Thursday, February 04, 2010


This is a subject I've wanted to talk about for some time now. What purpose does violence have in the creation of art? I write crime fiction, so it is inevitable violence will show up at some point, whether it's a push, punch, insult, emotional abuse or gunshot. Do I write this because it's entertaining to read about or is there a seriousness to it? Well, really it's both. I've written some little doodads that aren't meant to be anything more than funny, weird and perhaps a little disturbing; but more than anything, they are meant to entertain. There is little seriousness in their violence, and what seriousness there is, it is meant more as irony.

One of the things I need to do is differentiate about the types of violence in art. One is meant, for the most part, to be entertainment (The Three Stooges, Shoot 'Em Up, King Suckerman, The Devil's Rejects) while the other is meant to disturb, to create a strong emotional response of disgust (Bastard Out of Carolina, The Lovely Bones, Precious, The Accused). [An interesting observation in those examples is that the "entertaining" violence is mostly committed on men, whereas as the disturbing violence is against women. I have no idea what that means, but I'm sure someone could establish a theory.]

Why is violence entertaining? I truly think that humans are fascinated by destruction, whether it is the thrill of a controlled explosion of an abandoned building, the scandalous ruin of a famous personality or the damage a major weather event leaves in its wake. It gets our attention. Remember back in school when the rumor of an after hours fight was going to take place at a certain place at a certain time - how many people showed up? And why do you know that number? Because you showed up, that's why. Are we a violent society? Duh.

I won't sit here an lie to you. I found Hostel shockingly amusing. I like the over-the-top action of Rambo where he'll pick up some heavy artillery weapon and proceed to obliviate some poor henchman who's probably making minimum wage. There is a part of me that romanticizes and understands the power of violence in Fight Club, as does most of the guys of my generation. Maybe these displays of extreme aggression appeal to some animal instinct of brutality that we no longer (or at least the majority of society) use.

What about more realistic violence, the type that has lasting effects on characters? Let's look at The Lovely Bones, both the novel and the movie. The main character, Susie Salmon, is brutally raped and murdered at the beginning of the story. It's horrible and tough to read about - this is not meant to be sensational or "entertaining" (a term that needs further definition), there is no exploitative motive here. But is it important to the book? Absolutely. One of the major criticisms of the film adaptation is that Peter Jackson sort of skips that part. One minute she's alive and after a simple edit she's in her own private heaven. The most devastating moments of Salmon's mortal existence occur off stage, and the sexual assault isn't even mentioned. I can understand Jackson's reluctance to include such a horrific scene, this is nothing like his masterpiece of gore, Dead Alive, but it is an injustice to the seriousness of the crimes. Would The Accused have been as effective without the bar scene? No, and it would only diminish the important message of the film.

The above is an example of using violence to further the understanding of human behavior, even the most disturbing of behavior, because without it we are in danger of dismissing it as the actions of monsters, which is much easier to ignore than confronting it as a regularly reoccurring phenomenon perpetrated by regular (sort of) people.

Do the two types of violence ever collide? Not really. Can there be entertaining books with disturbing violence? Yes.[Can you have a serious book with entertaining violence? If it's satire (Dr. Strangelove, then yes.] OK, lets take this moment to further define entertainment. I'm not talking about simple, amusing entertainments that cause giggles; I'm talking more about art that engages its audience. The Lovely Bones is a type of entertainment, as is The Postman Always Rings Twice or They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. The last two examples are pretty depressing, while, ironically, Alice Sebold's novel is sort of hopeful at the end; but people continue to read these types of novels because they enjoy them on some level. Hell, look at just about any piece of noir fiction out there; there aren't a lot of happy-go-lucky stories. The work of Ken Bruen? No. Jim Thompson? No. David Goodis? Fuck no. But they all have plenty of fans.

Now on a personal level, I've been reluctant to write anything new with violence in it due to something that happened to a friend of mine. It has taken a long time to come to terms with what I write in contrast to what destruction really occurs with similar acts in the real world. I've mainly worked on revisions on writing I did previous to this, and while there are violent passages, it was nothing I have created in quite some time and I didn't tackle those scenes until late in the current revision period. I also had a conversation with another friend regarding the lasting effects of violence in domestic situations and she was reluctant to give up anything to use as research unless she knew the story would have some sort of justice at the end and not be exploitive. I think she believed me when I said it wasn't exploitive. But it did caused me to think about the use of violence in fiction again.

I will tell you the most exploitive, disgusting, sickening absolutely reprehensible use of violence to tantalize I've ever seen was an episode of the Sally Jesse Rapheal Show in which she had a 911 operator on who took a call from a woman who was killed. The host kept at this poor operator, bringing the case up again and again and again, finally playing the fucking audio of the 911 call in which you heard the woman's plea for help, the door or window being kicked open and her screams as she was attacked. This was a daytime television show, on in the afternoon, after most kids were home from school; it wasn't rated and was easily accessible. I will never forget that, and it aired about 15 years ago. So, I totally understand someone's reluctance to the depiction of violence when there are people out there who would use such horrors for nothing more than audience ratings. That, to me, is disgusting.

As an artist (I know, it is pretty pretentious to call one's self an artist), what responsibilities do I have? Do I ignore violence, which would pretty much finish my career as a crime writer; or do I make it as realistic as possible (without exploiting it) to shine further light on the dark side of the human condition, which is really the ultimate goal of the noir genre, is it not? Well, I haven't taken this blog down, even though I've ignored it for some time, and I'm still (STILL!!!!!!) in the middle of revisions, so I guess I know the answer to that question.

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