Monday, November 13, 2006

Violence and Darkness. . .

by Sean Chercover

Over at John Rickards’ forum, there’s a discussion about darkness, graphic violence, and how far is too far.

There’s been a trend in recent years, a one-upsmanship of graphic violence, an unspoken competition to see who can be the Grand Puba of Noir. Yet, for all the arterial blood and brain matter smeared all over the page, many of these stories are not affecting, and their violence seems cartoonish, rather than dark.

Memo to would-be tough guys: An exquisitely detailed description of eyeballs popping out of their sockets does not, in and of itself, make a story dark, and it doesn’t make the writer a badass.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against graphic physical violence. I do some of my violence on-screen when I write, and I appreciate realistically portrayed violence when I read. When done well, violence is messy and disturbing, and it needn’t be prettied-up and sterilized.

Excellent use is made of graphic violence, for example, in Lawrence Block's Edgar Award-winning Matt Scuddder novel, A Dance At The Slaughterhouse. The story deals with snuff films, so we’re talking about some ugly sexual torture here. Without wallowing in gore, Block offers enough graphic detail to make the violence truly disturbing. And that’s as it should be. The graphic violence in A Dance At The Slaughterhouse is not only justified, it is necessary, in my opinion.

What Block does so masterfully, is to offer a few specific details (one sickening detail, in particular) that stick in your mind. He then summarizes the rest of the torture without detail. In retrospect, you think you’ve seen more detail than you actually have.

And there may be a lesson here for the rest of us. Given the opportunity, the reader will make the violence more horrific than the writer possibly could. Because each reader will fill in the details with specifics to match his/her own worst personal fears. Block describes selected details that send a signal to the reader - this is very dark stuff - and then he lets the reader’s own imagination take over.

But when you spoon-feed every gory detail, you take that power away from the reader. The reader is no longer a complicit partner. Your worst personal fears are not shared by everyone, and will not be as affecting. Pile detail upon detail, and the scene starts to look like a cartoon.

And the writer starts to look like the kid in the schoolyard trying too hard to be a badass. Trying too hard is fatal, and has the opposite effect.

Now, I don’t know where the perfect balance is, and I don’t know how to find it. I just stumble along in the dark, trying this, trying that, until it feels right. I suspect that the point of perfect balance is different for each of us.

Where is yours? What writers do you admire for their use of violence, and for their ability to recruit your imagination in the commission of violence?


Sandra Ruttan said...

I had to go away and think about this for a while. You've already made some excellent points, about the risk of overdoing it and putting people off.

I don't believe violence should be used to try to outdo others. I believe that the amount of violence and the detail that are included in the story should be essential to the story being told.

On the whole, I find more to applaud in what authors choose to leave out, where they invite the reader to fill in the blanks, than with what they choose to put in. I can now officially say that I've abandoned two books because of what I considered to be gratuitous violence. In both cases, the real issue for me was that in the early portion of the story (I can't comment past page 50 in either since I didn't finish them) nothing was done to develop a connection between myself and the protagonists or even the victims. It was as though it was all on display. It felt to me like the writer was saying Look how graphic I can be. Am I just oversensitive? I read Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, so I don't think so. Maybe reviewing has made me fussier, but in the case of profiling, how the perpetrator commits their crimes is essential to assessing them.

I guess that's why that kind of series can work for me. Others, where it just feels like violence for the sake of violence... that's not cutting edge writing, it's not anything new or original. It can be a cheap way of avoiding plotting and not developing characters. I'm not saying it necessarily is. Those who know my reading habits know I read dark. I'm just saying that I can see with some writers, that's all it is.

Sean Chercover said...

I wouldn't accuse you of being afraid of the 'dark', Sandra. I'm not 'put off' by overdone violence as much as I'm bored by it. And I agree with you that it often comes at the expense of deeper characterization.

Look, I love the movie Taxi Driver. And it's violent. But the violence is appropriate, and (to me) properly affecting. If the movie had been wall-to-wall graphic violence, it would've had about as much resonance as any forgettable slasher film. But the violence throughout the film was psychological and implied, so when the blood finally did flow, it actually meant something and did not seem cartoonish. It was disturbing. It was dark.

Graphic detail of physical violence is not a shortcut to true darkness. If we're striving for darkness, we gotta work a little harder than just describing entrails.

Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (where the violence is all psychological) is much darker than some guy in a goalie mask butchering horny teenagers for no reason.

Sara Paretsky said...

Such a good point, Sean. Think of movies--what's scarier than Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter--all done without special effects or graphic dismemberments. Understatement is almost always more effective than piling on the gore.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Taxi Driver is an excellent example of the right balance for a well-told story. I completely agree with you on that.

I think the darkness is what's within us, a sense of hopelessness or destitution. To me, that's the heart of noir... but I'll get off that soap box. Great post Sean. Really made me think.

JA Konrath said...

Graphic violence can be lumbed together with all types of description. Less is more.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Your observation about graphic violence also applies to graphic sex.

I've read descriptions of sex that were (I think) intended to be turn-ons that left me rolling off the couch with laughter. Best to describe it only when necessary to make a point or develope a character and leave the turn-on in the reader's imagination.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

I think effective use of violence is not about description at all. It's about emotion. It's the difference between that slasher film and a cut on your child's finger. Severed limbs and spurting blood is more graphic than a little owie, but which do you feel more?

If readers care about the characters involved, they'll care about the violence. It will feel real. If not, it's going to feel gratuitous and boring, even if it's well written and furthers the plot. And just adding more of the same will only make us care less.

Great post, Sean!

ab said...

So much takes place in the mind of the reader. I heard a lot about how bloody my first book was, although it actually wasn't. No torture, just the threat of it, no sadism whatsoever. When I was interviewed about the following book, the journalist said it was steaming of sex. I was amazed at this. The book has only one sexual encounter - a half page - and the rest is just up to everyone's imagination. For the third book, the subject matter is terrifying but I don't describe any of it graphically. Yet, many found it almost unbearable to read (while others thought it was a great mystery for a rainy day!) The reader creates half of the book whatever you do.