Funny how that one word gets your attention, isn't it?

I'm not sure whether this has already been covered here and I've somehow missed it, but I've had violence much on my mind lately (no, no exes/parents/IRS auditors/coworkers/bosses/editors out there who need fear for their safety, nothing like that. I'm talking about the literary variety). I'm curious what the denizens of Crimespace, both writers and readers, have to say about violence in print.

I'm asking because I've read books within the last year that had violence that was so unrealistic I didn't think one could actually see it outside of a videogame, and this sort of thing made me stop reading. I've been in enough fights myself (none recently) to know that it hurts to get hit, and it can incapacitate you for a few days afterward. I also know that they tend to be short.

An email exchange with a friend I made here gave me the germ of the idea for this discussion, especially since I've been trying to keep the action going strong in my own work, and violence was a fact of life during the 19th century (my book is set in Washington, D.C., circa 1844). So I'd like your thoughts on violence; both what will keep the pages turning for you and what would cause you to stop reading.

I realize that there can often be a thin line between the two extremes.

All the Best-


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Most one on one violence in real life is fairly simple. It's part of the nature of entertainment that we look for novel attacks. In actuality most personal violence is shoving, punching, choking. Rarely kicks. You do see biting and hair-pulling of course. Even if you introduce weapons, real violence is pretty standard.

So I think if you're in a close P.O.V. you can really filter what's happening through your character's observations and you can try to write in the adrenalin that your character is feeling. A more distant P.O.V. might need a little something to spice it up and make this fight different. I like ninja-monkeys myself.

There definitely seems to be an audience for lingering grisly descriptions of of violence and torture today. I find it fetishistic and unpleasant. Especially horrible when listening to a book on cd, and you can't just sort of skim ahead. Interestingly, it appears to me that female authors have a greater license to write some of this really lurid stuff. It's not to my taste, but I don't want everything off-stage either.
For me it depends on whether it adds something or whether it feels gratuitous. If it distracts from the story or feels as though it was put in just for the sake of adding something scary/tense/action packed then even the smallest bit can feel gratuitous. Then, there are other books which have gore by the bucketload and pages swimming in blood and it just feels perfectly right. It's not a distraction, it's part of the story. Al
Guthrie and Duane Swierczynski both incorporate violence really well. Simon Kernick has a scene in one of his books which is probably the most horrific scene I've ever read. I'm sure that lots of people skipped that chapter, but I thought it was absolutely perfect - even though I'd just taken a huge bite out of a ham sandwich when I started to read it.

There's one author of fairly popular books who I just can't read. I won't mention names because I believe he's on Crimespace. Where Duane and Al and Charlie Williams (with his chainsaw called Susan) manage to mix humour and violence really well, I cannot read Author X's books. And one of the reasons is because the violence just hits me as gratuitous and distasteful.

In general, I prefer to read about the results of violence, the impact it has on the characters,the aftermath, rather than read about people knocking lumps out of each other. It has to be real, with real consequences and real pain. I'm not keen on those serial killer books where the only reason for the victim to be there is to have body organs ripped out and replaced with a music box playing I Left My Heart In San Francisco. You don't feel for the victim, and the violent scenes seem to be lovingly lingered on.

If it's included as titillation I won't like it (not that I don't enjoy being titillated, sometimes a nice bit of titillation is just what you need), if it's inserted to add some tension (let's shove in a bit of torture and mutilation here to turn up the heat), then I won't like it.

The same with sex. For a start it usually ends up sounding either silly or clinical and completely unerotic written down. And not many authors seems to achieve the happy medium - it's either the sublime heaving bosom and chorus of angels singing 'hallellujah', or the ridiculous throbbing manhood and 'take me, take me, big boy'.

I don't need a blow by blow account...errrr...if you excuse the terminology :o)

And I do a lot of my reading on the bus. I'm quite happy to read about murder and mayhem while sitting next to a snoring drunk who smells of curry and Special Brew and is dribbling all over my shoulder, but I am not going to be titillated. I don't WANT to be titillated on the bus - I'm BRITISH for heaven's sake!

I think that violence and sex should be treated like seasoning in food. Too little and the book may lack some spice; too much and all you're going to be left with is the overwhelming taste of the seasoning - it drowns out everything else and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

For me it's the word 'gratuitous' which is important. If the violence or sex tells me something about the characters, moves the plot along, fits in with the book then by all means give me sex or violence (especially the sex :o) ). But if it sticks out like a sore thumb and feels out of place or extraneous then I'll pass. It's only annoying if it feels gratuitous - gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, gratuitous knitting patterns, gratuitous abseiling down the Empire State Building...does it fit in? If it does, then for me it doesn't matter HOW violent it is, it will feel right, if it doesn't then even the protagonist stubbing his toe can feel wrong.

Oh, shut up Donna.
What she said...
I don't mind bad things happening to characters. But if there's violence described in the story, I expect there to be a really good, necessary to the plot reason for it to be there. If there are serious details about it, it has to have a really good reason for being there. Otherwise it's gratuitous and I probably won't finish the book or read anything else by that author/in that series. (Same with sex. I don't need to know who had their hand where to know they were having sex.)
I think Donna's already hit on it pretty solidly. And I believe I know that Simon Kernick scene - there's someone who does violence well.

It is all about tone and realism. When I get the sense that something is put in a story just to shock, then I'm done. And that's a judgment call, but if the author has done their job setting the tone of the work and remains consistent they won't have a problem.

For example, when Val McDermid's new Tony & Carol book comes out this summer, I won't expect sunshine and lollipops. I expect things will seem pretty bleak and grim, and the crimes will not be pleasant ones. That's consistent with the whole tone of the series, and it works for me. Yes the violence bothers me, but no it doesn't offend me - not in these books. Val's creating vicious killers and part of understanding them in order to catch them involves some basic understanding of what they do and what motivates them to do it. For a series on profiling it is necessary to consider execution of the crimes.

On the other hand, there have been a few books I've abandoned where the unnecessary detail just felt tacked on to set the horrid deed apart from all the others. An author once told me they'd come up with their gimmick, the thing to set their killer apart, and told me what it was. I actually said, "That's sick." And I won't read their books, because the reasoning behind this was to sensationalize the book. I believe you write what the story dictates. This means you should consider what's realistic for the time period, the characters, the circumstances unfolding.

For example, you wouldn't expect in the middle of Anne of Green Gables for there to be a knife fight that gets out of hand and someone ends up with a pitchfork through them. But that level of violence wouldn't seem out of place in a book like American Skin. (Potential Spoiler: And if anything, in terms of shock value, it's the abruptness of some of the killings in American Skin that is really shocking to the reader. You have no real time to see it coming, just the moment is there, pow.)

Personally, I'm not crazy about a lot of sex in the books either. However, if the book reads like one bangathon after another, at least there's a consistency of tone. It's when you're reading a book that borders on a cozy and after 200 pages of good writing with a gentler approach that the x-rated sex scenes and graphic violence comes in that the book is going to get chucked. The author needs to set the stage for what they're including in the book. That is why I can read Ken Bruen and not think of it as being that violent, while there are other authors I've considered distasteful.
Likewise with regard to gratuitous vs. moving the story along. I expect a good deal of violence when I read Bernard Cornwall--his are historical novels exploring topics like the Civil War or the 100 Years War. I do not expect grisly detailed descriptions in most garden-variety mystery novels. What goes unsaid is just as important as what is said in terms of getting a feel for the crime.

I know there are people who would disagree, but I find some of PD James' novels too gruesome to read. My husband who is pretty hard to disturb, doesn't care for James Patterson's sexually violent/deviant prose; in fact he actually discarded one of his novels for that reason. I find scenes of sexual violence extremely disturbing, ditto violence against children. I prefer to read how the crimes are solved and how the investigators do their jobs. Some ugly descriptions are necessary to get the point across, but a little goes a long way.
Well, readers' tastes and tolerance differ. My own feelings are pretty much the same as Donna's. As a writer I use violence because murder is a violent crime, but I am also more interested in the impact of this violence on the characters.
Val McDermid has a superb and very graphic novel (MERMAIDS SINGING?) that shocked and horrified me, but it needed to do this. Mind you, the same amount of horror might not ever be appropriate again.
I completely agree. I have strong feelings about books that gloss over violence and don't treat it seriously. I read something from an author who said they wanted to create a place where things were civilized and murder could be discussed over tea and crumpets. Not an author I'll be reading - very cavalier about the destructiveness of crime and the havoc it wreaks on a person's life.

I always think this question is best addressed to the target audience. You'll get distinctly different answers from different readers. I don't worry about trying to please everyone, just what's acceptable for my target.
Hi Kim-

I'm curious: how about if one substitutes "realistic" for "believable"? I've read plenty of spec fiction that was well done because it was believable, whether or not it was "realistic."

As for violence on dogs, don't read Guthrie's HARD MAN.

Erm, the only book I've ever stopped reading because it was giving me the wiggs was Communion by Whitley Streiber.

I almost stopped reading a book about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka-the book went into pretty graphic detail about what the two had done to Homolka's sister. I don't know what it was, the fact that it was her sister, that their age difference was the same as my sister and I, or the fact that I've always been very protective of my sister, but that part of the book almost stopped me. Bothered me for a long time too.

Otherwise, not much bothers me. Yes, I get peeved if it's obvious that the author is going over the top, but as long as it keeps my interest and/or I'm still guessing towards the end of the book, then I'm happy.

As far as sex, I'm a little more picky (we women usually are you know!). I don't know that you see in books as much as you do in films, but having the two protagonists hook up just so there's a sex scene, or the female protag fall in love with the killer or the 'misunderstood' suspect-that is annoying and it gets old. It is refreshing to read a book where that doesn't happen, where sex scenes that take place are there for a reason, or are there because you would naturally expect the two (or more) people involved to be having sex with one another. As long as it's legitimate (so to speak), write as many sex scenes as you want.

See? It's really pretty easy to keep me happy!
I agree Em. For me it's the believability aspect that Brian mentioned. I believe in Eric Garcia's velociraptor PI Vincent Rubio because Garcia makes him believable and realistic in his world. If one of my work colleagues came up and told me he was a pterodactyl I would be calling the men in their white coats to come and take him away (although, SOME of my colleagues...) When I watch Tom and Jerry, I find it totally believable that Tom can get flattened by an anvil falling from a 20th storey window, get up and run around totally flat and anvil shaped for a minute, continue chasing Jerry, get mown down by a speeding combine harvester, catch his leg in a door and have it stretch like elastic and finally cram his whole body into a mousehole and seconds later be completely normal again. If I was watching an pisode of Friends and that happened to Joey it would just be ridiculous. It's the context. Make me believe in your world and you can be as unrealistic as you like, pepper the city with bodies stuffed down drainage pipes, have body parts flying around like a flock of seagulls and have your protagonist be beaten up by an army of thugs in every chapter. I just need to believe, and it needs to fit with the overall context.

I'm not going to believe it if Charlie Williams' Royston Blake goes home and tidies up, does some laundry, has a nice cup of tea and invites the Munton brothers round for an evening of crochet and psalms at the organ. But I AM going to believe that he's going to get drunk, psychotic, beaten up 17 times, stuffed into the back of the Meat Wagon, and escape from a near death experience with a chainsaw named Susan. And I'm going to love ever single last violent, brutal absurd second of it.


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