Posted by Sheila Connolly
Last week I spent several days visiting my daughter, who is a college senior and who will be graduating in a few weeks. I always enjoy hanging out at her college campus, because of the incredible richness of opportunities for entertainment, intellectual stimulation, and sheer diversion. It did not disappoint this time, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be hearing about various lectures I attended for some time to come (if the idea appalls you, you’d better let me know so I can ramble on about deciding between a rhododendron and an apple tree for my front garden).
One of the events I attended was a talk by author Dorothy Allison, about whom I knew next to nothing (perhaps her best-known book is Bastard out of Carolina, from 1992). In fact, I didn’t even know the talk was scheduled until about half an hour before it began. So I just went to listen, with no context. Allison is a great speaker—funny, insightful, and passionate about what she believes in (and she spoke for over an hour without notes). She talked about a lot of things, some writing-related, some not. But one large segment of her talk hit home with me, and in light of the events of the past week, I think it’s particularly relevant.
Allison admitted that like many of us, she will grab a handful of popular thrillers as she’s about to board a plane, and she will devour them on the plane to distract herself from the fact that she hates flying. But she’s ambivalent about reading them, because all too often they begin with a scene of extreme violence, most commonly inflicted on women. The official title of her talk was “Giving Voice to the Unspeakable.” But the unspeakable, in this case, is not the violence, but the fact that there is an aftermath to that violence, and that is often ignored.
Our (contemporary, American) society is fascinated by violence—as long as it’s safely contained in a book, or on a screen. Part of that obsession is prompted by a craving to know more, some of it is sympathetic, but some of it (in Allison’s words) “is just mean.” And to distance ourselves from the violence, we make it speakable, and we pretend that it can be tamed. We pretend that a person—particularly a woman—can rise above an awful experience. But that’s a lie: it takes enormous courage to get beyond violence that is inflicted on you, and you are inevitably and irretrievably changed by that experience. And by trivializing that through fiction, we deny it. As Allison said, “the real events of our life must be spoken…if we pretend it does not happen, we allow it to continue.”
Which brings me to my point. Several of us who write for this blog are writers of cozies—traditional mysteries. And in the world of publishing today, the cozy genre has specific rules. While the precipitating event is a murder—something intrinsically violent—according to cozy rules the violence of the murder must happen off-screen. Our plucky heroine stumbles upon a dead body after the fact, and for any number of reasons, good and bad, decides to find out why this person was killed.
And that leads me to an ethical dilemma. I write cozies, but by doing so am I sanitizing the violence and thereby, indirectly, inadvertently, encouraging it? Violent death is messy, cruel, and wrong. It is evil. It should not be dressed up with cute pets and flower gardens.
That’s one point of view. But in defense of the genre (and my own books), I think cozies strive for balance: we as writers acknowledge that violence exists, and that readers respond to it, but we also insist on justice. Often the protagonist has no personal stake in solving the crime, but she plunges right in anyway, because the crime must be solved, the wrong righted.
I read some thrillers, but often with clenched teeth. In a society laced with violence, we don’t need to seek out more. We need to understand why it occurs, and try to stop it. And that’s what happens in cozies: justice is served, order is restored. I think it’s a positive message, and I like to think that’s why people choose to read them.
Allison has another novel coming out within the year. It’s about some women who survive violent acts. I look forward to reading it.