Monday, August 1, 2022

A Very Personal Response

 Q: We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?


-from Susan


I’m approaching this topic on tiptoe because it’s something that I think about a lot and because gun tragedy has touched my life and my family’s lives. As a writer, I struggle with similar violence and murder to avoid getting anywhere near the experience we had. As a reader, I’ve found myself slamming a book shut when I realized it was making my heart pound and my breathing become irregular.


Certainly, I don’t read or write about children in peril. If another reader assures me the child is okay at the end of the story, maybe I’ll try a book that has great reviews, but even then, my gut tells me the danger itself would be traumatic for that fictional child and everyone who loves them. 


When a writer gets an idea from a news story she’s read or seen, and converts it to fiction, I’m guessing most of the time the writer is trying to be sensitive to the families of the victim by altering a lot of details, keeping only the core action, and perhaps some idea of what motivated the villain. But, even writing this, part of me says no – it’s still invasive, it’s still turning something staggeringly awful into entertainment. 


My squeamishness is totally subjective. Example: I recently read – and I bet you did too – about a sweet little old lady who writes self-published romance novels and who is alleged to have plotted, researched and then murdered her husband. Now, really, there’s a true story (at least so far as the prosecutors are concerned) that offers so much potential for a good piece of crime fiction. In part, my response is predicated on there being no information about the victim, certainly nothing to trigger empathy. Also, it does not touch at all on what my family has experienced. And, I guess that’s it, isn’t it? Had a dear parent been the victim of what’s alleged to have happened in this situation, I might have felt it was awful to turn it into entertainment. 


So many people “monetize” other peoples’ and animals’ suffering – fundraising, click bait, TV series, movies, books – that we’ve become accustomed to it. This question is a good one, and I can only answer it from an individual perspective without casting blame. 



Vinnie Hansen said...

Rick Helms wrote a long post on his struggle with this issue. How could he be a crime writer without contributing to our appalling culture of gun violence? The article is worth reading.

Rick's post definitely put me in a quandary. However, I ultimately decided that most of my readers are women over 40. My audience is simply not the demographic behind mass shootings. Or really gun violence of any sort.

My latest book, One Gun, tackles the question of, "How much havoc can one gun wreak?" It's certainly not a celebration of gun culture.

Susan C Shea said...

Vinnie, I'd be amazed if the individuals who are profiled after they use guns to kill people are readers of our fiction! There may be authors and many more who love gun culture as a stimulating, vicarious pleasure (ugh) but I'd bet they don't get their thrills from words on paper. My interpretation of the question is the thorny issue of whether we who write about fictional deaths are in any way profiting from a real person's tragedy.

Catriona McPherson said...

I applaud your moral seriousness, Susan. I'm one of those people who has signed books saying "no kids are harmed" with every signature. (The Child Garden.)

Susan C Shea said...

Catriona, I love you for that!