Thursday, November 11, 2010

When does outrage become prurience?

Elizabeth Zelvin

In a couple of recent online discussions of crime fiction that doesn’t pull its punches in describing violence, including sexual violence, I discovered that individual readers have widely varying ideas of where to draw the line with respect to acceptable reading. Or maybe more accurately, they react viscerally to different material and therefore interpret the writer’s intent in including that material in differing ways.

One of the discussions started with someone posting an extremely graphic description of a scene in a novel and someone else responding, “I wish I hadn’t read that,” blaming the original poster for thrusting a disturbing visual image on anyone who read the post. Soon everyone else was pitching in with books they wished they hadn’t read. My own candidate was Silence of the Lambs, and I wasn’t the only reader who said of one or another of the Hannibal Lecter series, “Eww, gross.” Yet millions of readers happily devoured (no pun intended) the Lecter saga in all its gruesomeness.

A lot of readers also love the Dexter series, both the book and the TV series. I wish the Dexter folks hadn’t chosen to plaster the New York subways with posters showing this handsome young fellow with his engaging grin ecstatically lifting his face to bathe in a splatter of blood. I found the image disturbing, and I’m concerned about the message it sent. But serial killers are immensely popular with crime fiction writers and readers, as well as the movies and TV shows they spawn.

I’d like to think the viewers know that they’re suspending disbelief. I recently heard a forensic psychologist who has interviewed and assessed many murderers state in no uncertain terms that Dexter—ie a killer with empathy, loved ones, and a conscience—does not and cannot exist. But maybe the charm of fictional psychopaths fools and seduces people in much the way that the charm of real psychopaths and con artists does. We want to think that charm is a lovable quality. It’s not. But it’s a powerful tool for the manipulation of dupes and victims.

I had a different take on Nevada Barr’s Burn, which is set in New Orleans and includes descriptions of a sex club in which young children are abused. I didn’t find the descriptions at all prurient, and I had no trouble understanding that Barr was trying to paint a realistic picture in order to arouse the reader’s outrage along with her protagonist Anna Pigeon’s. She left out what I think would have made the scenes unbearable: the children’s pain and suffering. These young children had been trained to compliance and, at least as depicted on the page, were not aware that they were being sexually abused, in effect, tortured. Barr trusted the reader to find this realism morally repugnant and the compliance itself horrifying. I had no trouble with that. Yet some other readers were outraged that the scenes were included at all and might even stop reading Barr’s novels as a result.

I find it disturbing that there is a lot more tolerance of violence and even torture on the page among crime fiction writers and readers than there is of sexual abuse. I’ve heard readers say they won’t read anything that refers to it, no matter how it’s depicted. Some literary agents won’t handle it. I don’t find any kind of sexual abuse entertaining, funny, or sexy. It’s a social issue that I don’t want to see swept under the rug.

The theme of my mystery series is recovery from alcoholism and codependency. It’s “writing what I know” based on many years of professional experience, and there’s no way I can leave sexual abuse out. Up to 77 percent of alcoholic women have a history of sexual abuse either in childhood or as adults. As a therapist, I’ve had so many clients either from alcoholic families or with eating disorders who also have experienced sexual abuse or trauma that when a new client presents with one of these issues, I routinely ask about the other two. As a novelist, I don’t belabor it, but I have to write about it.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the voyages of Columbus from the perspective of a Jewish protagonist. That means I’m writing about anti-Semitism, rape, and genocide. I doubt that any instance of genocide has not included sexual violence. Is this material too strong for readers to stomach, although they take beatings, murders, and even torture in stride (except if the victim is an animal)? Am I including it from prurience? I don’t think so.

In researching my period, I found a real-life character, a childhood friend of Columbus, who not only went on the second voyage, but wrote a book about it when he got back. Several modern historians (including Morison, the 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner who’s considered the foremost authority) repeat this fellow’s anecdote about how he was “given” a Taino girl who fought, screamed, and scratched when he tried to have sex with her. But then he “thrashed her well,” and after that, she did what he wanted. Morison found this incident comic. I hate the guy, even though he’s been dead 500 years. Did I use the incident in my manuscript? You bet I did. I feel impelled to set the record straight: this was assault and rape. And any reader who says, “Eww, rape”—as is their right—is missing the point.


Sheila Connolly said...

It depends. Recently I read a fast-paced thriller where much violence was inflicted, both on the protagonists and on the designated villains. If I had stopped to think, I would have been appalled at the body count, but the story kept carrying me forward.

I draw the line at books about serial killers who mutilate women. Once in a while, okay--but there are a lot of those books out there, and while I recognize that they have some prurient appeal (to whom, I wonder?), I can't stomach them. There is so much hostility there.

And yet most readers of traditional mysteries seem much more upset by the death of a pet than by a murder. Go figure.

lil Gluckstern said...

I think it depends on what people are looking for when they read. I like a lot of reality in my books, and that is why I like your books, Liz. I particularly enjoy books that shed some light on what it what like a long time ago. History has tended to hide away the darker side of cultures; I just like to know what it was like. There are a few authors I read where reality is how hot the oven must be to bake the donuts, but then I know what I'm in for. I like some cotton candy along with good, solid meals.

Mike Dennis said...

Prurience, outrage, clinical deconstruction of violence, I don't think any of it matters, Elizabeth. By that I mean the motivation of the author is no one's business but the author's. If what appears on the page is too repugnant for some readers, then they may choose not to read any more of that person's work.

You cited Nevada Barr's controversial work, BURN. She's a perfect example of what I believe is the author's absolute right to write whatever he/she wants, letting the marketplace be the censor. When we allow political correctness to invade our creative selves, we invite incurable cancer.

Now, I'm not sure if blogs are the proper place to include graphic passages of despicable deeds, but putting it in a novel? Go ahead. I will defend your right to do it, regardless of the repulsiveness of the acts depicted. The READERS are the ones to decide--those who shell out the money, who decide in the free marketplace of ideas whether an author's ideas have currency--and they should be the only ones.

The Writers' Gestapo has no place whatsoever in the creation of any work of prose, or any other work of art.

Sandra Parshall said...

Writers are free to write what they want and can get published. But, as we've seen with the flap over the child abuse book on Kindle, even self-publishing doesn't save a writer from the judgment of the reading public. You can write it, but I don't have to read it, and if I do read it, I don't have to like it. I am opposed to censorship, and also opposed to anybody telling people they are wrong if they happen to react negatively to a piece of writing.

I've always been a Nevada Barr fan, but I found BURN rough going. If I'd realized it contained graphic scenes of child sex abuse, I wouldn't have read it, and that is my absolute right. I have to disagree that the suffering of the children wasn't shown. It was, to a deeply disturbing degree. And it SHOULD have been shown. The scenes would have had no impact beyond the "ewww" factor if the children hadn't been suffering. The wide, frightened eyes, terrified silence, the little girl being tossed back and forth by two men -- yes, the suffering was evident. The book made me feel helpless, because I don't know what one person can do to stop such practices. I don't condemn Nevada Barr for writing it. She wrote about what she feels passionate about. We should all do that.

jenny milchman said...

I guess I do have problems where the physical acts--be they violent or sexual or both--are described graphically, especially if you're in the POV of the victim. Not because I'm offended or think the author salacious, but simply because if they've done their job well, the horror is too great.

Mike Dennis said...

"You can write it, but I don't have to read it, and if I do read it, I don't have to like it."

I agree with you 100%, Sandra.

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