“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

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?