Sunday, August 14, 2011

Topic: "Violence In Literature; when is Enough, Enough?" My guest today; Author, Evangeline Jennings.

My guest today is author, Evangeline Jennings.


Evangeline Jennings

We live in violent times. We always have done. Violence is central and organic to the human story. Inhumanity is integral to our plot.

Twelve thousand years ago, our ancestors were painting battle scenes on the walls of caves in Spain. Today, we have a world wide web and twenty-four hour news. This week alone we’ve seen anarchy in the UK, massacres in Syria, Pashtun-Urdu violence in Karachi, and fresh revelations about torture camps in Zimbabwe’s diamond mines.

If you ask me – and somebody did, writing about violence is an entirely rational response to the world we live in.

Writing violence for its own sake? Not so much.

So when is enough, enough? And how much is too much? The only sensible answer is, Well, it depends.

Followed sharply by But I’ll know it when I see it.

“Was that as good for you as it was for me?”

- Mr Blonde, Reservoir Dogs

Like most adults I know, I’ve been a victim of minor violence. And like many women, I’ve also experienced sexual abuse and assault. The first time it happened I was thirteen-years old. On the unspoken sliding scale of such things, it was nothing to write home about. What’s being held down and felt up by three curious and frustrated boys compared to all the truly awful things that happen?

Lately, the awful things have inspired me to write a book called Puta, and I believe the level of violence in my work is entirely commensurate with the events I’m responding to.

In Texas, for example, in a small town only an hour’s drive from my family’s trailer park, an eleven-year old girl was gang raped on at least six different occasions at the end of last year. Up to twenty-eight men and boys may have been involved. Last time I looked, nineteen had been arrested. Mostly on the basis of souvenir cell phone movies.

Residents defending the accused have blamed the victim, suggesting she dressed inappropriately and enjoyed her starring role in all six entirely innocent gang bangs. Failing that, of course, they blame the little girl’s parents.

An hour to the east, a teenage cheerleader was kicked off her high school squad for refusing to cheer for her rapist. The highest courts in the land have supported that decision.

And this week in San Angelo, Texas, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as “brides”. He sexually assaulted one of them pregnant.

In Europe, Josef Fritzl, Detlef S, and the Kidwelly Cult cast long and obvious shadows.

And then there’s tip-of-the-iceberg headline grabbers like Operation Delego.

In other news, Afghan women continue to set themselves on fire in protest at life in the Middle Ages, and Saudi Arabia is still the biggest women’s prison on the planet. Apparently human rights are more of a guideline when that much oil is involved.

When they’re not jailing women who choose to drive their own cars, the Saudis have also been helping “keep the peace” in Bahrain where a twenty-year old woman was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for reading a poem in public. After she was forced to apologize on TV, Ayat al-Gormezi was sentenced to another year in prison.

Meanwhile, India has again been shown to have criminally high levels of female infanticide and a culture of sex-selective abortion tantamount to gendercide. Indian girls lucky enough to survive their mothers will find domestic violence endemic, and police unwilling to intervene except in extreme cases.

Before you start feeling too good about life in your safe European home, consider what the UK charity Refuge has to say. Every week in England and Wales, two women are killed by a current or former partner and ten more women commit suicide as a direct consequence of domestic abuse. That’s more than six hundred dead women a year. And if there are children in those homes, half of them will be abused too.

So when is enough, enough? I’ll let you know when I see it.

Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out

- Stage Direction, Act 2, Scene 4 of Titus Andronicus

I’m not going to argue that violence in literature is a feminist issue - although obviously it is. But my lifetime of reading has taught me a general literary truth. Straight men are killed for money - everyone else is killed for fun.

So here’s where I draw my line: Münchausen misery lit, serial killer shite, and any other bad and dishonest writing that tries to turn rape and torture into money.

Violence against women and children? That’ll do nicely. A fresh perversion or a novel brutality? Sign here. Who cares if we’re dehumanizing real victims and trivializing their suffering until it becomes another tired trope?

And you, Joe Formula, don’t tell me what you’re doing is different. Don’t tell me it’s art. It isn’t, and you’re not. You’re selling cheap holidays in other people’s misery and propagating the idea that women and children are born to be victims.

The books that defined the modern serial killer era - Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs - were written in the eighties. Jeffrey Deaver jumped on the bandwagon long ago. Writers as fine as Michael Connelly and John Sandford and prolific as James Patterson Inc have sprayed their various scents all over the genre. It’s time you rape-torture-porn idiots realized it’s over. Let go. No one listens to techno anymore either.

Michael C Hall’s Dexter – as opposed to Jeff Lindsay’s poorly written original - is giving you bums and losers the last rites, executing serial killer stereotypes season after season. Why not see if you have the talent and creativity to summon up something new?

Dennis Cooper did. Poppy Z Brite did. And so did Bret Easton Ellis.

“I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends."

- Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

When he wrote of rats and nail guns, Ellis was - he says - both building a performance art commentary on contemporary life and being entirely gratuitous. At one and the same time. The latter claim may have been an attempt to move his art off his publisher’s page and into the news media but, either way, Patrick Bateman’s matter-of-fact brutality is entirely in keeping with his obsessively detailed point of view. Actual or imagined, they’re rich with verve and humour.

In American Psycho, way too much is just about enough. It’s a splendid read - if you don’t throw up - but guess what? It’s been done. We’ve seen the movie, we’ve got the tee shirt. And we don’t need your witless variations on the theme.

Or to put it another way, Cliffs:

If you think Titus Andronicus, Patrick Bateman, and Mr Blonde give you permission to paint your pages red with gore porn and you’re not using your First Amendment freedom to say something important or new, then you’re a fiction-fan hack at best and your writing is probably worthless and masturbatory.

We’ll know it when we see it.


Evangeline Jennings is an opinionated bitch who tells lies for fun and profit.

She lives a glamorous transatlantic lifestyle jetting between a disused grow-house on the Welsh island of Anglesey and a trailer park on the fringes of Houston, TX.

The topic is open for discussion. Your opinions and observations are most welcome.


  1. Thank you,

    At last someone has the ovaries to point out the psychosexual element in misery lit. It may be catharsis for the writer (if it's true) but it's porn for everyone else.

    I must point out that Val MacDiarmaid and Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell in a bit of a mood) can certainly out-gore the boys but they also know how to horrify at the same time.

    No one handed reading from them.

    Hear Hear!

  2. Interesting commentary, and one which strikes close to home. If I may quote..

    "At last someone has the ovaries to point out the psychosexual element in misery lit. It may be catharsis for the writer (if it's true) but it's porn for everyone else."

    I don't consider "Empty Chairs" my own story of child abuse to have been 'cathartic' not in any measure. (If it's true?} Oh yes, it is...Yet sadly it may be viewed as yet another Misery lit novel, albeit a non-fiction one.

    Will it be viewed as "porn to everyone else"? I can only hope that is not the case.

    Some writers actually write their stories, and put themselves through the shit of having to relive the memories simply because they have something to say: something that they fervently hope will help someone else find a way to get the hell out of an abusive and threatening situation.

  3. Well I asked for that Suzanne and I got it between the eyes but I have to ask, who is your reader?

    By that I mean to ask: Do you think that someone who has experienced horrific abuse would want to read about it? Possibly they would, for support or to get another perspective on what they went through by reading another victim's experiences but they are not the majority, they can't be.

    I contend that a majority of sales for this book is not comprised of empathetic readers who are female. I contend that misery literature as a genre (and it is a genre now) is grooming a male and dangerous market.

    Not everyone writes with the sensibility that brings the reader's heart into the equation. There have been cases where the writer has invented to gain publicity and media coverage. It's a messy percentile we're dealing with.

    Yes, I painted a broad stroke in my quoted comment but I will not apologise for pointing out what is a cynical industry that encourages more trauma and suffering to an audience that must be getting something out of it. Please remember my post of two days ago: words have a psychosomatic power.

    The question is about violence and the word violence is about doing harm - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In the fictional novels I mentioned in the first post the 'good' is the protagonist but in misery lit it can easily go the other way because there is no dramatic rule to follow. I cite a very 'safe' novel by our standards: The Stranger by Camus but this novel by not showing a clear good and bad but exploring the internal world of a killer was considered subversive.

    Which it is: rightly so.

    Let us not consider the book as the only force in this transaction but we must consider writer and reader also. The Communist Manifesto, 39 theses against Papal indulgence, Principa Mathematica, A Brief History of Time, Books don't just change opinions, they change societies.

    I agree with your point that some writers will suffer to say what they have to say. I would love such a facility to have been given to the Irish victims of Clerical and State abuse so they didn't fall into alcoholism and self destruction - and that if it reaches one person that is in jeopardy than good but it can also feed those that love violence tourism and that's what the publishers want. Sales.

    When is enough, enough?

    By all means let it all hang out but I want to read more than a victim impact statement, I want to know that the crime against the writer has been beaten and that they can live their lives. Corny, I know, but that I who I am.

  4. Gary, my intention when responding was not to get you right between the eyes; my response was a knee jerk reaction. I do most sincerely apologize.

    It was not my intention to attack you.

    I appreciate the thought that has gone into your response and concur that there will undoubtedly be an element of readers that are of the sexual thrill variety.

    That saddens me enormously; in fact, it makes me feel more than a little sick to my stomach.

    I would be naive in the extreme not to acknowledge the existence of such people, and naive is not something I can or would ever pretend to be.

    I agree that violence takes on many guises; emotional attack can leave scars that remain, long after the physical ones have faded and healed.

    “By all means let it all hang out but I want to read more than a victim impact statement, I want to know that the crime against the writer has been beaten, and that they can live their lives. Corny, I know, but that I who I am.”

    Knowing that the crime against the writer has been beaten and that they can live their lives, how wonderful that would be. If only all non-fiction ended with an element of hope.

    I don’t consider your remark or the sentiment behind it in any way “corny.”

    Yet, if attention isn’t drawn to the wrong, how can we as a race ever hope to eradicate the wrongdoing? Is hiding from it, or shielding ourselves from it the way towards making it stop?

    The risk of desensitizing the public by saturation is I believe very real. Yet I use violence in my Fiction work.

    We can become desensitized simply by picking up a newspaper, switching on a television, or listening to the radio.

    I don’t have any answers my friend, every time I have a moment when crystal clear clarity gives me a direction, it is lost in the murky waters of self-evaluation.

    Again ...I appreciate your input, a great deal.

  5. Good post - sorry I didn't read the other comments - I agree with you - the world has seen too much and and it can make a point - for example, violence against women. When is enough, enough - it seems like I have picked up several books that start with gruesome murders and the detectives describe the wounds in such detail - it just seems gratitious so I won't read much more. But when you're making a point - women being raped, a cheerleader being kicked off a team because she won't cheer for him - the intensity should match the motivation - by all means it's appropriate.

    Well said, I like it.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. These month' posts + the comments help enormously to wrap my own mind around this theme. Thank you all and thank you Sooz for making this possible. Violence in life and in the arts is so much more complicated and dualistic than the sex topic, which is usually about fun, no?

  8. @Suzanne Just as you have acknowledged that I did put a little thought into my first post, I really don't want an apology from you for pulling me up on a point of order. Your opinion is as valid as my own and what you believe is what you believe and that is sacrosanct.

    As far as opinions are concerned, there are six billion options out there. We will agree and disagree according to our life experiences.

    This is proof that Evangeline nailed it 'cos we're discussing the general question on her terms and along the examples she gave us. (Envy)

  9. To everyone who reads the following comment whose name is NOT Evangeline, please accept my preemptive apology for this disruption.

    I think a soap box was the wrong place for a sucker punch leveled at someone you don't know. I especially liked the 'bums and losers' comment. That was pretty classy. You've obviously never read any of my work or you might not have lumped me in with actual munchie murder shit (or whatever you called it).

    'Opinionated bitch', yes, but you left out hypocrite. You can kiss my ass.

    Joe Formula

  10. Since you believe - and rightly, I think - that I've never read your work, why do you assume that my opinions were a "sucker punch" aimed at you?

    I wrote the majority of that piece in July before going on vacation and just tweaked it a little before submitting it. Other than the Munchausen misery lit comment - which was inspired by a particular book on Authonomy - my thoughts were not aimed at any specific individual. Just a class of writing and publishing.

    I think this is a difficult subject that would benefit from serious discussion.

    So here's a thought, why not tell me what's wrong with my argument - I think I left plenty of room for debate - rather than assume everything's about you? Because that seems like an awkward position to take - Oh, she's criticizing bad and dishonest writers who try to turn torture and rape into money, that's a direct attack on me!!!111111

    Your ass shall remain unkissed.



  11. I don't agree with the "porn for everyone else" comment. Is there some kind of projection going on here? Also not really sure why someone else's opinion this subject had to be dragged into E's. I have read Gerry's work and I've read E's. Both very talented. Though I don't see where this disconnect is happening. They both write about similar subjects and from the same POV on the subject... is it just because Gerry has a penis that he can't write stories like this? Is that what the whole "feminist" comment was about?


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