The OF Blog: The problematic issue of graphic violence in fiction

Monday, December 19, 2011

The problematic issue of graphic violence in fiction

This weekend, spurred by my citation of a post made at Requires Only That You Hate, a long discussion began over at the Westeros forums on "Violence, rape, and agency in the 'gritty fantasies.'"  As is the wont in many such discussions, the conversation got derailed toward discussing only one scene of threatened violence/rape, the one discussed in the first link.  It even got to the point where author Richard Morgan blessed us with his wise statements on the issue:

As a writer myself, I confess I’m pretty horrified at the drubbing Joe Abercrombie is getting here, first and foremost because the overall implication of the drubbers seems to be that certain things are simply off-limits to a writer, that said writer must navigate narrow corridors of tasteful should and ought - which to my mind puts us a short hop, skip and jump away from Satanic Verses fatwa territory.

But I’m also horrified because, frankly, you’d have to have a reading age of about twelve to believe that Abercrombie’s intent here (conscious or sub) is to browbeat lesbians for their temerity in not liking cock. You’d have to never have heard of things like dramatic irony, variable p.o.v, the unsympathetic protagonist, horror by implication, subverted trope, unspoken authorial critique, show-don’t-tell, all ‘at good shit. In short, you would, in literary terms, have to be a child.

Honestly, in the last ten years I’ve seen some astonishingly poor (and/or willfully obtuse) interpretative reading of genre text, but I think this one takes the crown. 

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. 

For myself, I take issue with the need to use graphic acts as a stand-in for true character and plot development.  It is often lazy writing in which a character is shown to be "bad" or at least "not all good" by having him (usually a him in these situations, although not necessarily) go out and kill or rape someone in cold blood.  What often happens is that the person that suffers the violent act/s exists solely for that moment, like the infamous Star Trek red shirts.  Ironically, the things that Morgan decries in the quote above do not occur very often in these scenes.  Instead, it is just an explicitly-shown action in which the recipient (and sometimes the initiator) is interchangeable for purposes of the event because s/he has no real development.  Writers who take these deplorable shortcuts should be criticized for not developing something powerful from such exceptional, traumatic events of violence; settling for clichéd commentaries or a narrative shrug and a move on to the protagonist's next fuck/slaughter moment is what happens too often, with the victims being mute witnesses.

This is problematic because, to me at least, it cheapens the effect.  Murders and physical/sexual abuse are exceptional events; we frequently act shocked when we know someone who initiates or suffers from either violent action.  Yet many of us watch "body count" movies or read novels in which the death tolls mount and little to nothing affects the protagonist (or even the villain).  This distortion of the traumas explicitly revealed makes me wonder about the narratives and if there is something endemic about the genres in which this occur that numbs readers to what is truly shocking.  Perhaps for some, the true issue is not if these types of stories influence others to commit said acts but if they are just numbed to what many consider to be horrific, unconscionable acts.

Others doubtless have other takes on this.  What do you think is the issue here and how it should be addressed?


Anonymous said...

Regrettably, I don't have a lot of time to respond to this. Work beckons.

However, I must admit that I do sometimes wonder at the sheer quantity of explicit violence in fiction and (it would seem) especially the generic. Problems aren't always solved at gun or knife-point. Granted, it's fiction, so I suppose the world doesn't always have to mirror our own... but still.

Interestingly, a novel I recetly read (The Carhullan Army), though it does feature some violence and brutality on the page omits to describe it when we get to the all out battle scenes. A wise decision by the author as it doesn't then distract from her main theme.

Would like to think more on this, but must dash!


Anonymous said...

Larry, I guess you don't watch the news because there's so much violence there with people you don't know and probably don't care too much about.

Life, most of the time, doesn't make sense. It doesn't always reward the good, it doesn't always go the way we want or expect and most of the time, the world doesn't care about you, except maybe a few significant others, like family and close friends (for those who have them).
I agree that violence shouldn't be included if it's only to appeal the reader's sadistic impulses. And violence for the sake of violence will only numb its effect.

Ben Godby said...

I've always wondered what an epic fantasy would look like if it was about a farmboy who grew up to be a farmhand instead of a salvific/demonic figure. "Now we see the violence inherent in the genre!" It's rare that problems aren't solved with violence in fantasy, whether or not it's explicit or "on screen."

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've been quite clear on this issue in the past. Probably I first came to the conclusion that excess gore/sex/what have you was a salve for crap writing when I read Scott Ciacin's Transformers: Hardwired about a million years ago.

This is a book which is ostensibly supposed to feature a childrens toyline, and instead features the brutal deaths of dozens of humans, including one scene in which a now bifurcated woman's wriggling spine is lovingly described.

The book sucked, the story sucked, and he tried to hide it under gallons of corn syrup tinted red.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps for some, the true issue is not if these types of stories influence others to commit said acts but if they are just numbed to what many consider to be horrific, unconscionable acts.

And telling, that one of the people on Westeros goes on to ask "What's wrong if this lesbian character exists only to be raped? What's wrong if the rape is written to titillate?" It demonstrates a shocking lack of empathy and perspective: narratives like this don't just reinforce damage (and contribute to, say, internalized misogyny), they also reinforce a privileged worldview, denying that any other may or should exist (e.g. we see everything from Glokta's and Jezal's eyes).

Which goes a long way in explaining why the people defending Abercrombie so furiously are so invested. They seem to believe that once a text they so adore is accused of being sexist and homophobic (the possibility of which they zealously refuse to even entertain) then it must of necessity implicate them in the sexism and homophobia--and, to ward off what they believe are accusations leveled at them personally, only react with rhetoric that merely highlights their misogyny and homophobia.

Lsrry said...


I've read that Sarah Hall novel and thought her treatment of the violence was well-done (not to mention the other points she made on gender issues, which I suspect lurks under the surface of the Westeros discussion).


I rarely view the news these days, not because I am squeamish (I have watched several videos of the liberation of the Nazi death camps as part of my studies to become a historian), but because I find myself critiquing what is presented, what is not, and how it is portrayed. I'd rather read the wire stories than to view a newscast, although even the wire stories have certain biases in what gets reported that makes me suspicious at times.


The world needs more Monty Python. Simple as that.


That sounds sickening. Yes, too often clichéd writing and reactionary social views are coated with the blood-sparkling veneer of MOAR GOAR!


Good points. I readily admit that there is much that I do not understand due to being raised in a family of teachers, but empathy certainly seems to be lacking in some quarters in that one discussion (reading a rape joke in reference to a passage I quoted from Karen Russell's Swamplandia! certainly displays a lack of empathy).

As for social privilege, that is the eternal battle. It is so difficult, unfortunately, to help others see where even the very foundations of their lives are often built on the suffering of others. It's that sort of violence that's most insidious. The posturings in these "gritty fantasies" of being dark, violent, "realistic" worlds is laughable because the true danger of the violence is almost always removed. It's like seeing a cute and cuddly version of rapine and cultural oppression reduced to the level of an action movie, where the body counts are paramount and not the lives that are lost or are suffering from the violent repressions of individuals, particularly those who are socially disadvantaged (women, gays, other ethnic groups, the physically and/or mentally disabled).

As I grow older, it troubles me more and more.

Michal said...

Thanks for this. A while ago I started up a discussion about the high presence of violence and rape in "gritty" fantasy that, unfortunately, got cut short by a certain someone accusing modern fantasists of nihilism & stomping on good ol' American values. I don't get how explicit violence and rape are supposed to make a story more realistic when nearly everything else is (generally) the same middle class fantasies of yesteryear.

I guess my main problem is just how *participatory* many of these texts are, getting in right close. Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold is a perfect example: I'm supposed to be cheering right along as Monza smashes a guy to pieces with a hammer, or else kills someone else on the list in some horrendous fashion. And yes, Abercrombie pulls the "“actually, all the violence was pointless and awful and you’re awful for enjoying it!” at the end, but the world of First Law still felt like a world I was supposed to be happy to escape to, which made it all feel uncomfortable.

On the other hand, you can meaningfully explore violence in a text. Blood Meridian is a horrifically violent novel, but we're kept at a distance. It's a world we're urged to escape from, not to.

Anonymous said...

And the thing that reaaaally bothers me? Most of the people arguing about this have never experienced, nor ever will experience, racism or homophobia or racism. Just look at the children yelling "but what do you mean uppity women getting her comeuppance for not wanting cock/being mean to men is a trope? Give me examples! I've never encountered such a peculiar creature!" As far as I can tell, most of the posters are men so... yes, they must have encountered it before. Some of them have called me a bitch for, essentially, being uppity. And yet this apparently completely eludes them.

What scum.

Lsrry said...


I disliked Best Served Cold so much that I didn't even bother reviewing it when I read it this past January. I thought the characterizations were dull, the motivations insipid, and the authorial intrusion (which you allude to) as being a bit too manipulative without any appreciable benefit. I had concluded long before the final scenes that things were meant to be pointless, which in turn made the writing, heavy-handed as it was, even worse.


I agree. I've experienced it on occasion, mostly when I was living in the metro Miami area, but that was only enough to remind myself of the privilege I have for being fair-skinned (being addressed in English when I'm fully capable of answering in Spanish when on Calle Ocho being a particularly vivid memory). It certainly has affected how I treat others, because realizing that I get deferential treatment when I don't deserve it has made me question at whether or not I do the opposite in an unthinking manner. That questioning certainly has helped begin a process toward realizing the perniciousness of discriminatory behavior, but much remains to be done.

That admission, I'm afraid, might be too difficult for several in that debate. Even a simple "you know, why aren't women shown to be strong characters outside of them being beaten down by men?" seems to be out of bounds for some. It took me getting to know several gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals before I realized the prejudices that I inherited from my culture and that it's still way too easy to forget that jokes can harm others.

Yet admitting that one is capable of discriminatory behavior is too much for some. Then when pushed to confront those biases, you get things like this screed that I preserve here because I think it's about to be deleted over there:

"Hey Kalbear? Fuck you. Fuck you and this fucking horse you rode in on. I don't know what your goddamn fucking problem is, but I;ve had this discussion about Buffy more times then you probaly ever have, and I could send you fucking books and books of essays on the subject, so shut your goddam fucking mouth. I'm sick of your self righteous bullshit. If this post gets me banned from this goddamn fucking board so be it. Next time I ask for examples, maybe you shouldn't link to a website that makes wikipedia look like a goddamn master thesis.

I'm done. Fuck off.

Quod erat demonstratum.

James said...

So the thread finally sees an honest reply from one of these argumentative fuckwits and I miss it? Damn.

Anonymous said...

Is that Contrarius completely, utterly losing her shit? It may make me a horrible person, but I laughed.

chris upton said...

I have to totally agree with Morgan here. It was an occasionally jaw droppingly bad thread with some of the most inane pc rubbish I've ever read. To be fair though,most of that drivel came from kalbear.

Anonymous said...

I know, "you are biased against straight people" is completely inane rubbish. I'm glad you agree: straight white men are not persecuted anywhere near enough! Brb, writing to my congresswoman to take away men's voting rights and chop their payscale in half.

Paul said...

Glad to see Morgan ride in on his white horse to play the part of troll par excellence and recite a few literary criticism terms with no textual evidence, before delivering the classic troll coup de grace, a patronising accusation of immaturity. This is why authors shouldn't be allowed on the internet.

Lsrry said...

I think it was someone who goes by the handle of Grack (lovely name, that). Oh well, I guess some are more invested (or are more insecure about their privileged position) than others.

As for the term "pc", I typically replace that in my head with "nana-nana-boo-boo-I-refuse-to-see-you." It makes it easier.

White horses do tend to get splattered with mud after a while.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Grack "Crazy Bitch."

I am actively, supremely and unapologetically pleased that he was driven to that tantrum.

Lsrry said...

The irony must be delicious.

Anonymous said...

I found the rape joke and complete dismissal of someone giving an account of their friends that been rape disgusting.

Probably some loser who can't handle shit IRL and has to be tough guy on the net. What makes me see red is the woman's post was so earnest in spite of his sarcasm.

Since this is a post about pulling away from descriptions of violence, I'll leave it at that.

Lsrry said...

That was the low point in the discussion and I chose to ignore that moron rather than encourage him to blabber on by responding to such juvenilia.

Anonymous said...

@ Paul

But still more convenient the coup de grace of calling someone a "troll" on the internet. Perhaps you would like to get behind the real meaning of his words: he is not so much accusing the blogger of something as indefinite as immaturity but of "childlike" oversimplification of reading the text.

Lsrry said...

Having read five of his novels, I find it ironic that last commentary, since I wouldn't associate Richard Morgan with reading much into a text or argument. He seems to be, based on what I've read online of what he's written, a little too quick to the point and missing some of the subtleties of others' arguments. Then again, I could be mistaken *shrug*

Richard Morgan said...

oooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh, that was a bitchy crack, Larry. I sooooo wouldn't have called you intelligent and well-read a couple of weeks back if I'd seen this first. I am.....wounded. Deeply.

Lsrry said...


I only just now checked the mod queue due to being busy last week. Sorry that you feel wounded, but I found your comment there to be inflammatory. Yet, if you happen to check back to read this, it was far from the worst offender to me. It just provided the context for a post about my own tastes.

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