Friday, August 31, 2007

Violence in Christian Fiction

Last week F&F interviewee Andy Meisenheimer threw a monkey wrench in the works with his comment about seeing too much "unnecessary violence" in Christian fiction. Some of you reacted.

So did I--privately. After all, I'm a suspense writer. I live by violence.

Thing is, Andy's not the first person to make this comment. Others have simply referred to the issue as "too much violence." Every time I hear such a comment, it pulls me up short. First thought: Do any of my books contain too much violence?

Awhile back I wrote a
two-part post for Charis spelling out my take on "edginess" in CBA fiction. Basically what's edgy for one reader ain't nothin' to someone else. I think the same applies to the amount of violence. So I know I can't please everybody. Still, I'm always re-examining myself.

To date, I haven't read any Christian novel (and I read a lot of them) that hit me as containing "too much violence." Violence-filled? Yes. Maybe more than even I want to read? Occasionally. But I figure that's merely my taste. Plenty of other readers seemed to enjoy those books just fine.

As with many hot-topic discussions, it's important that we're talking about the same thing. There are really two different issues here. The first "amount of violence" has to do with events. The second refers to graphic details of those events.

On the second page of Dead of Night, the killer, whose POV we are in, cuts off a victim's earlobe in order to take a pierced earring as a souvenir. Violent event? Yes. Graphically detailed? No. Yet the reader has no doubt what's happening. (You can read the scene
here.) Dead of Night is an intense story. It also packs a punch about the power of prayer over evil. (I've received many letters from readers about how this book changed their prayer lives.) I don't think its theme about prayer would have been as strong if I'd cut back on the evil that prayer was combating. I figure--hey, if a reader makes it through the prologue, he'll be okay. I let him know what he's getting into right up front.

As I see it, these two different issues--events vs. details--are the reasons for the fallacies in certain arguments against violence. (Or if not fallacies, at least misunderstandings amongst the debaters.) Andy said he'd rather see some mild curse words in our books than read "unnecessary violence." Which kind of violence, events or details? Because comparing the use of actual curse words (although I'm thinking of the more heavyduty kind) to violent events is comparing applies and oranges. I can say a character "cursed" without spelling out the words. The reader will know what's going on. I can supply body language, vocal tone, ice-cold sarcasm, total hard-heartedness, and on and on to help characterize the person and the scene. Using the actual curse words does compare logically to spelling out graphic details of a scene. In Dead of Night if I'd focused on the knife blade cutting through skin, the sound of it, the smell of it, etc.--that would be more than the reader needed to get the point (sorry for the bad pun). That would be the same as using actual curse words.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the subject.


Mike Dellosso said...

In support of gore and graphic violence, I've heard a lot, "But the Bible contains some pretty heavy violence!" But as Brandilyn said, there's a difference between writing the event and describing the details. When David slew Goliath the Bible does talk about the stone and the beheading, but it doesn't go into details. Huge difference. Where to draw the line? When does event cross over into details into too much detail? That's a subjective issue and one the author needs to spend much time in thought and prayer over. But regardless, all violence, no matter how it's described and written into the story must--MUST--serve the story, not just be thrown in for shock value or "coolness" value.


Tina Helmuth said...

I completely agree. It's in the details. I don't want to see actual curse words--even the minor ones. And I don't want to see violence graphically described. The author only needs to show enough that I see what the protag is up against, what they're going through.

sbaar said...

Subjects like this are always tricky because everyone has different tastes. Some people aren't bothered by "edginess" while others might be offended.

I think Mike touched on something very important in this discussion. There is a time and place for everything. If a novel contains violence or strong language, it should only be there for a solid purpose. It should develop the charactor or advance the plot in a unique way. Quality writing should trump any argument.

Nicole said...

"Unnecessary violence" is an oxymoron in some ways. We're talking fiction here, so what we write, although pointing to, demonstrating, mirroring real life, is a story about certain parts of life. And just as individuals and families live their lives differently, so the mildness or intensity in a story will demonstrate the style of a particular life or the invasion of a brutal harshness into someone's life.

I am far more offended by irreverence than I am some violence. But I've found that people who react strongly to a particular area have either seen it or experienced it in their own lives and can't stomach it much even in story form. After diligently teaching myself to cuss and swear while I was in the world (it wasn't easy for me, but I got good at it), I certainly don't want to read the words I used in those days.

Forgive me for this, but I think "serving the story" is ambiguous and a copout term used to define things people simply don't like about a story. It's all very subjective.

Your stories, BC, are what they need to be, and the beauty is the Gospel is there amidst all the violence.

C.J. Darlington said...

In today's society, where movies leave nothing to the imagination regarding violence and everything else, writers have fallen prey to the notion that showing violence is the only way to depict an evil world.

I can't help but think of how Hitchcock and other filmmakers did it back in the day. No one can say that Hitchcock films aren't suspenseful. If anything, they are MORE suspenseful than many of today's movies. It's all about implication, really. You can imply a whole lot by one little detail.

But I guess this is beside the point. I too have read some novels that were just going too far for me. Actually, more in the sex stuff than the violence stuff. But the point is the same.

Many writers, especially beginning writers, have a desire to be edgy because, let's face it, edgy is cool. We see authors tauted as "edgy" and we want to be like them. But the ditch that we can fall into is being edgy just to be edgy.

Ultimately, as Christian authors, our fiction needs to honor God. Does too much violence honor God? It's gonna depend on the book. Unfortunately (and I wish this wasn't the case), it really depends on the book and the writer.

Anonymous said...

I'll stop by to clarify just a few things.

*I don't feel that there is "too much violence." I agree with the idea that Christian fiction should not be "safe" or wholesome. Christian fiction has a much higher calling than safe and wholesome.

*I spoke of the necessity of violence, regardless of events or details. Both are subject to the principles of the craft. And in fact details sometimes justify violence by taking it seriously.

*I was not saying that all violence is unnecessary.

In the end, though, it's good to have people talking about it and thinking about it and making sure every story element serves a purpose.

Karen said...

Brandilyn Collins, I love you! You live in a real world. Thanks for the discussion. Readers, like the rest of us, have choices. There are all levels of comfort when reading anything descriptive of violence, sex, and cursing. That's why God created so many different writers/editors/publishers. We all reach different people.

Lynetta said...

Brandilyn, I think you're right on. People who love your books will pick them up knowing that someone (or several) will end up hurt or dead. That's the evil side that you show (tastefully, though--not graphically) in juxtaposition to God's grace and His healing power. In a story like that, one wouldn't be effective without the other.

It's true that people have certain tastes. I have friends who love sweet little Amish books with quilts and one room schoolhouses. Though I enjoy those books, I particularly favor stuff (reading and writing) that jolts me, in a good way. I'm glad to see more suspense and action come into the CBA.

Becky said...

Andy said he'd rather see some mild curse words in our books than read "unnecessary violence."

As far as I'm concerned, there is no place for unnecessary violence. It's poor crafting.

As far as curse words is concerned, I think it's a little different than showing a violent act.

When I see through the words of an author something graphically violent, I don't necessarily feel anger or hatred or any other related emotion.

However, when I read curse words, those words actually do enter my thoughts.

I may be more vulnerable than the average reader, because I sub-vocalize--pronounce the words in my head--nearly every word when I read (which is why I'm a slow reader).

Time and again, after reading a novel with cursing, I've found myself thinking curse words when I'm in a situation that stirs my ire.

Not everyone will be affected in that way.

I'll also add, my vivid imagination makes a lot of graphic violence horrific. I don't like pain!

What I have objected to in at least one review, however, is a tedium of continual violence, moving from one car chase to a brutal gun battle to a beating and on to the next car chase (which inevitably ends up with one vehicle slammed into another). This may be exciting for the first 50-100 pages, but it wears thin, and I can't imagine reading a second book like it.


Chawna Schroeder said...

When I consider any aspect of fiction, I use six standards, based in Philippians 4:8--true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable (excellent and praiseworthy seems to summarize these six standards).

So does violence reflect reality (true)? Yes.

Does it deal with a serious topic in a dignified manner (noble)? Serious topic, definitely yes. Dignified manner? Depends how it’s portrayed (see below).

Does it conform to the character, will, & standards of God (right)? Not in itself, though the results it brings can (e.g. justice and hence Joshua and Judges).

Will it not defile should we act that way (pure)? No. It will defile.

Is it pleasing to the senses and does it spur us to love? No.

Does it have a good reputation? No.

In short, violence, an easy way to show conflict externally, has mixed results that seem to depend on three specifics: How is it portrayed? How much is portrayed? Why is it portrayed?

The first (how) deals with whether the violence is graphic. After all suggestion is powerful—consider when Bambi’s mother is shot, which we never see—and allows each reader to decide how far they want to take their imagination. So I consider what details to include (or are included, when I read) that will get across the image I want without over-explaining. Less can truly be more.

The second (how much) deals the amount. A book that has one fist fight will have less long-term impact on the imagination than one with murders and body parts on every third page.

The third (why) is the most important, in my opinion, and the one I think Mr. Meisenheimer was referring to. Some violence in books and movies seem to be included only for shock value or to take the easy way out on making a point (the villain is evil) or to ratchet up tension. On the other hand, a murder mystery wouldn’t be much without a murder, would it? So the violence must integral to the story being told, or it should be left out.

At least that’s my take on it.

And oh, as an interesting side note on the cussing, the only standard of Philippians 4:8 that it meets is conformity to reality.

Nicole said...

Definitely not trying to be argumentative here because I respect your choice for this scripture.

However, in lieu of writing (and reading) fiction, I can't wrap my head exactly around your methodology.

The scripture says to "think" (NKJ, NIV), "dwell" (NASB), or "think on, weigh and take account of [fix your minds] (AMPLIFIED) on those things you listed. They should occupy our thoughts as we conduct our daily lives.

Writing portrays life from a perspective, shows the conflicts, be it murder mysteries, romances, or fantasies. Ultimately in Christian fiction, there should be a redemptive process of some kind illustrated.

Each audience makes the call on what they can enjoy/tolerate in a novel as well as how they can relate to the portrayals of life in the different categories.

Interesting and well-explained, though.

Chawna Schroeder said...

I think I understand what you're saying, Nicole, and I've gone into much deeper depth on my own blog than I can here. (I'm currently in the middle of doing a word by word dissection of Philippians 4:8, and the word "think" goes even deeper than what you quoted here.)

But in short, the reason why I believe that Philippians 4:8 applies is because story has a way of getting under your skin even more than most sermons. After all, can you tell me about the stories you read or watched a year ago? How about sermons? I think you will find, at least for most people, story will have a deeper impact on the heart--that is, we dwell on it longer, often unintentionally. And out of the heart comes actions and attitudes (Matthew 15:18-19).

And as you pointed out, beyond the guidelines (and they're just that--guidelines--not hard and fast rules), we each have personal boundaries to consider. For me, books by Dekker and Peretti are off-limits. Not because there's anything wrong with them, but because of my own personal limitations--an overactive imagination in this case. :o)

I also will admit there are time we must cross those boundaries. But that's a whole other topic.

But as I was trying to show in my previous post, there is a Biblical foundation for such guidelines. Those then show us how we should handle such problematic issues, help us from becoming desensitized (yet another topic unto itself), and prevent us from going overboard.

Now I will quit taking up space on Brandilyn's blog, except to say if you or anyone else would like to dialogue further on these topics, you're welcomed stop by my blog and leave me a note.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Since violence happens to even christians, graphic detail doesn't bother me. As a paramedic I've seen a lot worse, like five years ago when three of the men on one of our local road crews where hit by a Greyhound bus, and decapitated. We had to do preliminary ID's by their body tatoos!

So I'm not going to be deep at all :-)
I like reading edgy, heart pounding fiction...LOL...and I am not a member of the Big Ol'Honkin' Chickens Club...LOL...or I would have never gotten thru Robert Liparulo's Comes A Horseman!

Oh, and I don't like reading curse words...just saying "He cursed" suffices for me!

Nicole said...

Thanks, Chawna. Good amplification.

Lynette Sowell said...

For me it comes down to, is the description of violence gratuitous? I mean, how much is enough to convey the feeling of danger/suspense etc.?

We talked about movie violence today at our Labor Day BBQ (someone was describing where the inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Silence of the Lambs came from, all while I was eating some kind of raspberry fluff dessert...interesting friends I have, but anyway). I think sometimes the more effective suspense comes from what our imagination can fill in. Like you said, Brandilyn, you didn't have to describe in detail for someone to get the point. :)