You didn't know this was Ethics Week here at Crimespace, did you?

Okay, so far we've examined the ethics of practices that might interfere with authors making money. (I admit to being utterly bemused by worrying about losing a sale instead of losing a culture of readers, but I digress.)

Let's turn our attention to something else: Is it ethical to make entertainment (and money) out of the suffering of others?

Let's propose a scenario: You're giggling with a friend at a cafe about ways to kill people and a woman at the next table leaves in furious tears because her sister had been murdered and she's upset and offended that you think it's so damn funny. How do you respond?

Or - you write a bestseller inspired by the headlines about the war on terror in which your intrepid hero battles the odds to thwart another attack on US soil and, the day after the movie based on your book is released you grab your newspaper from your porch, flip to the entertainment section, and are delighted to see it's number one at the box office. Yes! Then you glance at the front page and find an angry crowd set fire to a local mosque.

We often say crime fiction satisfies people's yearning for justice. It also apparently satisfies a yearning for vicarious and painless violence that has a happy ending. Is it ethical to make money by exploiting that fascination for violence and providing a false sense of resolution?

Please discuss these matters at your earliest convenience.

Yr. most humble servant,
Lucy Fer, J.D.
Devil's Advocate

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I'm not sure that this will fly for the genre in general. However, there may be some very specific matters that could be considered unethical in fiction. Keep in mind that we are probably all against censorship. So we are left with our individual sense of what cannot be done.
We often say crime fiction satisfies people's yearning for justice. It also apparently satisfies a yearning for vicarious and painless violence that has a happy ending. Is it ethical to make money by exploiting that fascination for violence and providing a false sense of resolution?

Well, to go down the path of brutal honesty, I've never made a secret of a background with abuse, of being assaulted or any of that stuff. Last year, I gave a copy of Mark Billingham's Buried to a friend who used to get locked in the basement and gang raped by family members. So that wasn't exactly what was happening in Mark's story - the description of being confined in a cellar brought back memories, and was something they identified with.

This is what draws me to crime fiction as a reader. Perhaps I've found in some books a sense of the justice that eluded me in real life. And it is therapeutic to some degree - I've worked through personal issues reading fictional books. However, this raises a certain problem for me as an individual, because I do have a value system at play in my reading. When I hear authors poo-poo anyone who tries to tackle social issues in crime fiction, who denounces those efforts and says that murder should be civilized and something you can talk about over tea and crumpets and that the primary purpose is entertainment, I'm put off. I 100% believe in telling a compelling story that grips the reader - so in that respect I guess I do believe in the entertainment value - but not at the expense of the realities of crime. I do take some offense to books that belittle criminal actions and the consequences.

That's where it gets tricky, because I certainly read hard-boiled stuff that involves criminal protagonists, and have even written from that side of the coin. I guess, end of the day, it's a very delicate balance. In the same way I expect I've put people off who don't like my opinions on various things, a few authors have put me off with their cavalier attitudes towards crime.

Which is perhaps unfair. I don't know. But I think it's like all things - we talk about gratuitous violence, and that line shifts reader to reader. I guess we know exploitation when we see it, and that's the only thing I have a real problem with. I'm actually a big fan of H. Mel Malton's Polly Deacon series, set in Canada, amateur sleuth (puppet maker) and on the spectrum not exactly where I usually read. But the difference is, as much as there's a quirky, off-beat sense of humour that underlies the books, Mel never treats murder lightly or dismisses the victims. Ultimately for me, that's the key. Anyone who's read my blog regularly will have no doubt about a few authors who've crossed the line for me in this regard. One made a statement to the effect that crime fiction was entertainment and if you're writing serious fiction, tackle serious issues, but in our genre nobody should delude themselves into thinking it's important - to which I say where the hell does he (or anyone) get off telling me what a book is and is not allowed to mean to me as a reader?

And in my own moral framework, I'm very careful to avoid dealing with some things that come too close to real situations I've dealt with. In other words, I'm careful to make sure it's still fiction.
For some reason, I got out of bed thinking "hey, if we're gonna talk ethics..." Then, in a strange alignment of stars, I picked up a book I've been rereading because my WIP deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault - it's a philosopher's approach to violence and its consequences, Susan J. Brison's Aftermath:Violence and the Remaking of a Self. (It's a great book, by the way, though it is very much an academic work of philosophy - but informed by real experience, so scholarship in the first person of the best kind.)

Anyhoo, by chance I opened it to this passage...

"We are not taught to empathize with victims. In crime novels and detective films, it is the villain, or the one who solves the murder mystery, who attracts our attention; the victim, a merely passive pretext for our entertainment, is conveniently disposed of - and forgotten - early on. We identify with the agents' strength and skill, for good or evil, and join the victim, if at all, in our nightmares."

That's not true of all crime fiction, but it's largely the case that the detective and the villain get to speak and the victim is someone who, at best, has someone else speak for her (or him) and quite often is less important than what comes next, or simply gets buried in the pile of bodies that have to fall to keep the suspense going.

So I asked Lawyer Lucy to raise the question - it's simply one I feel we need to bear in mind, though I'm also confident there are strong arguments that it is in most cases not unethical. (And, as I.J. says, I wouldn't argue that even if ethically suspect, that anyone should prevent it from being published; I would instead criticize it as a bad work of fiction.)
Well, I'm occasionally ambivalent about the very violent books I read because there is a link between certain crimes and the literature/films/shows the perpetrator habitually favored. But even there, I have found some well-written books (a very few).
As for the victims: yes, absolutely. And I think the newer crime fiction is very conscious of that. It's the older books that used to kill off those characters that the reader didn't much like anyway as if they were so much irrelevant garbage. In an Agatha Christie, you can generall guess who is going to get it next.
It's a very interesting point, often true. I don't think we have to focus solely on the victim, or have every page touch on their pain even... but there's a big difference between having a crime be a legitimate springboard for exploring issues and pursuing a case and being casually dismissive.

In all honesty, when I heard that one author talk on the radio, his attitude was so condescending I cried. There's one other author I can think of who came off that way to me. Those two, I won't read. They may not have meant to come off the way they did, they may be very respectful in their fiction, but I'll never know.

I do think more authors are paying attention to how victims are handled. Mark Billingham is actually one of the best at that - read Sleepyhead and see the life he breathes into a victim. Of course, it's a bit different, because he has a living victim and not every case allows for that.

I think it explains why I like fiction that's a bit weightier, though. Books that touch on social issues are about more than hero cop catching the bad guy. I never want it to be a sledgehammer and try to keep it balanced myself, but it's still the undercurrent. I guess that's what carries through for me.

I don't think crime fiction (in general) is unethical. It boils down to individual authors and whether or not they exploit people, and that could happen outside the genre boundaries as well I think.
Yes, I thought of Sleepyhead, too, and how rare and amazing it was to have the victim included in the story so throughly. Her perspective totally made that book work for me.

I.J., I think the philosopher I quoted was thinking of those traditional mysteries in which the victim is so odious that everyone's relieved he or she is dead, and everyone is handily a suspect. But of course there are also hardboiled contemporary books that pile up victims like cord wood and all the tears shed over them are crocodile. (That poor, sweet, young, innocent thing. Oh boy, can't wait for the next one to come along!)

Sandra's right, of course, that it's not just crime fiction. It's an issue for any form of cultural expression.
I love these sorts of disscusions, you guys.
Not being a writer myself, I cannot presume to know how one writes with a message in mind, other than entertainment. My enjoyment of the a book is usually split 3 way- between characterization, 'the puzzle' and the way the author uses words.(I am a sucker for metaphore)
One think does strike me, though. Under a judicial system that places little regard on the rights of the victim, do some mystery writers endeavor to correct the balance? I feel it is true that many contemporary mystery writers are more interested in the victims back story, than writers of say,50 years ago.
That's an interesting idea, Merlot. The philosopher I quoted earlier tears into exactly this issue after saying crime fiction isn't interested in victims. "Victims have no constitutionally protected rights qua victims." (Philosophers use words like qua, but I take her point.)

How interesting to think that maybe she got it exactly wrong - that it is a way of being concerned about victims.

Pardon me while I go repair the fuse you just blew in my head.... :o)
Your philosopher would do well to struggle through Leah Giarratano's Vodka Doesn't Freeze if she thinks crime fiction is not concerned with the victims - that's a mystery wrapped up in a discussion of a humongous amount of human damage. The author's a psychologist who has worked with offenders - now works with victims. Sure it's a first novel and it's rough around the edges - but I'd defy anyone to get to the end of it without being drenched in the victim's point of view!
Oh Merlot, it was so easy for What Burns Within.

It's all about sex.
Is it really often true what you say about the victim in crime novels? In many that I've read the reader eventually learns a heck of a lot about who the victim was. That knowledge about the victim that the detective uncovers leads to empathy for the victim, I think.
Mostly I was responding to Brison's comment, but I do think there are lots of thrillers and mysteries that are not particularly interested in victims other than as fodder for the plot. The ones I like best are not like that... but many are. And in those cases often the only thing you learn is "she was young and beautiful and innocent and I'm so angry that pieces of her ended up in six different landfills and I will get this guy, I swear! Now watch me while I do exciting things..."


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