The OF Blog: A nearly violence-free month of reading

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A nearly violence-free month of reading

A little over a month ago, I wrote a piece about what I saw as the problematic issue of graphic violence in certain fictions.  In it, I said this:

But despite the round-and-round nature of the often-derailed discussion, I think the core issue (or "core" to me at least, but then again, I was the one who initiated that discussion there) is the problematic issue of graphic violence in fiction.  I am not a pacifist; sometimes violence is a regrettably necessary last resort to aggressive violence.  But I have experienced enough over my professional career (which at times has involved me working directly with or teaching teens that have suffered emotional, physical, and mental traumas, including sexual abuse) to abhor graphic violence for the sake of "authenticity" in fiction (read "violence for violence's sake).

It is strange to read comments arguing that violence has to be included in order for something to be "real;" especially odd when the works in question are epic fantasies.  Yes, yes, I can hear almost the thoughts of those who are thinking, "Hey!  But if the setting is a violent world, shouldn't one reasonably expect there to be violence?"  This of course presumes that violence is somehow necessary in order for the story to be told, something that often is not the case (I doubt Patricia McKillip's The Riddle-Master trilogy would be improved with gore, explicit swearing, and a rape or three thrown in to show how "dark," "grim," and "gritty" the setting is).

But let's humor that train of thought that says in a violent world, violence must be shown.  How explicit should it be?  Should there be an unrelenting amount of violence described in detail, down to the downy ass hairs of those being raped in every possible orifice?  Most people would probably say no, that there are limits to the effectiveness of depicting such violent acts.  Yet "too much" is a blurred line. 
These are, of course, opinions I still hold over a month later.  Yet I thought it'd be interesting to look at what I've finished so far in January 2011 and what I am reading to see what acts of violence, if any, were depicted and the level of graphicness.  Here's what I noticed so far:

1.  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.  There is an intensity to this tale set in southern Mexico in the 1930s during a period of anti-clerical repression that makes this tale seem more violent than what is depicted (there are very few deaths and none that are shown "on screen" here), yet the action seems to benefit from this not being spelled out.

2.  William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.  Family chronicle that is a memorable read, yet no acts of violence occur here.

3.  Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine.  Tale of an African-American minister in the early 20th century sinking under the weight of parishioner expectations and his infidelity.  No violence outside of spousal abuse very early in the novel, which the boy stops his mother's paramour from harming her.

4.  E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Going to be writing about his works at length this month, so I'll content myself with noting no violence in this novel.

5.  E.M. Forster, A Room With a View.  See above.

6.  Pietro Aretino, Sonetti lussuriosi.  Renaissance sonnets devoted to lust, particularly the poet's preference to have anal sex with women.  No violence, however. (Italian)

7.  Anthero Tarquino de Quental, Os sonetos completos de Anthero de Quental.  More sonnets, but no anal sex depicted.  No violence, neither. (Portuguese)

8.  Graham Greene, The Quiet American.  Despite the backdrop of Vietnam in the mid-1950s as the French are pulling out and the Americans moving in, the tale has much more to do with intrigue, romantic and political alike, than anything truly violent.

9.  Augusto Monterroso, Cuentos.  His stories read more like fables.  Some acts of violence hinted at, but nothing described in detail. (Spanish)

10. Herta Müller, Tot el que tinc, ho duc al damunt.  Her 2009 novel about Romanian Germans being rounded up by the Soviets in the last year of the Soviet Union.  Devastating, with some acts of violence toward some of the characters, but nothing truly graphic. (read in Catalan translation, as it was the only one available in e-book form)

11.  Sohrab Sepehri, Water's Footfall.  Bilingual (Persian and English) mystic poem.  Nothing violent.

12.  Sully Prudhomme, Les vaines tendresses.  Late 19th century poetry.  No violence. (French)

13.  Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  A few depictions of marital abuse, but nothing that is portrayed in explicit detail.

14.  Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandra Quartet.  Intrigue, but no real violence depicted.

15.  William Faulkner, Sanctuary.  The most violent story I've read this month.  A "fade to black" rape scene and a couple of murders that take place, with brief descriptions of the shootings.  Mob lynching at the end.

16.  Maurice Maeterlinck, Death.  Essay on death.   Nothing violent.

17.  Forugh Farrokhzad, Remembering the Flight:  Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad.  Passionate 20th century Persian poetry, in a bilingual edition.  No violence.

18.  Adonis, A Time Between Ashes and Roses.  Mid-to-late 20th century Arabic poetry published in a bilingual edition.  No violence outside of allusions to protests and wars.

19.  E.M. Forster, Howards End.  See above.

20.  Various, The Upanishads.  Ancient Hindu scriptures.  Not violent.

21.  E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.  See above.

22.  (In Progress)  Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet.  Children's words physically afflict parents, but nothing graphic about this.

23.  (In Progress) Tomas Tranströmer, The Great Enigma:  New Collected Poems.  It's poetry.  No violence.

24.  (In Progress) Giosuè Carducci, Rime Nuove.  Late 19th-early 20th century poetry.  No violence. (Italian)

These are mostly reads (with the exception of Faulkner and Hurston) that I only decided to read shortly before I finished reading them; no real premeditation on what I would read.  Seems I'm more in the mood for reading poetry, even odd, amorous poetry about the poet's love of anal sex, than I am about reading anything truly violent, at least in the sense of the action being described in detail.  Just thought that was an interesting sidenote to last month's discussion, so make of it what you will, I suppose.


tim said...

Forster is one of my favorite novelists (and political/social thinkers) of the 20th century. Can't wait for your discussions.

Miguel said...

7. Anthero Tarquino de Quental, Os sonetos completos de Anthero de Quental. More sonnets, but no anal sex depicted. No violence, neither. (Portuguese)

It would have been awesome if a 19th century poet had put that in his sonnets, though :-)

Snarky Lady said...

Interesting point. Especially since I think a lot of the violence in fiction is anything BUT realistic. You know--the good guys get tortured and can still find the strength to beat up the badguy and kiss the girl, whereas the villians pass out if someone steps on their foot in the elevator...

Larry said...

The Forster post will be up in the next 24 hours or so on Gogol's Overcoat.

Yes, there needs to be more sonnets with anal sex in them...err...wait a minute...

As for the unrealistic aspect of graphic violence, I agree that most often it is little more than superhero action with blood-tinted water splashed about, what with the portrayals of these characters and the effects that the violence has on their actions.

Anonymous said...

Great that you made this list, will have to check it out.

-Sciborg2 aka Saajan Patel

Add to Technorati Favorites