Friday, 30 October 2009


I wonder how many more people were drawn to this particular blog than usual because of the title?

Just picking up on Matt’s blog below – the Bookseller debate about violence in fiction is a fascinating one that, of course, has no definitive answer. Violent content is a thorny discussion because it’s always a matter of subjective taste. Nobody can realistically judge or regulate this – although certain people and organisations have tried.

Everyone has a different threshold but everyone has enjoyed violence on some level. So whether it’s the satisfaction derived from watching James Bond’s evil nemesis get obliterated along with his secret base, Jerry smashing a plank with a nail through it onto Tom's head or watching Leatherface chasing a victim with a chainsaw there’s no right or wrong about what is and isn’t permissible. It’s a personal choice.

Human beings have been enjoying violence since the days of the gladiators. We’ve come a long way since then and now most of us can do it within the confines of books, TV and computer games…a lot less messier in terms of cleaning up.

It’s been said that certain individuals have perpetrated acts of violence because of what they saw on TV. I could get into whether or not such disturbed individuals would have been triggered regardless and should we censor everything because of a tiny minority but that’s a whole different blog.

In such a censored country as the UK I’ve always thought it odd that books don’t carry certificates – after all there is some incredibly graphic literature out there and this isn’t limited to crime and horror fiction. Don’t for a moment think I’m advocating this though.

Maybe it’s because the sort of people who would want to enforce such a thing have no imagination and therefore wouldn’t see them as a threat.

But anybody with a potent imagination might agree that filling in the gaps deliberately left by a skilful author is a sure fire formula for creating scenes more unspeakable than anything on celluloid. It’s because the reader makes the material personal to them and this is something that can’t be done on the screen with any amount of special fx or explicit choreography.

There is an argument for viewer imagination. Take ‘Psycho’ and the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ These were two of the most bloodless movies ever released but everyone at the time was convinced they saw the gore.

But books are a permanently creative form of entertainment. The reader is constantly creating a picture of the character, the backdrop…and the violence in their head and this is what a skilled writer can use to their advantage.

Some writers don’t use it well, however, and this is where the real question lies. Is the violence in context or is it a cheap shot to boost an otherwise lacklustre plot? It’s incredible what some people will find permissible when the story is intelligently written. Just ask Thomas Harris. He’s a respected writer who has ingrained some deeply disturbing scenarios with readers and moviegoers alike and I’m one of many who are thankful for it. Anybody who reads that sort of material doesn’t want to feel safe. And if it’s not for you – leave it on the shelf.

However, there is a trend in books and movies of late that tends towards graphic torture and frequently of women. It’s not my cup of tea but I don’t object to it on the grounds of taste. I object to it because it insults my intelligence – one of the worst offences in terms of literature or the silver screen. It’s facile and usually devoid of humour – the one sure way you can make some of the most outrageous ideas palatable.

When I wrote STOP ME I wanted to highlight society’s worrying fixation with serial killers and the insidious make believe world of the Internet that masks some deeply disturbed individuals. Ultimately I ended up writing a serial killer book and extracting entertainment value from it.

The cover of STOP ME depicts a woman tied to a chair. I've been told by more women than men that they like it (the cover - not being tied up. Although who am I to judge). Women die in it but not in excruciatingly graphic detail. Men die in it as well. I'm not going to apologise because it's part of what I hope is an entertaining story.

It could easily be pigeonholed as just another serial killer book but I sincerely hope other readers will enjoy it as a commentary as well as an accessible, twisty thriller (and from feedback sources this appears to be the case).

One of the most constructive pieces of feedback I’ve had about it was what one reader called my ‘restraint.’ On the other side of the coin, I had another reader who felt they wanted to read more about the victims’ jawbones being sent through the post. Both of these comments came from women.

Honestly, it's almost as if people (of both sexes) have minds of their own...

Horses for courses but as a writer you have to make a judgement about the balance of plot and violence in your book. If you strip away the violence, however creative, and find you have little left then it’s probably not going to significantly reward the reader. That’s not saying that nobody’s going to buy and enjoy it though.

But if you do decide to create subject matter that can be interpreted as violent, subversive or misogynistic then I think you need to be even more creative and intelligent. It’s the only way it will rise above the glut of material created by writers looking for an easy meal ticket.

Incidentally, blood on breasts was one of the biggest no-nos at the BBFC. Who the hell decided that?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting topic (explicit violence in book and film) I already discussed more than once with some friends on bookcrossing!
    For me it's like this: I can bear all sorts of violent and bloody scenes in films as sawn-off body parts, smashed faces etc. But (realistic) torture scenes are an absolutely no-no both in films and books. So in films I just look (and hear) away and wait till it's over.
    In books it depends on how the scenes are written resp. how my head interprets such scenes. E.g. in the brilliant written books from Mo Hayder and Val McDermid (Tony Hill) I sometimes get such dreadful realistic pictures in my head that I just have to leave out some pages.
    Books in which the author seems to have put sadistic scenes without importance for the storyline but obviously just to shock the reader I don't read at all.
    The interesting thing is that my friends and I sometimes get quite different pictures of the same scenes in books in our heads. And that's what I really find fascinating!