Monday, May 17, 2010


Maybe books should come with movie-style ratings. I don't want to censor anyone, mind—you should feel free to read about child molesters and torturers carving up their victims if you want. Me, I'm not so inclined, and would largely prefer to avoid that kind of situation. Which can be tricky, as you'll see.

About six months ago, lured in by all the hype, I read Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Which I enjoyed. I wouldn't call it the best literature ever invented, and I did wind up with that sour taste in my mouth that I get after racing through a book for plot alone...but, for what it was, pretty good. The one thing that left me feeling ambivalent was the graphic description of some of the criminals' victims. I guess I'm pretty squeamish—I certainly don't watch violent movies, and I don't even like reading violent scenes very much. The descriptions in Dragon Tattoo were pretty creepy. I remember sitting alone in my room reading when my phone vibrated (good timing, S.—!). I screamed.

So it was with some hesitation that I decided that I did want to read the sequel, The Girl who Played with Fire, after all. And I did this past weekend. And it was pretty violent. But it didn't bother me. There are a couple of reasons I can think of why this might be the case. First off, the violence is plot-advancing, and plot-relevant. It forms part of a puzzle that the book, a mystery/thriller, sets out to show the reader. So it doesn't feel gratuitous. I understand its purpose. If I pick up a book in full awareness that it's a mystery focused on murder and sex crimes, fine. That's my decision. And if the writing advances that goal, fair enough.

Another facet that made this violence non-gratuitous for me (and this is more true of Fire than the more stomach-turning Dragon Tattoo) is that most of the victims of violence more or less deserved it. They made choices that got them caught up in a crime web, choices where they often victimized other people. Or, even if they didn't deserve it exactly, the victims could defend themselves. There's something fairer, to say nothing of more interesting, about an equally-matched fight. (This is not true about two of the murder victims, but—a third point—the murder scene itself was not described, so that helped. And please don't think I want people to be desensitized to murder in reality—we don't know the details, so it's okay, whatever—I am just talking about my ability to read and enjoy a crime novel, here.)

So, Fire more or less dispatched, and less disturbing than I'd feared, I did meet my violence-reading Waterloo this weekend, in the form of a book I'm proofreading. This book has thriller-esque qualities, but I would not say the plot centers around them. It has defenseless victims—a child who is raped, a paralyzed woman who can't defend herself—and, moreover, their suffering is described in detail (including from the perspective of the rapist). As proofreader, it's not my job to pass judgment on whether I like the book or not (in many cases I don't, particularly). But this book I would have liked. It was pretty thoughtful, funny (I know, right, but actually it was, and it's being billed as a black comedy), and full of interesting screwball characters. I found the end of it extremely moving, and a reminder of how people can find redemption in this world. But in my opinion the violent scenes were so gratuitously disturbing that they wrecked the book for me. Without them (and I am talking about a page and a half, total, of a novel over 300 pages long) I would have recommended the book to people. Now, I actively feel like the quality of my life has decreased as a result of reading it. I'm sure this will pass, but it's not a feeling you like to have from your job. And, of course, when it's your job, you can't stop reading because you feel like it. Maybe I should ask employers to sign waivers to the effect that no one suffers unduly in the pages I proof...

Thoughts? I know my tolerance for reading and watching (even fictional) violence is really low. (Funny thing about my full-time job, hey?) Would you be bothered if you read the sorts of scenes I'm describing? Would you put the book down? Am I overreacting? Would you be more or less likely to read such a thing if you were getting paid to do it? More or less disturbed by the fact that you'd read it?


  1. Totally feel similarly. I refuse to watch horror films, particularly the torture-based ones that are so popular now--even seeing posters for them or descriptions of them elsewhere makes me feel sick and I usually can't get the ideas out of my head for a very long time. Like you said, actively decreasing my quality of life.
    My full-time job also involves thinking a lot about violence, and I try to remain both detached enough to be analytical about it while also cognizant that these are real people who really suffered. Not an easy balance, but I really do think that history needs to do both. It's a tricky problem--you can't not write about it, or you build a greater historical silence around already vulnerable groups; but if you do write about it, you have to fight any strain of voyeurism or sense that it's entertaining.
    There's a lot of interesting studies on the rise of 'true crime' accounts and sentimental fiction in late 18th/early 19th c. America. Everyone wanted to prove how sensitive they were by reading about murders or the beating of a slave and then feeling sad--of course, even then a number of people were pointing out the hypocrisy and voyeurism in all this.

  2. That's really interesting—thanks. I have thought, obviously, about true vs. fictional violence. But less about historical vs. present.