Monday, October 26, 2009

The Violent Novel

Over at Sarah Weinman's, there's a comment on violence in the modern crime novel. According to some, there's too much of it and it is gratuitous - a kind of "sick puppy" one-upmanship is discussed. The link is meant to draw your attention to that discussion. Part of my own response follows:

"When a serious crime novel is written about Afghanistan or Iraq (they may have already been written, my TBR pile is backed up to about Herodotus...) the violence will have to be grisly if it's going to portray just daily life let alone crime.

Just think: there are five year olds around the world who have seen and experienced violence that would make our novelized serial killers, be they never so gruesome, shiver."

Growing up in the Boogie Down Bronx, violence in the neighborhoods we lived in was always fairly casual. Just a part of real life*. Gangs used to tag our building on Washington Avenue: Apache Warriors and Savage Skulls. As a kid (maybe 8 or 9) I remember watching the David Suskind Show when he interviewed a gang leader from my neighborhood. The man talked about using rape as a way to intimidate. He talked about murder.Just the way things were.

Ed Dee was an NYPD lieutenant in the precinct two blocks from my door. He's got stories too. Magnificent writer, by the way.

Paul Newman came to my neighborhood to film scenes from Fort Apache, The Bronx. Not his greatest movie, but I got close enough to touch him and, yes, his eyes were really a startling blue. Jimmy Carter came to the neighborhood where my mother worked (and where I'd lived as an infant and toddler) and promised to rebuild it. So did Ronald Reagan. Twice. And Bush the First. And when Clinton showed up it, community activists had already rebuilt the area without a federal dime.

I digress.

The quantity of violence is probably not the problem. It's the gratuitous nature of it in some books that bothers. Anything gratuitous, unneeded, is going to be a bad thing in a novel.

Ah, but how can you tell if it's gratuitous? Really hard to say. Try this: If the author is putting in a scene of violence as a mere structural element - "This guy has to do something really messed up in order to deserve what happens to him in the next scene..." maybe then it is gratuitous.


* Or death as the case may be.


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