Monday, March 4, 2013

Writing about Violence: How Much is Too Much?

Recently I sat in a public forum where the topic turned to persecution around the world. The leader started reading an extremely graphic, blow-by-blow account of torture of a man and his young son in a country where followers of a particular religion are persecuted. It went on and on, and I finally had to leave the room, an emotional wreck. I felt almost physically assaulted. Later some people agreed with me that the description of torture was too graphic for a public forum. Others felt that the importance of telling the truth trumped any individuals personal squeamishness on the topic.

Now, I know that I have an unusually vivid imagination, especially where violence and torture are concerned. If I see or hear graphic violence, the images haunt me for days, interrupting my sleep and  affecting my ability to concentrate on other things. I can't sit through a lot of movies, for example. When they say, "Not for children or more sensitive viewers," they mean me. I read the reviews beforehand not for opinions, but for descriptions of the violence, the more specific the better. "This movie contains scenes of a beheading" is of more use to me than any number of stars or thumbs-up. Reassurances of "it's only a movie" don't placate me because (a) somewhere, sometime, it happened to somebody in real life and (b) I'm horrified by what the human mind can think up to do to other humans, even if it's "just pretend," which of course the torturing of prisoners is not. I get upset and depressed, while others around me calmly munch their popcorn.

I also have to be cautious what I watch on the news. When I read news magazines, I turn the page with caution, wary of what I might see. Once certain images are in my head, I can't get them out. Because I have a vivid imagination, the simple statement "they were tortured and killed" goes a long way toward horrifying me. I do not need detail after endless detail.

Back to the forum I mentioned above, I don't want the whole group to have to ratchet down to my admittedly unusual level of squeamishness about violence. I don't expect to be wrapped in bubble wrap, insulated from all unpleasantness. But I think the leader should have at least given some warning, like "this next part is graphic, so if you want to leave the room, you can." Or "A man and his son were tortured and killed. I have a detailed account here which is too graphic to read out loud, but if any of you would like a copy to read for yourselves, see me after class." Is that reasonable? Or should I essentially suck it up?

Later the incident got me to thinking, as most things do, about writing. As writers we are told to be vivid and specific in our descriptions, to make the story come alive for our readers. I get that, and most of the time, I totally agree. But how much is too much?

I imagine the answer is different for everyone. As U. S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, "I know it when I see it."

What degree of detail about violence do you feel is appropriate to share in a novel? As a reader, have you ever set a novel aside because of disturbing depictions of violence, but later picked it up again because the story was so compelling? Do you ever feel that a novel was made better because of detailed descriptions of violence? Would your answer be different if the book wasn't a novel, but a nonfiction account?


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

What a thought provoking piece you have created here. In my novel, I did include scenes of brutality and torture. If it applied to the main character directly, I would do more of a play by play description. If it happened to others, I stated it as a matter of fact. It was not a desire to disturb my readers, but based on true events unfolding, in New England, in the 1600's. The age old adage of sticking with what pertains to the story, is how I see it. However, I am well aware of readers who do not wish to be repelled and shocked. I cannot see scary movies myself, so horror is completely out of the question as a genre for me.

Jennifer Rova said...

A well written post. I believe my answer is it depends. Okay. On what? If it is a nonfiction piece, it seems to be more acceptable because often the reader knows there will be violence. Unexpected violence, as a reader, makes me feel betrayed by the author. I like surprises but not that awful and unexpected kind. This is like much is too much before the ingredients spoil the stew.