Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Topic: Violence in Literature-When is Enough, Enough?" My Guest today; Author, Patti Larsen.

Please join in the discussion with my guest, Author, Patti Larsen.

Violence in Literature—When is Enough, Enough?

This is such a huge subject because in encompasses such a large range of topics. Like what, you ask? The obvious, of course—blood, gore, mayhem. Physical violence. But there are so many more aspects to it, in my opinion. Emotional violence. Verbal. The subtle kinds. Simple terror, even. Fear of the Boogeyman that makes it hard to sleep with the lights out. And swearing. Yes, just words. But when written with certain intent, they are a form of violence.

So, the question Soooz put to us was, when is enough, enough? That’s really hard to say. We’re surrounded by it every day, not just in our literature, but in films, television, the news. Video games and threats passed back and forth on social media. Cutting, anorexia, drug abuse. I think the more important question here is, how close are we to crossing the line of reality and fiction?

Because that’s what makes people uncomfortable. Not the actual violence itself, but that the make-believe is supposed to entertain, to take us as readers to a new and exciting place, to lose ourselves in a fresh world full of interesting characters we want to care about.

And when we as writers flip the switch and begin to follow the way of the real world, suddenly those violent things can’t be ignored quite so easily.

I recently submitted a Young Adult manuscript to my publisher. I’m mainly a YA author and while the book I send in, Best Friends Forever, is in that age group, I was keenly aware of how dark and horrible the content is. It is choc-o-bloc with red flags I knew could keep my publisher from accepting it.

And fair enough. It’s full of violence. Three girls die in a tragic accident, a young boy is kidnapped by a serial killer. The main character abuses herself with drugs and alcohol while being haunted by the ghosts of her dead friends. I make no apologies for the content. None. Like most writers, I type out what the voices tell me to. And while I know it’s not a book for everyone, I couldn’t abandon Emily or her story or even consider altering it to satisfy someone else’s sensibilities.

Am I crossing the reality barrier? Absolutely. Am I influenced by violence I witness when I’m not writing? Of course I am. Does it shape me as a writer. Probably it does. But I’m not doing it on purpose. I’m not choosing to be violent. I’m simply allowing the characters who form in my head to say what they need to say, to share their hope and horror.

I heard back from my publisher. She loved it. Said it reminded her of the Grand Master Mr. King himself. And while I have no illusions nor delusions of grandeur when I hear such praise, I’m very grateful I allowed Emily to speak the way she wanted to without censorship. Mind you, said publisher decided she wants to market it to adults instead of teens, worried about the impact it might have and whether teenagers are a good audience for this book.

I actually had to think about it for a bit before deciding to move ahead. Is it too dark for the market I normally write in? I’m not sure. Everything I pen these days seems to be going down that road. Will my teen readers like it? I know they’ll find it, so changing the market won’t make much of a difference. And I really think they will like it. But not because of the violence. In spite of it. Because of the connections I hope they make with Emily. And the understanding that despite the violence, in the end… well I can’t tell you the ending. That would spoil it, right?

We can’t shelter ourselves from the world around us. Trying to is futile and foolish. But we can decide how we process the violence we see, how we channel it. Maybe that means writing a dark book as catharsis. Or as a tool to heal others who may have gone through exactly that scenario and draws parallels, enough to salvage a part of their soul.

As a society, as human beings, violence is an unfortunate way of life. And it’s a natural progression to have it enter the way we communicate with each other. But I can say, for me, while I think it’s inevitable, violence isn’t the point.

When it becomes the only thing literature is about, that’s where the problems start.

Patti Larsen is a 39-year-old novelist and independent filmmaker. A writer of fiction and screenplays, she began her writing career at a tender age and had her first typewriter by the time she was twelve. Choosing to develop her skills in journalism, her passion for storytelling eventually led her back to fiction. She found filmmaking and screenwriting and fell in love with telling stories all over again. She sees all types of fiction as wonderful forms of expression. Her original passion, however, is writing novels, and she is very happy to be doing so.

Her young adult novel Fresco (Etopia Press) is due for publication in July of 2011. The sequels are pending. The Hunted series will be released this fall. Her middle grade novel, The Ghost Boy of MacKenzie House (Acorn Press) is also scheduled for release, in the spring of 2012.

Patti lives on the East Coast of Canada, with her very patient husband Scott, and four massive cats.

You can find her all over the web (at least it feels that way to her):!/pattilarsen


  1. I'd agree with your point that when it only becomes about violence, that crosses the line. But I think that to shy away from violence is not the point of literature of any kind. Whilst there's no sense (and no artistic merit, particularly) in violence for violence's sake, literature must reflect reality in order to be worthwhile. The important thing, as you say, is that it isn't the only thing, and that the violence is in keeping with the plot, i.e. that it is artistically justified. I've often had debates with people about the plays of Sarah Kane, particularly Blasted, which contains a lot of violence, and that has always been my answer. It is artistically justified, and because it is, it is acceptable.

    On a wider point, do we have a moral duty to protect teenagers from dark things? Yes, to a certain extent, but we know that teenagers will access violent films, video games, etc for themselves. Moreover, as young adults, they are entitled to familiarise themselves with an adult world. Our focus, for me, should be on teaching them pity for those who suffer and offering them opportunities to help (through charitable institutions and volunteer work), as well as making them understand the difference between fiction and reality. I mean, that they can enjoy a book, play, film or whatever with adult themes and violence, without them developing an unhealthy attitude towards violence. But I don't think that's the responsibility of the writer (exclusively) and I certainly don't think it should compromise artistic expression.

  2. I agree Nick--by writing compassionate characters in violent situations, we teach teens to feel empathy for those who suffer--and create a need to help and/or speak out. Hopefully. Great comment.

  3. A well written, well thought out post Patti. Bravo.
    I'm not going to add my two cents here, I've already expounded enough on the subject.
    Thank you for a logical, erudite argument.

  4. My friend Catherine can't post here for some weird IT reason, so she has asked for me to post her comment from my FB message as follows...

    "Excellent thoughts Patti. The bits which rang especially true were the comments about letting the characters in our heads deal with situations in the way they have to, showing their feelings, and your idea to put a compassionate character in a violent situation and let them deal with it compassionately as a good example to teens.

    It underlined the scene I want to write in my current book about someone stepping up and stopping a fight, even though he could be hurt himself.

  5. I only need to turn on the 6 o'clock news to hear the most violent of stories - murder, shootings, rape. What you speak of exists in today's world and young adults are exposed to it on a daily basis.

    To consciously remove it from your fiction would be doing a disservice to the readers , who, even at such a young age, are unfortunately growing up with violence around them.

    I applaud you for writing in a difficult market and knowing the power you have as an author to affect them.


  6. I think the point about when to cross the line is a really good one. I'd love to see one of the writers in this series address the Norway massacre, for example. Leaving 9/11 aside because there are too many complicating factors, the touchstone event is still Columbine - there are people writing high school massacres, but you can feel the low pressure in the room as everyone sucks in. Interestingly, as the reception of "Room" showed, there is none of that unease in writing based on the Fritzl case. my personal suspicion is not that this is because of a lower degree of disgust, but because it's much clearer in the case of Fritzl where people feel the moral lines need to be drawn. They are still to some extent undecided about Columbine, and fictionalisations make them feel pushed into a decision they're not ready to make

  7. Soooz, tell Catherine exactly--though I don't do it on purpose, really. I rarely write about characters who don't connect with me on an empathetic level so the happening is natural.

    Thank you, Eden! I agree--candy coating the truth doesn't get anyone anywhere. When they are exposed to it, pulling it purposely feels like lying or cheating even... giving readers the choice to connect or not is the best solution. Because they can decide not to read. Fair enough.

    Dan, right you are! But even in the Norway case there is no black and white (though it may seem so to us). The man thought he was acting appropriately, doing the right thing. And while that violence was abhorrent and devastating, it still takes one person acting on their beliefs to make it happen. I don't condone his acts, nor do I agree with what he did. But our free will and our right to it is what leaves us open to the wide range of emotions and possibilities--from healing the sick to killing someone for the pleasure of it.

  8. Good post Patty, I got to this late and I am relieved to see that we aren't going over the same ground again and again. I think we all agree on violence for violence's sake not being a valid form of literature and your point of using Emily's self harmful behaviour is right on the money.
    The most likely person a teen is likely to hurt is himself/herself.
    And showing that and opening that to the young reader as a common behaviour is something we could never have enough of.


Please leave a comment/review on any of the stories/poems contributed.