4 August 2011 4 Comments

Sicko Writing: Is Crime Fiction Too Gory?

When I worked as a journalist at a major US magazine, it was clear that readers didn’t respond to hard news. They wanted features. Not fluffy features. Serious features. But they’d had enough of news stories about what happened that week.

What did the editors do? They ordered correspondents to write hard news. Because they didn’t care what readers wanted. They wished to appear as serious journalists before their peers, and serious journalists write tough hard news stories. Even if no one wants to read them.

I was put in mind of this as I listened to a BBC Open Book podcast about whether crime fiction has become too gory. Specifically whether descriptions of violence – and the torture of women in particular – have gone too far. I interpret that to mean: whether the violence is indulged for its own sake, rather than for the sake of plot or character development.

After listening to the show I felt as though I had been tuned in to a discussion by European liberals about multiculturalism – or some other subject on which all “decent” types agree and then simply talk about the nuances of their shared position, rather than ever saying “hey, there’s a case to answer here.”

I’ve seen a great deal of violence in my life. I’ve been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for 15 years. I’ve seen people shot, blown up, burned to death, horribly maimed, and I’ve been threatened myself. I take no pleasure in that and I have no sympathy for those who would treat others’ suffering as entertainment. Perhaps that’s why I believe there is very much a case for crime fiction to answer: too many writers and presumably readers appear to be indulging in psychotically prurient interest.

That isn’t to say there’s no violence in my novels. But I’m very careful about its purpose, and I don’t require it to take place in front of the reader’s eyes, as it were. I try to think about Chandler’s great dictum on Hammett – that he put murder back in the hands of those who actually commit it in real life. No doubt some of those people are sadists, but most are criminals and most murders are committed with dispatch. That’s how I like it to be done in my books: by a criminal, not a psycho, and quickly, as a piece of business.

But the BBC show focuses on what one of the authors on the program, Tess Gerritsen, correctly says is an increasing trend: torture for torture’s sake. Or at best, torture to scare the reader.

It seemed to me – and once you’ve gone to the link and listened, I’d like to know what you think – that some of the panelists discussed any opposition to such violence as being a kind of censorship. As if crime fiction was a persecuted genre which might find its horizons limited by the prudish and the squeamish, if it once allows that it might’ve overindulged in a disgusting neurosis. No one’s trying to ban crime fiction, but it’s worth looking at what the sicko branch of the genre tells us about readers and writers.

For example, the panel didn’t really confront the perverse sexual element of much of the violence in today’s crime fiction.

Mariella Frostrup, the presenter, began the segment by reading a brief passage from a new Jo Nesbo book in which a woman’s face is penetrated from different directions by needles of about seven inches in length. Even if the author didn’t hail from the home of XXX porno, you wouldn’t need to be a horny 14-year-old boy to think of gangbang blow jobs.

Snuff movies are generally accepted as being dangerous to the minds of those who watch them, even when the sex snuff is simulated. Is this kind of crime fiction porn dangerous to readers? That depends on the relative sexual inadequacy of the reader, I expect. But it’s fair to say that it’s reflective of a juvenile masturbatory quality in the writer.

The competition among crime writers to depict the most horrific of tortures reminds me of the ludicrous bar-stool boasting of drunken men eager to tell everyone within five yards about the potency of their enormous, inexorable tool.

I’ve read a couple of Nesbo novels without much interest—apparently it’s frequently cold in Norway, most people are good, and Nesbo is into British pop music. I slogged through the first Stieg Larsson wishing it really had been edited and rewritten by his common-law wife, as she asserts, because I hope she’d have cut 300 pages—and a lot more quickly than his nasties cut the poor little Salander girl. I’ve grimaced at the sadism of some recent US and UK thrillers, particularly the ones which go for everyone’s darkest fear—the torture of children. And I’ve dropped off to sleep as Inspector Wallander rambles on about his distress at the psychos taking over Sweden (while his ponderous master Mankell describes what those psychos do, in detail).

If these and other writers indulging in extreme violence have never seen the destruction and blood that I’ve seen, I’m happy for them. But I’m not so happy for their readers.

4 Responses to “Sicko Writing: Is Crime Fiction Too Gory?”

  1. Gail Bentzinger 4 August 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I have a couple of the Stieg Larsson books and those of Henning Mankell which I haven’t read yet. I bought them because the authors were deemed “good” and because I wanted to read crime authors in different cultures. Which is why I also was interested in your books, Matt. A Palestinian detective! Your Omar Yussef novels give let me see through a window into another culture, something that has always, always fascinated me.

    That said, I’m not into torture or masochism. If I find too much of it in the other novels, I’ll stop reading and put them in the charity bag.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 4 August 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    I do hope you’ll enjoy them in any case, Gail! And thanks for your appreciation of Omar Yussef.

  3. Catherine 7 August 2011 at 7:22 am #

    Strange to read your text, Matt, at the very moment where I was planning to write a somewhat angry text about a novel by a British best-selling female writer, which I forced myself to read even though she’s not usually my cup of tea. I’m talking about Mo Hayder and her “Gone”, which deals precisely with the kidnapping of children and violence done to them. In an interview, Mo Hayder explains that since she’s had her daughter, she understands better what a parent must feel in such circumstances. Thus, in this book, the little girls are terrified, but they don’t die… I thought this particularly revolting : I certainly don’t have to be a mother to understand this kind of pain. This is just not an excuse : imagine if a writer said “I haven’t been raped, so I can write about in detail, I just don’t quite realize what I am doing…” Frightening. You already know that I am an absolute fan of your Omar Youssef novels, and thankful to you for having unveiled so many aspects of the Middle-East that I didn’t suspect, helping me understand the world a little better. Of course violence is a more and more important part of our lives, wherever we are. But I hate been taken for an old fashioned prude when I react violently to gratuitous violence in literature, and when I suspect that this violence often compensates for some lack of talent. This happens rather often, I’m sorry to say… Thank you for writing this !

  4. Matt Beynon Rees 8 August 2011 at 8:09 am #

    One of the things mentioned in the podcast was that female crime fiction writers in the UK feel under considerable pressure to show that they can handle violence — and in turn be taken seriously. I don’t know if that’s correct, but it has a certain ring of truth to it, doesn’t it. So it could be that Mo Hayder was responding to that kind of pressure. There’s also a desire in many writers to give us the ultimate taboos: in particular violence against children. It doesn’t make you prudish or wishfully ignorant to decide not to make depictionns of violence against children a part of your evening’s entertainment! Become a parent ought only to make it something that’s too sickening to even contemplate. Which is why it’s strange that so many writers write about it — and so many readers seem to read it….


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