Recently a friend of mine fell ill and I attended to her. The illness was debilitating but non-life threatening. I provided therapeutic massage, warm cups of tea, pain-killers and company. At one point she fell asleep and I used the quiet time to edit part of a manuscript I’d recently completed.
When she next awoke, she asked if I would read what I was working on aloud. I was reluctant since my friend is of a delicate and sensitive persuasion and easily frightened by depictions of violence. She once told me that the only film or literature that she consumes contains the type of characters whom (if they existed in real life) she would want to have visit her house.
I offered my considered opinion that the themes, subject matter and characters depicted in the novel would not meet that limited criteria. The characters in my book are complex and so too, are their motivations. None of the twenty minor and eight principle characters are intrinsically good or evil – but all are capable of violence.
Nonetheless my friend persevered and I grudgingly relented to her request. And as I expected, my friend was terrified by what I read. As it happened, the selected reading was one of the novel’s least intense and violent scenes. I didn’t dare read some of the others that are described below.
In one particularly harrowing scene a female protagonist has to fight off a would-be rapist in the form of her boss. In another a minor character is tortured by having his hand boiled in water prior to his throat being cut. There are also depictions of vigilante mob violence: A man accused of a “crime” against the state is dragged from his home by undercover police officers and beaten to death in front of his family and neighbours.
None of these scenes were easy to write and the scene involving the attempted rape least of all. The most violent depictions are loosely based on real events. For example those who have studied Russian history may be aware of the torture techniques employed by the Tsarist Ohkhrana and the Soviet Cheka, later the KGB. The Iranian SAVAK later borrowed many of these same techniques for use against dissidents, as did the American CIA. Some of the survivors of SAVAK prisons would later go on to torture their torturers after the Iranian Shah was deposed in 1979. The scene involving the man dragged from his home and beaten to death recalled the moonlighting activities of the police during Algeria’s “Dirty War” of the mid-1990s.
As for the depiction of attempted rape, that was inspired by the sickening, contemporary reality on North American university campuses, where one out of five women is subjected to a full or partial rape before their sophomore year. The scene also recalled the reality for thousands of women during the Industrial Revolution who were subject to physical and sexual violence by co-workers and factory foremen.
My friend asked me if I felt bad about writing such violent fiction and my response was swift and succinct: Fiction isn’t violent. It can contain depictions of violence. However violence is real and violent depictions are not. There is an enormous distinction between a man, woman or child being gunned down in a street, versus characters in a novel or in movie being subjected to the same fate.
Furthermore I find it both strange and bemusing that many critics of film and literature (that contain depictions of violence) are often silent in the face of real violence occurring around the world. One can be forgiven for being unaware of every single fatality in every single conflict occurring around the world due to the scale of the casualties. There are wars being fought that have gone on for decades – so long in fact that most media outlets no longer provide regular coverage. It has been estimated that some five thousand civilians and one thousand soldiers die every day in war-zones. Yet we in the western world persist in a misguided belief that our societies are at peace.
Therefore in answer to my friend’s question, I’m not horrified by fictional violence but I am horrified and outraged by the reality upon which allowed me to I draw inspiration for these scenes. And in my opinion, if consumers of literature, film and television were as quick to decry actual violence – political, sexual, physical and military – as they are to criticise depictions of violence in media forms, perhaps our society could actually bring an end to real violence.
My friend made a point that writing about violence results in a continuation of violence. I dispute this notion whole-heartedly. By that same logic, anyone who has ever read a Stephen King or Tom Clancy novel, or viewed a film like Friday the Thirteenth would automatically seek to kill someone. Of the millions who watched Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, only one copy-cat case comes to mind. A teenager who watched the movie dozens of times before murdering his parents. Mental illness and family issues were the driving force behind those crimes, not a motion picture.
Instead, criticizing fiction for containing violent depictions serves as steam release valve for social guilt over a citizen’s inaction in the face of real wrong-doing. The outrage over the Netflix drama Thirteen Reasons Why – a TV series that criticises societies attitudes towards bullying and suicide- has been subject to hysterical criticism and outright bans by school boards. Rather than confront the real issues raised by the series, the response of parents and educators is to stick their heads, ostrich-like into the proverbial sands of denial.
But I digress. Depictions of violence are and should be upsetting to sane people – and the point of including violent depictions in fictional works should serve the purpose of discomfort. In the case of my-work-in-progress, the violent depictions are intended to illustrate a dystopic fictional world in which ideology has been allowed to reach its logical extreme. Not a particularly original idea, I’d add, but one of contemporary concern where ideologues are increasingly framing political debate in binary terms.
Ours is an age in which there exists political and religious leaders of all denominations – Christian, Islamist or otherwise – who advocate for the suppression or women, the wholesale slaughter of gays and lesbians as well as the subjugation and destruction of other faiths. These leaders are by no means representative of the wishes of the majority of those communities, but as both Western and Eastern society becomes more corporate, the influence of such unsavoury characters is growing relative to their numbers. Richard Perle, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski… the list of unelected officials seeking power over the world’s peoples is long.
A recent example of unelected, extremist corporate influence is that of former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz who outsourced contracting services to an equally Christian fundamentalist Erik Prince and his Blackwater mercenaries. Schmitz believed this act to part of a holy war against the Islamic world. Not that the victims of Baghdad’s Nisour Square had a say in the matter.
The end result of Western interference in the Middle East has been the rise of ISIL and other Islamist movements. In Afghanistan, ISIL is fighting in a three way war against the western-backed Afghan government and the Taliban, the latter whom it believes to not be sufficiently Islamist.
But again I digress. The primary role of the writer is to communicate in a meaningful way and to provide a literary reflection of society with all its warts and blemishes. Depictions of violence are used in my novel for illustrative purposes and not for purposes of titillation. Those writers who utilize violent depictions as a substitute for content are deserving of criticism.
The same can be said for all forms of literature and media, especially when it substitutes gimmickry for content. Criticism, generally, can be a constructive force. Just as it is the writer’s duty to criticise, so to the reader has a responsibility to be critical of what they consume. For that I am grateful for those who read my work who provide useful critiques.
Which brings me to one further and final point: Why write about such intense and harsh topics in the first place?
The answer is two-fold if complicated.
First, as elucidated earlier, the writer has an obligation to hold a mirror up to society in an honest and critical way. Being honest doesn’t mean being nice, either. Writers have an obligation to be nasty in order to speak truth to power and to challenge received wisdom.
Second, I write about what I am passionate about. If I didn’t what would be the point?
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