by Angela Zeman
Excuse me, guys, but Iâ€™ve yet again been castigatedâ€”for the fortieth time (full disclosure, Iâ€™ve never actually counted)â€”for my â€œshallowâ€ taste in fiction. As a way to forestall criticism, I usually claim to be a writer of, and believer in, â€˜cheap entertainment.â€™ But I lie. I actually believe much of what I like to read (or view) is discerning, intelligent, and sometimes even important. Then again, my definition of â€œliteraryâ€ is boring, so maybe Iâ€™m casting stones from a glass house.
For instance, I like violence. My favorite all-time movie scene is in one of the â€œLethal Weaponâ€s (II?) when an 18-wheeler tanker of gasoline catches fire and explodes. The whole truck practically leaps into the air, does a cartwheel, and crashes to earth upside down as a monstrous fireball. Pretty showy. Why doesnâ€™t it upset me? Shouldnâ€™t I worry about the driver? Am I a callous unfeeling monster? Sticks and stones… But this particular set piece of violence is so outside of my personal experience that I canâ€™t connect to it emotionally. I enjoy the pyrotechnics as if viewing 4th of July fireworks. I feel no pain.
Iâ€™ve also never been set on fire. Some violence provokes too visceral a connection in some readers, and causes pain that actually hurts. That reader might shut down his feelings and/or find something else to readâ€”no fault to him. I canâ€™t read stories about hurting children. Torture scenes sometimes make me grimace, but I usually read on. Noir and mean streets are on the rise in fiction lately, a happy trend if you ask me.
Master writer James Lee Burke recently pointed out when asked about the violence portrayed in his work, â€œâ€¦violence is the last resort of an intelligent person and the first resort of a primitive person, andâ€¦everyone is diminished by it, usually the perpetrator the most.â€ (As told to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in a Wall Street Journal Online interview.) I understand his point, but I canâ€™t help wondering, are writers, and our stories, diminished when we write about violence?
Story tellers often use violence and its sibling, pain, to entice the reader into making an emotional connection because violence and pain are practically the building blocks of character, and common to the human condition. Maybe sad, but definitely true. And as writers know, if the reader cares nothing about any part of our story, weâ€™ve failed both story and reader.
Iâ€™ve heard readers say they refuse to read fiction (or view movies) that incorporate violence. Nobody questions their right to do so. (Note: media violence for children is a different subject.) However, could writers have genuine cause when they include violence in their fiction? Stanley Ellin wrote, and heâ€™s definitely worth listening to: â€œI would never write about someone who is not at the end of his/her rope.â€
If the conflict driving the plot is slight, the response will be slight. If the conflict is fraught with deep emotionâ€”for instance, pain derived from violenceâ€”then the response will be deep, even if the response is rejection. Readers will always draw their individual lines in the sand, no writer can please every reader and would be crazy to try. However, some barriers can be overcome if the writer has a certain level of skill. James Lee Burkeâ€™s latest novel covered the devastation of Katrina, and his technique made the pain he described bearable to me, and probably to many others. In different hands, the book might have come across as a sermon, or as too harsh to experience even through words. Instead, he made me â€œfeelâ€ the powerful pain of the devastation, but not so unbearably as to cause me to close the book. He â€œilluminedâ€ the subject for me. I think thatâ€™s pretty â€œdeep!â€