“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Torture-Porn: Yay Or Nay?

In a comment on one of the posts below, Richard L paraphrases Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo in saying that ‘Literature, both the writing and the reading of it, makes men more humanely compassionate.’ And women too, you’d imagine, particularly as women account for the majority of fiction readers these days, and at least half of fiction writers.
  On the same day Richard L left his comment, I received a review copy of a book that had the strap-line, ‘TAKEN, TRAPPED, TORTURED’. Written by Chevy Stevens, the novel comes complete with a raves from Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter, and tells the story of ‘Annie Sullivan’s abduction, her year in captivity and the chilling aftermath’.
  Now, I do appreciate that writers set up their serial killers / torturers / sex fiends et al as straw men, to be burned to the ground in a vigilante narrative that, presumably, offers readers a sense that justice (natural or otherwise) prevails against the evil that men do.
  I have no idea of how subtly or otherwise Chevy Smith handles the torture of Annie Sullivan in STILL MISSING, and I won’t be finding out, because I have zero interest in reading novels that are predicated on violence against women. That Chevy Smith is a woman writing about violence against women is neither here nor there. I’m just not interested.
  It’s not that I have my head buried in the sand. I know that such things happen in the real world. In Ireland, in the last few days alone, we’ve had some desperately tragic news that included the smothering of a toddler and the stabbing to death of an infant. So I do understand, unfortunately, the evil that men do, and as often as not to women and children.
  Reading about such depravity in the newspaper is one thing, however. Reading about it in a novel that is packaged as entertainment is another thing entirely. Neither Karin Slaughter’s rave (‘Will have you spellbound from the first page’) nor Kathy Reichs’ (‘Fast-paced and utterly absorbing’) suggest that Stevens has written a novel railing against violence done to women; their appreciation of the story is bound up in Stevens’ ability to entertain.
  Maybe I’m a little squeamish about such things these days because I have a baby girl of my own, and because - being a man - I’m all too aware of how deviant men can be. In fact, in my first novel, I have a scene in which a woman is tortured by having her fingers broken one by one. In my second novel, a female character is beaten, has her leg broken, and an eye gouged out with a fork, and the fact that Anna is a Siberian wolf is neither here nor there. Neither novel, on the other hand, could be described as torture-porn. As it happens, one of the main reasons I wrote the second novel was to find out how convincing (or otherwise) a crime novel could be with an absolute minimum of violence employed. In the first instance, when fingers are broken, I did my best to minimise the lurid aspect of it, and the finger-breaking lasts for less than a page.
  That said, I’ve never had any interest in reading books or watching movies in which a defenceless woman is physically or sexually brutalised by a man, or men. Torture-porn, I believe the phrase is, and regardless of how total and deserved the eventual revenge scenario proves to be, the experience (when I’ve had to sit through such a movie for review purposes, say) leaves me feeling dirty and degraded. Not because I’ve identified with the victim, necessarily, but because I belong to a society and civilisation that obviously believes that making a profit out of suffering is a good idea.
  There are good novels to be written about the brutalisation of women, and I’m sure they’ve already been written. A novel, for example, that dealt with the experience of a Muslim woman lashed into unconsciousness, or even stoned to death, for adultery real or imagined. Or the experience of a woman enduring the banal evil of marital rape. Or - and not to belabour the broader Muslim community unnecessarily - the experience of a woman targeted for an honour killing, because she refused to participate in an arranged marriage, or wear certain kinds of clothing. Or the story of a six-year-old girl who had acid thrown in her face for daring to go to school.
  These kinds of stories, I’d imagine, providing they’re well written, could hardly achieve any other impact than to make men and women more compassionate, as Richard L suggests is the point of writing and reading books.
  Of course, it’s possible to argue that the torture-porn sub-genre is making the point that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the women of so-called ‘civilised societies’ are no less vulnerable to an underlying fear of women that manifests itself in male violence, brutality and perversion. If that is the case, then it’s arguably a valid point to make.
  By the same token, there’s an equally valid question to be asked about the kind of novels that incorporate torture-porn into page-turning entertainments, and it’s this: What, apart from financial profit, is the ultimate point of the torture-porn novel?

23 comments:

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I'm no prude by any means, but over the top, violence for the sake of violence, and worse, against children, women, elderly, and animals are off limits for my tastes. I enjoy Bret Easton Ellis, so maybe that's makes me a bit of a hypocrite, but I can say that I don't get any enjoyment from the scenes that deal with the subject matter being discussed. The latest example is "Imperial Bedrooms". 3/4quarters of the way through, it was rating a 3.5 and then out of nowwhere, he slams you with a bunch of over the top scenes, that dragged it down to an overall 1.5 and made me think I totally wasted my money.

Glenna said...

Well put.

Naomi Johnson said...

There isn't one scene in STILL MISSING as horrific as the torture-murder scenes John Connolly created in Every Dead Thing. Nor anything as gruesome as some of the torture-murders Val McDermid has written. Before everyone gets all holier-than-thou, read Stevens book. If you still think it's torture-porn (I don't and far from it), then let's talk. Great literature it isn't, but the work of the devil it ain't either.

C. N. Nevets said...

I think the important thing is for readers and writers alike to be aware of this question and to approach it intentionally and intelligently.

For readers, we all have our limits and our hot buttons, and it's good to know what those are.

For writers, we need to ask ourselves exactly the question you end with: what's our purpose in writing these things, especially for a mass market commercial novel?

Our intentions do not always have to be exploitation, for our work to be exploitative. Whatever your goals and aims are, you're making a buck off brutality and you're getting back to find it entertaining.

And, sorry, but people read fiction like this because it's entertaining. You can find something disturbing while still finding it entertaining. People do it all the time.

So the question for writers really boils down to: am I comfortable with the walk-away people have from this story?

Richard L. said...

Over at the Cormac McCarthy site, we have for many years discussed the nature and value of violence in literature.

Literature that deserves the name deals with the human condition. Violence and war, and senseless violence and senseless war--redundancy intended--is unfortunately a part of that human condition.

The difference between, say, the historical and symbolic violence in BLOOD MERIDIAN and the torture porn in some mindlessly exploitive novel is in the context.

In Joseph Conrad's VICTORY, the protagonist isolates himself on an island and tries to devote himself to books, ideas, and the life of the mind. But man is part animal, and his paradise is interrupted by three violent men--representing the furies, much like the furies in Greek tragedy--Virgil’s work, Dante's INFERNO, and elsewhere--a trinity composed of Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera (blood vengeance, righteous anger, and jealousy).

The pitting of the better angels of our nature against our darker angels is the human condition and the subject of great literature, such as Conrad's VICTORY and Cormac McCarthy's OUTER DARK, which also features this dark trinity.

Austin Wright's genre novel, TONY AND SUSAN, also features a professor leading the peaceful ideal ideal life of the mind set upon by the dark trinity who rape and torture his wife and daughter. The violence in the novel is justified because this, like VICTORY and OUTER DARK, is also a cautionary tale. You are entertained and made more aware by its insights and ultimate moral compass.

It seems to me that John Connolly makes good use of violence in his novels (and I've now read his first four and continuing), but I haven't read the "torture" book in question and thus cannot speak of it. I especially find violence against women repugnant and the publisher's wording also turns me off of it.

Paul D. Brazill said...

I's just a matter of taste. I'm not too fond and sometimes things that are too icky stop me liking a book so much but it's all material and it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it.That's what gets results.

michael said...

I have to side with Naomi Johnson, read it before you label.

Part of the problem with the argument against fiction featuring violence against women is it often assumes a weakness in women not in men. Sorry, while I am aware of the differences I can't lump adult women in the helpless victim group of children.

But I am being much too hard on you Declan. As others have commented here we all have subjects that upset us. Mine are crimes of the soul against innocent children. I was reading and enjoying "The Ice Harvest" by Scott Phillips when one moment, one tiny action that had nothing to do with the plot or story, stopped me reading and I have been unable to go back. Charlie ignores his daughter Melissa at the family dinner. I lost all interest in Charlie and have not been able to read another page since. Oh, don't worry Scott if you are out there, I just got "Rut" and hope to read it soon.

Declan Burke said...

Sean - I think violence for its own sake is an issue, alright, regardless of who it's against.

Naomi - I'm glad to hear that the book is nowhere as lurid as the cover and strap-line suggest. Of course, it goes without saying that very few authors have any control over how their books are presented / marketed.

C.N. - I think we're into a whole realm of relativism here. I mean, some people watch snuff movies because they find them both disturbing and entertaining. Doesn't mean that they should be made. Not that I'm suggesting that Chevy Stevens is in the same ball-park as snuff movies ...

Paul - A fair point - it's not so much the subject matter as how it's treated. Point taken. I think it's a similar point to Richard L's. And I hugely enjoyed Blood Meridian the first time I read it, despite the wanton violence (and perhaps because of it). Didn't enjoy it so much on a second read, mind.

Michael - Part of my point is that I won't be reading it because of the label, aka the strap-line: 'Taken, Trapped, Tortured.' Again, I'll concede that authors have little enough control over how their books are presented. Also, I don't lump women in with children as defenceless as a rule, but the women in your typical torture-porn story do tend to be defenceless, particularly when they're bound and gagged, etc.

Maybe you're right, that this is simply my turn-off. But is it as simple as saying that we all have our own hot-button topics, or are some things just all the way wrong, period?

Cheers, Dec

adrian said...

Dec

I'm a nay.

I did a panel once with two quite famous authors who wrote about the abduction, rape, torture and murder of children. It was a real moment of dissonance for me. Life is so short, so fleeting, why on Earth would you spend one second of it reading books like this? If you feel the urge to do so then you actually need to rethink your entire system of values and aesthetics.

After the event I felt disgusted to be writing in the same genre and to be associated with these creeps.

michael said...

There is nothing that is all the way wrong to everyone. Censorship is a personal choice not a group choice. The recently outrage at Amazon over the pedophile guide is a good example. The day after Amazon took it off their site PETA announced a list of books they demanded Amazon remove. Who draws the line, who decides? You do for you and I do for me.

As a former bookseller I have had to make this decision. Some one objected to us selling the Satanic Bible. Us was Tower Records in Sherman Oaks CA. Time was December. The book had sat on the shelf ignored for nearly a year. The owner of the chain got involved but they left the decision up to me. I pulled the book off the shelf for December. My book section made 5% of the monthly profits and as a music first store I saw no reason to have book protesters bothering music shoppers. (And it was Satan's competition's birthday for God sake, pun intended). I told the upset staff I planned to return it in January. Sales in January through March reached half a dozen (staff and friends of staff showing their support) then dropped back to one or two a year.

People often complained about what we sold Tower Records and Books. We had the police visit the adult video section after some woman complained her son saw a cover of an R-rated video. The Homeowners Association refused to approve our move to a new building across the street because we had the wrong type of people working and shopping in our store. It always amazed me no one ever noticed our magazines. We had one that offended me (not easy to do) called Bodyplay that featured photos of naked people hanging from ceilings by hooks through various body parts. It sold. Do I have a right to tell anyone what they can read, view, see, and think? Does anyone?

adrian said...

Michael

You're attacking a straw man. Declan isn't advocating censorship, no one here is. Declan is merely registering his disgust at a loathsome book and a loathsome genre that takes delight in the abduction, torture, rape and murder of young women. We have every right to say bluntly that the people who write such books, the people who blurb them and the people who enjoy reading them are creeps.

Naomi Johnson said...

You do indeed have the right to free speech, adrian, but you ought to read this or any book before roundly condemning or censoring it, i.e. hampering someone else's free speech. This book may not be quite what you think it is as a result of the strap line. For instance, the woman in this book is not murdered. Nor is there a torture scene in the conventional sense. There is psychological torture, yes, as a result of her situation. Yes, there is a rape. It is not handled in a lascivious way, it is handled with respect for the victim. Nor is the story about bloody revenge on her abductor. In fact, this story is about a woman who survives the ordeal because she is strong and intelligent, who faces her experiences in therapy as she tries to reclaim her life, and digs for the truth about why she was abducted. It is a disturbing book because abductions and rapes happen, but this book is hardly pornographic or titillating.

I hear a good deal of talk about celebrating crime fiction because it reflects society in a more honest, head-on fashion than some other genres. If genre writers are afraid to write about monsters, that talk is just so much hot air and wishful thinking.

And if you think such monsters are incredibly rare, please Google 'Knox County Ohio Matthew Hoffman' for an up-to-the-minute example. And then 'Cleveland Ohio Anthony Sowell.' And then 'Columbus Ohio Quindell Sherman.' You don't have to read the articles, the link titles will tell you all you need to know.

There is other talk that in crime fiction, writers attempt to bring order out of chaos, meaning out of the inexplicable. Read about those real life monsters and tell me that some crime writers don't feel an obligation to do just that.

adrian said...

Naomi

No I wont read it because I dont want to. Life is far too short.

If the book was about the rape and murder of a child from the child's perspective would you read it? Would you want to? Hopefully you wouldn't and perhaps then you'll see where Declan and I are coming from.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, sadly, there have been a number of cases of this sort of thing (the victim held for a year is more rare) and yes, crime fiction often claims to reflect society in a more honest, head-on fashion, though that's really not true at all.

Crime fiction is far too often merely exploitive. A lot of smart people like crime fiction and defend it, but there's rarely any insight or anything new brought to the situations.

As George Lucas said, it's easy to make the audience cry, show them a puppy and then kill the puppy.

This may be a case of poor marketing, but it certainly seems like the emotions the publisher, at least, is trying to tap are straightforward. There's no "other side" to the story, there's nothing to learn from a fictionalized account of a monster because we really know nothing about the brain and the way it turns monstrous. We simply don't have the tools yet to find any meaning in this kind of madness.

I suppose that just like this discussion, it's unlikely anyone is going to read a book like this and feel differently than they did before reading it.

I remember how surprised and moved I was with Roddy Doyle's, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. I almost never feel that way when I read crime fiction and it's my genre, I write it.

Declan Burke said...

Adrian is right, Michael - I'm not advocating censorship in this post. I'm saying that the torture-porn sub-genre is pretty grim, and that its popularity begs some very serious questions of our society.

And I do believe that there are some things that are 'all the way' wrong. Adrian mentions a couple of them. No amount of moral relativism can excuse child rape, for example. And there's a world of difference between the Satanic Verses and the paedophile guide that Amazon pulled last week.

Naomi - You make some excellent points, and from your description of the book, it's a shame that the publishers have branded Still Missing in such a lurid, exploitative fashion.

"I hear a good deal of talk about celebrating crime fiction because it reflects society in a more honest, head-on fashion than some other genres. If genre writers are afraid to write about monsters, that talk is just so much hot air and wishful thinking."

I couldn't agree more. In fact, I've argued that point more than once myself. The trouble is, most crime fiction is hot air, written for the purpose of entertainment as opposed to the reasons you outline.

As John says, "There's no "other side" to the story, there's nothing to learn from a fictionalized account of a monster because we really know nothing about the brain and the way it turns monstrous."

And I'd just like to reiterate that my issue with Still Missing is the way it's presented, as opposed to the story itself. I'm more than happy to take Naomi's word that we shouldn't judge the book by its cover, but the cover is what it is, and people will buy it on the strength of its cover, not least given the raves from Reichs and Slaughter.

Cheers, Dec

Naomi Johnson said...

adrian, I did read LOVELY BONES, a very popular book and a very so-so movie, in which a young girl is raped and murdered and the story is told -- discreetly but yes, disturbingly -- from her point of view. Not great literature but a good story and it had something to say beyond those aspects of what happened to the girl. It was not torture-porn.

STILL MISSING is not a "fictionalized account of a monster," which I agree would be difficult to learn anything positive from. I, too, opened the book with some qualms (though I never saw that strap line when I read it) but it was far from what I expected and I'm glad I gave it a chance.

I think Declan must be right, that everyone has a hot button when it comes to what they won't read. Some people won't read a book if an animal dies at the hands of a human, but then they miss out on the story of Old Yeller or even To Kill a Mockingbird, don't they? Some won't read about the monsters who prey on children, and I'm guessing they miss out on Andrew Vachss's novels. I know a woman who enjoys mysteries but won't read a book if the hero performs any criminal act, even a misdemeanor. I can't even imagine how much she's missing out on.

Richard Bach once posited that humans only ever make choices based on whether they want to be educated or whether they want to be entertained. Sometimes we can get the best of both worlds, and in the most unlikely places.

Dana King said...

To me, a lot depends on how the torture is presented, and the role it plays in the story. I've read books where gruesome scenes were part of the story, and while repugnant, fit into the overall scope of the book and taught about the characters. (THE COLD SIX THOUSAND comes to mind. Hated the book, and hated the one tirture scene I'm thinking about, but that wasn't the point of the book. It did show what a miserable SOB the torutrer was, in the context of what we knew about the rest of his characteristics.)

A book that describes a torture scene in loving detail to appeal to the prurient interest of the reader 9and probably the writer), I have no time for. I'm not advocating censorship; I just won't buy them. A publisher who markets a book the way this one does is accepting the risk that someone like me will ignore the book. Apparently there are plenty of people who buy the book expressly because of this marketing, regadless of what else might be in there. (Which, to me, removes those of us here, who wouldn't read a site like this unless we were interested in the multiple dimensions any book should have.) That worries me a lot more than the content of the book.

John McFetridge said...

Education and entertainment are as tough a mix as art and commerce or even art and entertainment and I suppose that's my problem with this kind of book. Or maybe my problem is that there are so many books that seem to be trying to educate us in exactly the same way.

I'm guilty of this kind of cheap emotionalizing myself, it's an easy fall-back. If the balance tilts just a little too much towards entertainment it becomes exploitation. Of course, we all find our own balance don't we?

kevin said...

A couple of random points: 1) has anyone read The Collector by John Fowles. The Still Missing sounds remarkably similar, though the edition of the Fowles book I have has a butterfly on the cover...yep, just a butterfly and no 'Taken, Trapped, Tortured.' And, incidentally, it works as literature--brilliant prose, gripping story, challenging to the conventional wisdom, multiple vp's--and as an examination of a 'monster's' mind which is, as life (i have worked with violent offenders for the past 13 years) and not fiction would have it, more often than not, surpisingly banal and not at all like hannibal lector's...and yes, i love the harris novels too.

2) when my novel Peeler--which is the archaic slang for 'cop' and not some flaying maniac of a serial killer 'Stripped, Straddled, Stroppy'--was accepted for publication, someone in the business (no one at my publisher, Mercier, who are decent folk down to the ground) told me my novel would 'sell well to women b/c it has a female victim and research shows that female readers love to read about female victims...' My wife liked that one, suggesting I add ten more female victims and maybe I'd sell ten times more copies so we can shop at Aldi instead of Lidl.

Which is part of the reason why there will be no female victims in the follow-up I am currently writing. I like the salami at Lidl.

3)the strapline, 'Taken, Trapped, Tortured' reads to me much like those found on our favourite pulp/erotica titles from the 50's/60's by Willeford, Thompson, Stark etc. which are much revered and are, in many cases, little masterpieces misrepresented by dollar hungry publishers.

4) I agree w/Adrian, life is too short and most of these serial killer books are so resoundingly, boringly similar, that even if I could overcome my distaste for the fetishised violence, (yes, creepy folk, some) I wouldn't read them b/c I know how they are going to end. Which doesn't mean I won't read one if someone recommends a particularly good one... I retain the right to contradict myself on a case by case basis!

Naomi Johnson said...

Excellent points, kevin, and I particularly favor #3 as it also reminds me of the vast difference between the covers of the Modesty Blaise books and the stories within.

Declan Burke said...

Folks -

The Collector has very little in common with the torture-porn book or movie, although it's a long time now since I read it, and maybe I remember the book differently to how it actually is. I haven't read The Lovely Bones, I'm afraid.

I suppose it all comes down context, as some people have suggested. If the point of the book is to appeal to the kind of reader who enjoys reading about people being raped, tortured or otherwise abused, then it's a no-no for me. If such things happen in a book, but it's obvious that they're not intended to satisfy what Dana calls a prurient interest, then that's a different matter entirely.

There's a brilliant torture scene in (I think) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that is horrifying, and yet hardly mentions a single detail of the physical torture itself. Similarly, Gene Kerrigan has a scene of torture in his second book that, again, is terrifying in what it alludes to, yet provides very little by way of lurid detail.

Kevin makes an interesting point about how pulp novels were labelled in such a way as to appeal to a particular kind of reader, regardless of the contents. From what Naomi is saying, Chevy Stevens' novel has been similarly misrepresented by her publishers.

The fact that it has been done in the past, and successfully, and profitably, doesn't make it any more acceptable now than it was then.

I suppose crime fiction is a broad church, and that, like all churches, it's predicated on suffering. And maybe it's just a fact of life that some readers prefer to wallow in the suffering, and that some publishers are happy to turn a buck by enabling them.

I still think it's wrong, though.

Cheers, Dec

kathy d. said...

I have read so many mysteries over the decades that are free of gratuitous violence and gore and torture of women, children or animals--or men either.

There is a lot to choose from. My personal taste is to avoid it altogether, with a few exceptions, if there are redeeming features. And, even then, I skip parts.

No one has to read anything; it's all choice.

I don't understand why writers feel the need to write "torture porn" or gratuitous violence at all. There is so much good writing without it.

Is it a substitute for good writing? I can't think of a great plot or characters, so I'll write about gory, horrible violence against women or others.

And this is why I stopped reading Karin Slaughter's books (and so did many other readers), because they contained horrid, graphic brutality against women.

Often publishers promote it, though. Last year, a woman book editor refused to edit any more books with covers of women being tortured, tied up, murdered in all ways. She said publishers wanted that on covers, even if the murder victims weren't women.

A few months ago, a well-known mystery website ran a poll: It said that a publisher said U.S. women liked to read books with women as victims of the worst brutality (I don't know readers like that). The poll asked if women agreed with that: They didn't.

And publishers do pick and choose what to publish, so they are exercising decision-making over it. It's not freedom of the press if they promote this stuff, rather than maybe some more obscure, less violent books, that might have a small audience.

Why is this promoted? Why do publishers promote this? Why does it sell? Why is it read?

I agree with much of what Declan and Adrian say here.

Life is too short to read books that are repugnant to us as readers. We read for enjoyment, perhaps escapism, to take virtual vacations, or to learn something.

Books should be enjoyable.

alicia said...

I started the book and was about 1/4 through when I decided I could read it no longer. While reading, I kept asking myself whether it was worth it to me to read the reprehensible subject matter to get to some greater insight, or even to be entertained, and obviously came to the answer, "No". I too wondered about the rave reviews and how the blurb reviewers could leave off crucial information such as "disturbing", "not for everyone", and, "you may feel sick to your stomach reading this book".