Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech

Barbara D’Amato

The cruelty and waste of the murders at Virginia Tech are on most people’s minds. The sorrow of the families and friends of the dead will spread out for decades, and the world will miss out on what those young people could have become

Writers of crime fiction may have a bad feeling in addition to sorrow and anger. It’s not quite guilt, but it has elements of it. I don’t think we believe that crime fiction causes crime. Pretty much all studies have shown that isn’t so, and in fact, reading about violence may act as catharsis.

It’s more a matter of suddenly asking ourselves why we write about such horrible things at all. I was working on an interior monologue for a hired assassin when the news of the killings in Virginia came on the television, and it certainly gave me pause.

Why do we read crime fiction, for that matter? I read mysteries and thrillers all the time. A couple of my relatives have asked me, “Why do you like to read about murder?” Well, why do we? Do we enjoy it? We must. Surely we don’t read these books because we dislike the process.

Carolyn Hart was asked once at a mystery convention why people read humorous crime fiction. Murder, the questioner said with some indignation, was not funny. Carolyn answered, “Murder isn’t funny, but people are funny.”

It’s the people, I think, we read to find out about. And write in order to explore. Crime fiction gives us people at extremes—killers, victims, vigilantes, professional righters-of-wrongs. This doesn’t seem to me to be a bad thing, but I would like to know how others feel about it.


Martel said...

Your post reminded me of a speech Stephen King made after his story, "Rage," was linked to Columbine and some of the other school shootings that followed.

The text of that speech can be found here:

After these incidents, King asked his publisher to remove that book from print and they agreed.

As a person who enjoys reading & writing horror/dark crime fiction, I was upset by King's decision to pull the story because it gives creedence to the perception that somehow what he wrote was responsible for the actions of these murderers.

I believe many authors write about the "unthinkable" to get people to think about the situation and go forward with gratitude and a better understanding of our world so that we can do whatever is in our power to make things better. That is the message I take away from much of the fiction I read and that is the message I try to convey in my own writing.

Maryann Mercer said...

For me, it's curiosity about what makes people do what they do. As human beings, we're all flawed in some way. I'm intrigued by how(and why)some end up righting wrongs and others end up committing them. Reading crime fiction also fosters the illusion of control over the outcome; a benefit we don't have when it comes to tragedies like the Amish shootings or Virginia Tech. It promises escape to a place where (in most cases) the bad guy is vanquished or the anti-hero is still the good guy. Crime fiction may take inspiration from the events around us, but in my opinion that in itself does not make it bad.

Barbara D'Amato said...

martel, I am glad you cited the Stephen King speech. I found it, and it was very interesting. Like you, I think he was wrong to pull the book, and I don't agree with his views on fiction sparking or maybe increasing rage. Like Maryann, I think people find out about others' lives by reading fiction. It's one of the few ways of entering another person's mind.

Libby Hellmann said...

I write crime fiction because it's a way to bring order to chaos... something we sadly cannot do in real life. In that respect, crime fiction, for the most part, is reassuring. Even hopeful. We go to bed at night believing there is justice... that the bad guys will be caught... that we will wake up to a world that is "in order".

Were it only so in reality.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Clint VanZandt said on MSNBC today [Thursday] that movies have an impact on disturbed individuals. Some of the news coverage of Virginia Tech comes close to saying that movies and music cause criminal behavior. Martel, it seems King's remarks, as you point out, imply the same thing about books.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Martel said, “I believe many authors write about the "unthinkable" to get people to think about the situation...”

I agree.

Maryann Mercer said, “For me, it's curiosity about what makes people do what they do.... Reading crime fiction also fosters the illusion of control over the outcome.”

Comforting in the face of scary stuff we can’t really do anything about.

While it’s probably true that a shared fantasy is more likely to be acted upon, and exposure to make-believe violence might influence unstable individuals to act on their violent urges, before books (which are read by relatively few) are banned, the nightly news ought to be censorsed (not that I’m advocating censorship). Certainly more people saw Mr. Cho’s video manifesto on channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 32, et al. than will ever read all of our books.

Steve Z. said...

These are difficult and important questions. I have given them more serious thought since my friend Barry was murdered in May of 2003. It was a pointless crime that the police think was a gang initiation: Go shoot somebody and you’re in the gang. The killer has never been apprehended, and probably never will (almost no physical evidence, no words were exchanged, killer didn’t know the victim, etc.).

I have been a reader of mystery and crime fiction for more than thirty years. In the months following Barry’s death, I wondered what had drawn me to reading mystery and crime fiction over the years, and if I would want to continue to read it. I decided that I would, and did, for many of the reasons mentioned on this blog: experiencing people under stress being challenged and revealed at the most basic and elemental levels, bringing order to chaos (and justice to an unjust world), giving us understanding of other people and places. Humor is also very important, and I love the Carolyn Hart quote. Some of my favorite writers are comic crime/caper novelists: Donald Westlake, Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Brian Wiprud, and others.

Another friend of mine, Greg (a fictitious name, since it’s still an open murder investigation), who was with Barry when he was shot (and was his best friend), was over at our place one night having a few beers and chatting. He talked about having lived in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas. I walked to the bookshelf and pulled out a George Pelecanos novel. I explained to him that I thought he might like it, but warned that it was violent as well. Greg took it home. The next time I saw him, he returned it and told me he loved it, and that he’d bought a couple of other Pelecanos novels, and loved those as well. For him, as for me, trying to understand modern American life through fiction is more important than worrying about whether it might make some psycho loser (who wouldn't get what it's about anyway) snap.

It’s my own view (admittedly unsubstantiated) that these murderous young men are much more influenced by computer games, the internet, music videos, and other media than mystery/crime fiction. Good mystery/crime fiction, however violent, contains subtlety and requires the reader to think about the world in ways that these other media (generally, anyway) don’t. And I don't think mystery/crime fiction of the more amusing variety would appeal to these kids either. They don't seem to take any joy in their lives.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, Steve, for a very thoughtful comment. You are probably right that murderous young men respond more to media like music videos. And it is a good idea of yours that some mystery fiction is amusing in ways they wouldn't care for. I think most fiction is more reflective than an angry teenager could bear.

Anonymous said...

When I first read about the shootings, I was shocked at the number of dead and wounded.

Then when more information came out about the personality of the young man responsible (as perceived by his peers), I actually began to feel quite sorry for him. I even began to empathize.

Is it really wrong to empathize with a killer? To feel that *maybe* he was pushed just a little too much by those around him? That he had no other way to express the rage, humiliation, shame and injustice he kept bottled up inside him for so long?

Surely, the choice to kill or not to kill remained within his control up to the moment he pulled the trigger...but...

Is it wrong to think that those individuals who bullied him mercilessly share some culpability in this tragedy?

Unless you've been bullied, you really can't comprehend how truly soul-destroying it can be.

Reading books, watching movies, listening to songs, playing video games, or even composing your own works that have a heavy emphasis on death and murder can work two ways: It can feed the dark obsession one might have to further immerse themselves in that world, or work (as Barbara pointed out) as catharsis.

I'm not sure what to think, really. I do feel, however, it's one thing to fantasize and write about killing others; it's another to actually go out and do it.