Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Topic: "Violence in Literature; when is enough, enough?" My guest Ruth Barrett

Interesting timing for me, this guest blog. I am on the verge of unleashing my first novel Base Spirits onto the world, and it sure starts with a bang. Well, 'bang' isn't quite right: the first chapter is about a murderer being pressed to death in Jacobean times. I guess that would make it more of a 'squish'.
All joking aside, there is rather a lot of violence in my book. I call it a 'supernatural history with a historical core', so no one should be surprised when there turns out to be a body count. The story is based in true historical events and violence is just a part of the whole. I'd like to think I wasn't 'pornographic' in my descriptions-- that is the fine line we tread as writers. We have to be true to the characters and story lines. Sometimes that means being brutal. Among other things, I had to portray putting someone to death by slowly crushing them under stones, show domestic violence at its worse, beat the crap out of some supporting characters, and describe the murders of two small children.
The children were the most difficult. I didn't want to get too gory and gratuitous, but I wanted it to be real-- and that is a harsh task. It doesn't get much worse. I fleshed out the children's characters earlier on. I wanted them to seem like real children: lovable and rambunctious and naughty and unruly. We need to love them. And then I had to see them dead. The trick is to be true to the event without going too over the top. There is no way to write these sorts of scenes and timidly pull your punches: you need to be direct and visceral. A blade shoved into human tissue does very definite damage. A writer who writes the truth of a situation cannot gloss that moment over and make it somehow more palatable.
As readers, we more or less know that there is going to be a measure of violence by the genre with which we choose to entertain ourselves. We accept this as a given, and read on. If the writer is doing their job, we wholeheartedly enter into the world of the book. I've read some stomach-turning descriptions of violence in the past. I don't get offended by it unless it feels like it's been awkwardly shoved into place for a cheap thrill like a cheesy horror/slasher film. Even then it's not so much the violence I find annoying as the writer trying to pull a fast one: inserting a big, gloppy scene of gory, gooey guts instead of delivering the more subtle and terrifying work of creating suspense or a feeling of mounting dread.
Again, it's all subjective. Some books require that level of violence, and that's what the readers want and expect. Fair dues. No one is holding a gun to your head and making you read violent books if you haven't the taste for them (hm- I just gave myself an idea...). I find violence in the news media a lot more horrifying than any violence I read in fiction. On any given day, I can see a marketplace full of body parts after a terrorist attack, or witness footage of hapless people being washed out to sea by storms. That to me is too much and I have to turn away. And yet I can read some utterly disgusting stuff in a Stephen King novel and not be affected in the same way at all. Violence in literature is created, not actual-- even if it is historically based, it still needs to be interpreted and composed, both by the author and our own imaginations as readers. I can expect and accept the presence of violence in art forms.
As an actor, I had to be both victim and perpetrator of 'violence' onstage. The good actors take off the feelings of violence or violation with their make-up after the show and head for the pub. Same with writing violence. It's when you can't shake it off that it becomes too much.
Ruth Barrett is a graduate of Trent University and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She has published a number of short stories with a variety of anthologies and small presses, and is about to publish her first novel 'Base Spirits' in September. Please visit her blog for updates and links to the book (very soon!): Ruth also has a book company page on Facebook: and is (of course!) on Twitter:!/LadyCalverley

1 comment:

  1. Ruth,
    Totally agree with violence being subjective, it's hard to know if you've gone too far or not far enough (what your readers want). I saw footage of people leaping during 9/11 from the foreign cable stations that I wished I'd never viewed (American news shows did not air similar footage). Once it is out there, you can't take it back. I won't be watching any of the anniversary coverage of 9/11 in September. At least in a story there is usually a meaning and resolution behind violence--less common in real life.


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