Friday, June 30, 2006

POLITICS OF GRATUITOUS VIOLENCE

Sandra Ruttan is one of the Killer Year Debut Authors over at Killer Blog (see link right), and on June 28th she wrote an insightful post called "There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy on the streets?" It's about a writer's responsibility regarding gratuitous violence in his/her books, in a society that blames video games, movies, and our upbringing for the violent acts individuals commit against each other. You really should pop over there and read it in it's entirety - it's food for thought.

As I had too much to say in the Comments Section, I thought I'd post my own thoughts on my Blog.

In a previous career incarnation I was a municipal police officer - one of the reasons I love the above TV shows, and why I love to write suspense and hopefully, thriller fiction. I've seen alot of things that most people just research, or think up. In fact, I had a hard time convincing an editor that I hadn't gotten the idea for a certain book from reading "another book", because it was so realistic...she didn't buy my book "because it's too much the same." I bought the other book, and it was nothing like mine, but convincing her I had the real dope on being a cop was impossible. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. But, as they say, I digress.

Re the idea that people watching violent video games, television, and movies will cause copy cat violent acts. This has been proven in countless studies, and countless courtrooms. Why? Because people (predominantly males 18-24) who have mental problems will watch these addictive items over and over and over again, inciting their fantasy until it becomes real to them. Then the rush it gives them isn't enough and the next thing is to *live out* their fantasy. Video games are especially a problem, which is why several of them, eg. "Grand Theft Auto", (I believe) have been revamped and restricted. An entire new rating system was devised after several copy-cat crimes happened in the States from several high-profile video games of this type.

A prominent movie that had copy-catted crimes in the States was "Natural Born Hero". Does this mean that everybody who sees these movies or plays these games will go out and steal cars and kill people? Of course not - but there are marginalized sociopaths, who will copy something that clicks with them and grabs them as the perfect fantasy. And they don't have to be individuals - there are gangs of kids who find them attractive to play out as role games.

Sandra suggests that everyone blames everyone in society but themselves for their actions - as an ex-cop I can say that that is definitely true. It's part of the criminal mentality that they are victims of the "system"; whether foster homes, criminal justice, family, school, etc. Sociopaths have no concenscious anyway, so they aren't to blame for anything. Sandra is being a bit simplistic here in forgetting who commits crimes out there. It isn't the soccer mom down the street, or the husband who had one too many after work. (although in the right circumstances they can be held up in the criminal justice system). Criminals tend to be lifers: they learn it early, it's a lifestyle, they're not that smart, and they DO blame everyone but themselves.

Sandra's final question was whether anyone had "felt compelled to stop reading a book, stop watching a movie, or change a scene you wrote because you felt it was gratuitous and irresponsible?"

I liked this question. It's great food for discussion - again, do books promote acts of violence the way the above media do? I say no. Most criminals aren't stimulated by the written word the way they are visually. Her earlier question about our responsibility for writing in such a way as to not promote copy-cat killings of vicious murders can be summed up by that answer, I think.

Have I felt compelled to stop reading a book due to it being gratuitous and irresponsible? YES. It was a Beatrice Small historical. I had no idea of how "hot" her medievals were and was completely disappointed in her one and only novel I picked up at a used book store. I didn't get past the second chapter and pitched it. The blurb promised so much, but the sex was so gratuitous...

Have I felt compelled to walk out of a movie? Hmmm......Deep Throat which was shown as part of a Pyschology class back in college in the '70's. You can imagine how much shunning I took for that act. By now, you likely think I'm one uptight Lizzie, but I have an erotica author on my right hand links - Robie Madison - so I'm not that bad! But gratuitous, and plain awful? Yep! And I didn't see how it had anything to do with Pyschology either, except that the prof wanted an excuse to see it himself.

Change a scene I wrote? I did once - it was a rape scene that I decided was too graphic after my sister read it. I figured if she was uncomfortable with it, most people would be too, and what was the point in that - there were better ways of getting my character's suffering across. The final scene worked much better and I learned something - subtlety is far superior to high detail when giving a character's POV in most cases.

When I was a cop I saw some pretty graphic things, even though I was in a small city. I don't think there's anything to be gained by crime writers glorifying the psychopathic horrors visited upon victims of some child murders, sex crimes, or murder/suicides. Most people can get the broad strokes of the thing with plain good writing. Do we have a responsibility not to glorify violence for violence's sake? Yes, I believe we do.

For the sake of the victims of crime out there, who may pick up our book at the airport thinking that it's about some other theme and then realizing it's about a kidnapped teen whose body parts are scattered along a highway. For the rape victim who buys your book not realizing that the heroine gets stalked before the hero Lt. McGregor tracks him down in LA. For the sake of all the parents who have kidnapped children, had their home/business hit by arson, got mugged, or car-jacked. Because for every scenario we come up with, it's happened in some way to somebody out there in the public arena. Maybe they're not going to be reading suspense or thrillers because of what happened to them....but while we do have a responsibility to build suspense for our readers and give them the best story possible, I don't believe we have the right to glorify the horror of what has happened to real life victims.

See why I couldn't fit all this in Sandra's Comments Section? :)

5 comments:

Bailey Stewart said...

Very thought provoking post. I agree that the people who commit these crimes don't read these books. We live in a society that does blame everyone else for their problems. Not just in crime - take the people who were suing McDonald's for making them fat. Come on, I've never seen any fastfood restaurant strong arming people off of the streets. I do remember watching an Oprah once (back when I could stand her) and a father was blaming a Spike Lee movie (I don't remember which one) for his son having committed a crime. He said every time he walked past his son's room the 16 year old kid was watching this movie and I thought "That's an R rated movie - why would you as a parent allow your child to watch it." But it was in no way the father's fault, it was all the movies influence.

Toni Anderson said...

Greta post Laurie--I'm catching up.

I agree with most things you've said--I'd only add, sometimes it is hard to see whether you have written too much or too little detail to get across the horror that some of these criminals do.

Because you want your book to be meaningful--you want it to be realistic, so getting the right details correct is crucial.

Laurie said...

I agree you have to get the details right and make the story realistic enough to be "truthful". It's a balancing act though, and that's what I meant about good writing. I have to tone myself down all the time - first draft I let'er rip, and then take stuff out.

Laurie said...

I agree you have to get the details right and make the story realistic enough to be "truthful". It's a balancing act though, and that's what I meant about good writing. I have to tone myself down all the time - first draft I let'er rip, and then take stuff out.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Wow, I wish I'd found this post a bit earlier.

Your insights are keen, Laurie. This is a tough topic, and sometimes, I find that I can't go as far with a post as I might like (because it would go round and round in circles forever) but that's where the discussion can be interesting. It's true a lot of crimes aren't committed by soccer moms, as you say. It's also true that there are people in my family who've been arrested and institutionalized. So, I see that side of the coin as well.

I actually saw a fascinating program once, where they had a group of four-year-old children in a play room. Some guns were left on a table. Nothing was done to draw attention to them. There were plenty of toys to play with. The guns (not loaded, not working) were just sitting there. The adults were watching from another room. Within a short period of time, every child in the room was exclusively playing with the guns.

Of course, they went to lengths to talk about how a random group of children without exposure to weapons in the home, blah blah, had been selected. It was startling.

I know that if someone imitated something I wrote, I'd carry some guilt. Yet, as you say, it usually isn't Soccer Mom committing these crimes - it's people who are susceptible to influence and truthfully, wouldn't they find it somewhere, sooner or later? Newspapers, tv, books, video games, a real incident they see on the news?

Probably people who commit crimes don't read the books, but you might be surprised. Ian Rankin is the #1 author checked out by inmates at prisons in the UK, and I've heard several authors talk about doing prison readings.

Plus I've gotten a few wild letters of my own that cued spooky music.

All the best to you in your writing pursuits Laurie. If there's ever a time again you feel inspired, feel free to reference "I've posted on this topic on my blog" and put a link in the comments. I can certainly appreciate with such well thought out insights as you've shared here, it's much for the comments, but I think something a lot of those people who did discuss the topic might have been interested in reading.