Monday, August 1, 2011

Topic: "Violence in Literature, when is enough, enough?" My guest Author, Mark Stone.

Please join in the discussion with my Guest Today; Author Mark Stone
Violence in Literature: When is enough, enough?
Lions and tigers and gore, oh my!
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. Considering that my own work has enough violence to quell the bloodlust of Tarantino fans everywhere, it’s a good question and a very simple one. So let’s start this thing off with a bang (okay, pun intended).
Cast your mind back to, oh, let’s say….2500 years ago. Ancient Greece, home of the cool looking outfits called chitons and peplos. When men were men and women were tired of all the spear flinging and sword swinging. It was the time of the blind genius poet Homer and his creation of the two of the greatest literary achievements known to the Western World, The Odyssey and the Iliad. Good times had by several.
You see, those two works not only shaped the very foundation, the essence, of literature as we know it, but they were, are, two of the most blood soaked, violent, hard-core, no-nonsense books in literary history. For those of you who haven’t enjoyed them, trust me…when Homer describes a spear tearing loose a warrior’s diaphragm when pulled out, it’s a tad disconcerting and probably not suited for children under 13. Or many adults, for that matter. Is it too much, though? Is the description of blood, bone and brains splattering the landscape gratuitous? Not according to English Profs the world over. They say that those two works, admittedly filled with descriptions of brutal battles, cannibalism, and horror, have touched us even to this day.
Take Bill Shakespeare. Arguably the greatest playwright ever. Sword fights, bloodletting, betrayal, drowning, mutilation, poisoning and suicide. Wow…and that’s just in Hamlet! Hang on, it gets better…head on over to Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Henry V (to name but a few); talk about a cornucopia of blood and gore soaking the pages! But all that violence was carefully camouflaged behind flowery iambic pentameter that had Lit Majors the world over scratching their heads in puzzlement. I ask you, however, did old Bill go overboard with the violence, even in his romances? If so, when do we say enough? When do the pages become so slick with human-juice that we just have to put the book down so we can barf day-glo?
Here are the nuts and bolts of the matter as I see them: It is merely a matter of taste, not boilerplate judgment or law…that’s it, no shit, Kemosabbes.
Does that sound like a cop-out? Of course it does…but it’s not. Really. Consider this, if the whole world thought that stomping on frogs was an artistic endeavor, then it would be so. If people believed that bulimia was merely an expression of appreciation for a fine meal, then it would be so. It is called perceptual reality; the universe exists only because we perceive it does. Funky, huh?
Some people dig porn and, hey, who am I to judge? To some it’s art and a form of expression that enlightens and empowers. For me, not so much, but that’s my hang up. Some people find professional wrestling exciting and downright fun. Once again, for me not so much. I perceive, therefore the world is what I think it is.
At any given time we can put down the book we are reading and say, “I don’t like it.” The opinions of all those authors out there (myself included) don’t really matter, not one whit. What matters is YOU…you and what you judge to be important in your life. If the violence in the book, magazine, article…whatever…is too much, put it down and go play with your kids, or go play with yourself, hell…just go out and play. Have a good time. You are the judge of what is enough, not us scribblers.
As for me, I’m going to keep writing books so violent they make Reservoir Dogs look like Mr. Magoo.


  1. This is a very 'Western' view, that the individual is the ultimate arbiter as to what is or is not acceptable. That it boils down to 'choice': one chooses not to continue reading because the subject matter offends in some way (porn, violence, intolerance, hate). Not that this is an invalid argument but it does beg the question:what happens when no one judges? What happens when so-called individual responsibility faces a total saturation of 'questionable content', whatever that might be, and there are no longer any real choices? What happens when that content becomes available to even the youngest, most vulnerable, and least qualified to make rational choices ... our teens and young children? What happens when society fails to exercise its responsibility to uphold its mores and cultural values and devolves into a culture of violence (East Africa to name one among many)? Our literature can reflect those changes in mores, values/morality or it can *drive* those changes. Our words are the lens through which we and our readers view a larger (or smaller) universe, they help us organize and filter perceptions, they help us understand the 'why' and the consequences of our actions, particularly those involving violence. Words also have power. They can incite, instigate, and empower anti-social, distructive behaviors, they can and do legitimate the most heinous of acts. Is it enough to say 'it's not my thing, who am I to judge'? If a writer uses violence as a thematic element, or as a simple plot device, then he/she ought to understand the 'why' and be mindful of the consequences of what is written. If the writer does not examine the consequences of using violence or sex or any number of other controversial behaviors, then the question of 'when is it too much?' might yield an answer that will be hard for us as a society to live with.

  2. Hi Diane,
    Your question is interesting. Having survived a 70's Irish male childhood I recall how useful violence was in our play. This was play that went on all day long and involved not supervision whatsoever. We didn't end up like Lord of the Flies by teatime but rather acted out violent scenarios and copied chases and fights from television shows such as Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals - The latter was actually very explicit in its depiction of violence.
    Using this fictionalised violence, we actually made sense of upsetting violent episodes in our own lives and, as a group, formed a system of judgements and punishments for fictional crimes which led into our forming an ethical code around the use of violence in real life. It was here, in the crucible of play that the concept of strong oppressing the weak caused rifts in the group. Those that thought it was fun to pick on younger kids or girls were shunned.
    Young person's fiction that featured violence was more interesting than magic or supernatural powers. Batman will always be cooler than Superman and Judge Dredd will always be more admired by young boys than Dr. Strange. Violence is part of the human condition and it belongs in human art as much as any other human activity.
    In my opinion, seeking to remove violence from young people does more harm than good because the resulting adult is cursed with an unreal sense of entitlement that will not be borne out in the real world and then fights will ensue. What is happening in the west right now with young people seeking to found their identities in violent gangs and street violence.
    Denial and ignorance doesn't help us to deal with sexual issues, alcohol, drugs and discrimination so why would it help us deal with violence?

  3. In response to Diane's comment - In a work of fiction, is it the writer's responsibility to educate and /or consider the consequences of the amount of violence included for how it affects the reader, and subsequently its impact on society as a whole? My answer would be "no."

    I don't write violence, but I do write sex, and the overriding criterion that determines "how much" of it goes into my story is whether it is relevant to the plot, and if it makes sense to the storyline. I refrain from excessive description of the act because I want to engage my readers' imaginations. Do I not write a fantasy rape scene because I’m fearful it may incite my reader to commit rape? Absolutely not! My responsibility as an author is to write and properly label my material as “adults only.” I cannot follow my book after it’s published to ensure it doesn’t get into the hands of minors. There are watchdog organizations, parents, and responsible adults to do that. Despite this, it doesn’t mean that violence or sex will not get into the hands of people it shouldn’t, but the author cannot be responsible for this.

    It’s a slippery slope to monitoring one’s own writing for destructive behaviors to censoring oneself for fear our writing might legitimize the “heinous” acts that are written.


  4. Diane:
    You are absolutely correct: it is a Western view. I am a Western man, born in Finland, raised predominately in America. My parents, notorious liberals, have instilled in me the values of self reliance and a deep loathing for anything that smacks of censorship. Having society dictate what is 'morally right' when it comes to Art, even the art of expression in literature,is an idea I find morally repugnant.
    Yes, society should mandate behavior when it comes to physical interactions with, the interference of the liberties and inviolate rights we ascribe to our neighbors, but not our expression. Once we let the censorship cat out of the bag, we've lost.
    When it comes to violence, be it in Television, Literature, Art, is up to the individual to monitor his/her surroundings. If you're worried about the children, it is up to the parents to do the monitoring. As a father, I keep a strict eye on the violent content on the tv shows my children watch. When they are old enough, rational enough, do deal intellectually with said violence, I will let them decide their fate, relegating myself to an advisory role.
    I did not address censorship and such in the blog because I took the title seriously...when is enough, enough and addressed it in a straightforward manner.
    Thank you for your comments, though. You have brought up some wonderful points.
    I can ramble about this all day, but I have to play with my kids now. Thank you.

  5. Interesting post,

    First things first though, we are writers, who are we to judge who reads our work?

    As long as the reader is forewarned beforehand, I don't see much of problem, if the reader chooses to read it anyway, then that is their choice, some of the scenes in my works are as violent as they come, but I always pre-warn those who read it that it is an adult novel. No matter what we might say or argue, the choice always remains with the reader, and always will do.

  6. My friend Catherine Chisnall has been trying to comment on this topic here on my site without luck. Some problem with the sign in procedure. Here is what she has to say, copied from Facebook.
    "My comment:

    Its interesting. Humans have always been violent, obviously, but have we become more immune to graphic violence in the last few decades due to being constantly exposed to it? Because exposure does make you less bothered by it, there's no doubt about it. I'm the most easily upset person, but my Film Studies course included some graphic films which at first shocked me, but after studying them over and over again, I stopped being shocked or even interested.

    I know its not the same as the daily news, but...

    I avoid books and films with too much violence in, partly because its gruesome, but partly because its boring. Is that good? I don't know. Maybe I'm being desensitised.....

  7. I think over the centuries humans have become more sensitive to violence, not less. People don't attend hangings and torture sessions for sport anymore. I'm not saying some people would, but in Western society, anyway, those practices are seen as barbaric. Violence is still 'out there' but along with that is a sense of outrage that has developed over time. Like many aspects of our society, if we're well fed and educated we have time to consider other matters than mere survival.

  8. I find violence even more fascinating a subject than sex, though the comments I made in my sex post are ones I would repeat - there are things I find a *whole* lot more disturbing than violence (violence, after all, is directionless - it is an action, a happening. There is violence in mass butchery and there is violence in taking away the liberty of the mass butcher - the kind of reductionism that sees it all as *violence* is rather crass) - I find the idea of nationhood, for example, utterly terrifying, and consider any literature that brings a child up to consider themselves part of a "nation" whatever the hell that is far more damaging than, say, the endless violent repetition of Bolanos' "Part About The Killings". Which goes to show how subjective the whole thing is.

    Violence, like sex, is one of the most natural of human urges - it's like this directionless thing going on inside us. We need the means to explore what to do with it, and literature can provied them.

  9. Considering there has been almost no decade (since mankind has been chronicling such things) without war or some sort of violence against others, the question becomes not when is enough enough in literature but as a society. When humans figure out how to play nice and stop killing each other, maiming, hitting, abusing, etc... then it will be enough.


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