out of concern over too much violence.  I am going to assume that this is the author’s view being voiced.  Without actually talking to him, I suspect that Kreuger had reached a point in his writing where he felt he had to cut back on the violence. It had become too much.

I have been reading mystery books for as long as I have been reading. Apart from grizzly body descriptions and weapons being used to apprehend the bad guys, I don’t recall much violence in the these relatively early books of the genre, books by Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler and the like. And when violence was used, it was used because there was no alternative. But as the genre has matured, violence has increased in ever greater frequency.

There are authors I avoid because I fear they are too violent for my tastes. I am one of those people who believe a book is far too valuable to be thrown away. I either keep it for later re-rereading or I give it away. But twice I have ended up tossing books into the garbage instead of giving them away because the violence was too great to be passed on. It was violence for violence sake and nothing else. Both books by the way were by Canadian authors.

As more and more violence has crept into crime fiction, so too has it in movies and TV shows. There are now a number of TV shows I refuse to watch because of the high rate of violence.

And as modern society has become increasingly more violent, I can’t help but wonder what role crime fiction, films and TV play.  Though the stories we tell are fiction, often readers and viewers adopt the mores our characters espouse as the norm.

I ask, do we creators have a moral responsibility to temper what we write about or do we keep pushing the boundaries in the interests of artistic freedom or pursuit of the almighty dollar for I suspect violence brings in sales, and let the reading and viewing public determine how much is too much?

I would appreciate your views.


Paul D. Marks said...

Robin, you ask, "I ask, do we creators have a moral responsibility to temper what we write about or do we keep pushing the boundaries in the interests of artistic freedom or pursuit of the almighty dollar for I suspect violence brings in sales, and let the reading and viewing public determine how much is too much?"

It's a tough question. I think the story and characters should determine the level of violence and the type. It shouldn't be gratuitous, of course. And, while I may have certain expertise in certain things, I don't think I have or would lay out specifically how to do some of these things. Although these days all of that is available on the net anyway.

Ultimately, people have to be responsible for themselves. If I read a book, watch a movie or play a video game (which I never do the latter) it's not forcing me to go out and commit certain acts. And if I do, even if I'm "inspired" by that movie, book or game, it's my responsibility not the artist's. Because if it is the artist's, where do you draw the line. And where does the next person? They might consider Disney violence too much. Do we ban it? I'm pretty much a total free speech person and one should take responsibility for one's own actions.

That's my two cents in a nutshell.

RJ Harlick said...

I agree with all your points, Paul, particularly that related to free speech. My concern is with the escalating violence that is seeming to become the norm in books, movies, TV and as you pointed out video games. And as this becomes the norm in fiction so too does it appear to become the norm in the broader society. Where does it stop? And should we creators care?

Susan C Shea said...

What a fine topic to explore - thank you for opening up a conversation, Robin. I agree about the escalation of violence in 'entertainment' and wonder if it's cause or effect. Cause because it can help numb us to the real violence around us (95 dead in Kabal the other day...two school shootings...) and effect because people rather enjoy the rush surrounding TV coverage of fires, mass murders (Charlie Manson, OJ Simpson) as entertainment. Here's a fact: the US military and the CIA actively recruit teenage gamers from the most violent video games. They see fictional violence as good training for the real thing!

I think violence for its own sake in fiction shows up quickly and like you I don't read certain authors or types of crime fiction for that reason. Sadly, although I think Idris Elba is a gorgeous man and good actor, I gave up on Luther because sadistic, serial killers and the people who gun them down were just too damn much to watch. On the other hand, I just finished Joe Ide's IQ, in which plenty of people get killed but Ide uses those killings to say something about the idioccy of gang violence and what it leaves behind. And writers like Ide are why I think the only kind of censorship that works is our individual choices of what to read and not to read (or see and not to see).

Unknown said...

Let the reading and viewing public decide.

I don't go for graphic and gory myself, but our book club this month is reading a popular forensic thriller that involves evisceration etc., so I have no choice. I'm reading it, and now I remember why I don't go for it! It's just my preference, though. I know some nice people who'll read that kind of thing, and they're not turning into psycho killers, as far as I can tell.

Gratuitous grisly sadistic violence is out there too, and there's nothing you can do about it, except don't read it, and hope none of your friends do too. I guess just trust that good will prevail.

Unknown said...

Further, trusting that good will prevail seems naive these days, when watching the news, but it's either that or ulcers, for me. I champion the good in my writing, and try to understand the bad, and that's my teensy contribution to making the world a better place.

Forgot to say, it's an interesting topic, Robin, and thank you for exploring it here.

RJ Harlick said...

I agree with you, Susan, about Luther. I stopped watching it long ago, because of the violence. And yes, Rachel, I would like to trust that good will prevail also, except these days, it seems the bad is getting the upper hand. I'm not really thinking of violence in entertainment as spawing pscho killers, rather whether it influences an angry individual to pick-up a gun to settle an argument rather than seeking non-viloent means to resolve it.

catriona said...

I think I agree with Paul, about personal responsibility. I feel quite squeamish about the crimes of incitement that are on the statute books. As to violence in books and films . . . it's all to do with moral weight for me. If violence is off-hand and framed as cool I find myself turning away. But violence framed as corrupt, corrupting, damaging and dangerous is a different thing.

There was a news story just yesterday about a new prize for books that eschew portrayals of sexual violence against women. Val McDermid among others stated that she thought as long as sexual violence is so pervasive in reality, ignoring it in books is a mistake. I think I agree.

Laura Lippman has a wonderful version of the Bechdel test - do we meet a woman as a corpse/was she killed because she's female/does a male cop tell us her name . . .

Ann said...

I’ve tossed a few books because of “gratuitous “ violence, but on the whole I agree with Catriona — big surprise. Violence against women, minorities, hate crimes, et al, is a fact. Hiding it isn’t the answer. And I must admit I like seeing evil get punished. I must remember to apply the Bechdel Test more often.

RJ Harlick said...

Thanks, everyone, for the discussion. It's been a good one.