Violence and Ideas in Novels

Toby Frost

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A while ago, I read an article saying that it was a shame the games Bioshock and The Last of Us were so violent, as that would put people off the good stories they told and the interesting ideas underlying them. I feel the same about Richard Morgan's novel Black Man (retitled Thirteen in the US), which is full of disturbing, very relevant satire, but also full of bloodthirsty mayhem. Likewise, the ideas in Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (largely about surveillance and the concept of the Panopticon) are pretty much lost when the carnage starts.

I'm not trying to argue that "modern stuff is too violent and that's bad", nor am I trying to say that modern audiences are crude and debased. But I wonder whether, as ideas get more sophisticated, it's desirable or necessary to increase the "adultness" of a story. On one hand, a book like 1984 has to be violent and squalid to make its point. On the other, a book like The Lies of Locke Lamora (almost universally described by critics as a fun, merry caper) contains large amounts of torture, death and animal cruelty for no clear reason beyond entertainment. But would it get a bigger audience if it was "cleaner"?

Does this mean that a book with sophisticated ideas can be expected to be more "adult" in other ways? Or should a novel of ideas dispose with the pulpy shocking stuff? Ultimately, I suspect that it's the author's decision to write the book, the publisher's to print it, and the reader's to read/recommend it, but I think it's an interesting point.
 

Swank

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Novels can be sophisticated, violent or both. Novels can be well written, or not. Fiction does not have mandate to educate, so good ideas getting lost in the mayhem is only a negative if it impacts the standing or sales of that novel.

With so many novels published, there is no "should". Readers can sort out if they like violence with their thoughtfulness or whether a thoughtful book means accepting some violence. If not, they can read something else.


We live in a weird place where we are all very aware of violence - it is on the news and in fiction in some form or another daily - but most of us will go through life without ever personally witnessing anything significant. So violence itself is neither genuine or ingenuine as an ingredient in realism.
 

msstice

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I don't know if violence (and sex) puts off Audiences. They both put me off for different reasons. Too much violence just makes me queasy and not in a "I'm being intellectually challenged" way but in a food poisoning way. Sex puts me off because I start asking why the author/director decided they needed nude women to carry the story and I usually find weaknesses. (And it is almost always nude women. As far as I can see, in movies it's rare to see nude men unless its explicitly gay themed. I'm sure Hollywood has detailed research on why they do this).

I think in the vast majority of products violence and sex are inserted for age old reasons: to titillate and to publicize. There are more people who are telling their friends "Wow! Do you remember that episode where they poured molten metal into that guy's ear." than are saying "I really loved that episode for its nuanced exploration of workplace bullying." There are vastly more people who can enjoy the former than people who have the self awareness and subtlety to detect the latter.

The mass market goods follow. If you are not bound by the mass market, you have the great freedom to create art as you wish, however subtle and however off-beat as you want.

I just wish we had a more efficient marketplace (for books) where we could link up readers with authors in a more personalized manner.

Edited to focus the rant.
 
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CrazyKB

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A while ago, I read an article saying that it was a shame the games Bioshock and The Last of Us were so violent, as that would put people off the good stories they told and the interesting ideas underlying them. I feel the same about Richard Morgan's novel Black Man (retitled Thirteen in the US), which is full of disturbing, very relevant satire, but also full of bloodthirsty mayhem. Likewise, the ideas in Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (largely about surveillance and the concept of the Panopticon) are pretty much lost when the carnage starts.

I'm not trying to argue that "modern stuff is too violent and that's bad", nor am I trying to say that modern audiences are crude and debased. But I wonder whether, as ideas get more sophisticated, it's desirable or necessary to increase the "adultness" of a story. On one hand, a book like 1984 has to be violent and squalid to make its point. On the other, a book like The Lies of Locke Lamora (almost universally described by critics as a fun, merry caper) contains large amounts of torture, death and animal cruelty for no clear reason beyond entertainment. But would it get a bigger audience if it was "cleaner"?

Does this mean that a book with sophisticated ideas can be expected to be more "adult" in other ways? Or should a novel of ideas dispose with the pulpy shocking stuff? Ultimately, I suspect that it's the author's decision to write the book, the publisher's to print it, and the reader's to read/recommend it, but I think it's an interesting point.
Video games such as The Last of Us are action based, thus there's going to be violence, not to mention the story takes place in a dystopian world, where violence would no doubt be a reality. I believe it comes down to the material regarding how much violence should play a role. I also believe that violence in video games could be a good thing, since it allows us to explore our 'darker side' without causing any real harm to others.
 

The Big Peat

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On the other, a book like The Lies of Locke Lamora (almost universally described by critics as a fun, merry caper) contains large amounts of torture, death and animal cruelty for no clear reason beyond entertainment. But would it get a bigger audience if it was "cleaner"?

When it was published? Gods no. Now? Maybe.

I think there's two separate questions here.

1) Do stories start to lose their thematic power and powers of emotional satisfaction when they hit a mostly action mode?

For me, often yes. It's very hard to do everything. You can get emotional satisfaction out of action if set up right, but thematic power is very difficult. I think most storytellers know this and try to get all their storytelling around the action, but sometimes it goes wrong. I've definitely read stories where the set-up to the prolonged fight was a ton more interesting than the fight and they shot themselves in the foot.

2) Does high levels of violence (or other such things) limit audience?

Yes, but not meaningfully more than any other choice. Not at the moment. Game of Thrones got about as big a TV audience as you can get without being live sports or a baking competition.
 

Yozh

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For me, violence often does get in the way of a story. Though more often with movies than books. At the same time, there are violent books and movies that I like and that I think make good use of violence in service of a story or idea.

I do not actually like to watch violence/gore but I appreciate stories that explore ideas about human motivations, good/evil, struggles against injustice etc. and violence can play an integral role.

IMO, it becomes gratuitous and off putting when it's just more and more of the same. E.g. maybe it serves the story and sets the mood to show your "big bad" ruthlessly killing innocent villagers in one scene so we see what the "good guys" are up against. But repeating that 3,4,5, times and its just sickening, tedious torture p*rn. Same with, e.g. showing physical/sexual abuse to establish a characters suffering. Maybe you need a harrowing scene to establish what they are going through, but repeatedly revisiting it and you're just writing torture p*rn.

Of course the success of slasher film franchises GOT, and shoot'em up action films shows you that plenty of people are happy to consume violence as entertainment.
 

SpaMan

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I think it's very difficult to write violence without seeming as if you're trying too hard to make the reader feel something. It's a fine line, for me, when some things are overemphasised and makes them lose effect. Which, in turn, may make something with a lot of violence seem less mature, not more.

I used to love reading Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant books when I was a kid, because I was into all that highly descriptive violent fighting stuff. But I can't say those books are mature. Though, to be fair, I believe there shouldn't be such thing as being 'too old' for any book.
 

Draven Vertigo

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I suppose its one of those beauty in the eye of the beholder things. Coming from a Bloodthirsty American perspective, I'm rather desensitized to sex and violence. They are two sides of the same human psychology coin for me. Things can still interest me with little or no violence in it, I watched a lot of American House of Cards and enjoyed the skullduggery of it. I also tend to lose interest if the violence gets too repetitive or if it doesn't add anything to the story.
I'm curious as to what constitutes a sophisticated idea in the age of Tik Tok and ChatGPT.
 

Toby Frost

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1) Do stories start to lose their thematic power and powers of emotional satisfaction when they hit a mostly action mode?

I think that's often true. I remember a run of adaptations of interesting short stories - Minority Report springs to mind - where the original story was squashed into a fairly bog-standard action plot, to turn it into a film.

2) Does high levels of violence (or other such things) limit audience?

I really don't know the answer. I think a genuinely intelligent story like Black Man or Bioshock Infinite doesn't need extensive and detailed violence to convey its ideas. But would there be an expectation on them to provide violence? I'm not sure.

I think it's very difficult to write violence without seeming as if you're trying too hard to make the reader feel something.

Yes, it's easy to tip into exploitation. I remember books like Rogue Male and King Solomon's Mines (and Lovecraft's stories) which invite the reader to imagine grisly things without actually providing much gore, and I think are stronger because of it. That said, a writer like Clive Barker can fill the page with gore and be almost poetic, as in The Books of Blood. It may be a matter of style as much as content. It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, as Shakespeare or possibly Bananarama put it.
 
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Vladd67

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I suppose its one of those beauty in the eye of the beholder things. Coming from a Bloodthirsty American perspective, I'm rather desensitized to sex and violence. They are two sides of the same human psychology coin for me. Things can still interest me with little or no violence in it, I watched a lot of American House of Cards and enjoyed the skullduggery of it. I also tend to lose interest if the violence gets too repetitive or if it doesn't add anything to the story.
I'm curious as to what constitutes a sophisticated idea in the age of Tik Tok and ChatGPT.
Have you watched the original British House of Cards?
 

OuttaInc

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But I wonder whether, as ideas get more sophisticated, it's desirable or necessary to increase the "adultness" of a story.
American writer Flannery O'Connor said, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace."

I think about that quote a lot.

I don't like to see excessive violence and I don't consume graphic TV/movies, but my suspicion is that reality is violence, and civility and security is a thin curtain many of us draw across our eyes to protect ourselves from the disturbing truth. Sometimes it's good to peek behind that curtain and remind ourselves that nature is metal, but I don't blame anyone for choosing not to.
 

Cthulhu.Science

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A while ago, I read an article saying that it was a shame the games Bioshock and The Last of Us were so violent, as that would put people off the good stories they told and the interesting ideas underlying them. I feel the same about Richard Morgan's novel Black Man (retitled Thirteen in the US), which is full of disturbing, very relevant satire, but also full of bloodthirsty mayhem. Likewise, the ideas in Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (largely about surveillance and the concept of the Panopticon) are pretty much lost when the carnage starts.

I'm not trying to argue that "modern stuff is too violent and that's bad", nor am I trying to say that modern audiences are crude and debased. But I wonder whether, as ideas get more sophisticated, it's desirable or necessary to increase the "adultness" of a story. On one hand, a book like 1984 has to be violent and squalid to make its point. On the other, a book like The Lies of Locke Lamora (almost universally described by critics as a fun, merry caper) contains large amounts of torture, death and animal cruelty for no clear reason beyond entertainment. But would it get a bigger audience if it was "cleaner"?

Does this mean that a book with sophisticated ideas can be expected to be more "adult" in other ways? Or should a novel of ideas dispose with the pulpy shocking stuff? Ultimately, I suspect that it's the author's decision to write the book, the publisher's to print it, and the reader's to read/recommend it, but I think it's an interesting point.

The Last of Us game violence was expected, there are "infected" everywhere," but surprised me in a fundamental way. Our heroine(s) spend far more time simply being mass murderers of people going about their daily business. And this is something fundamental in many, many games. That is the enemy faction. Go kill them all as they eat their fruit loops. - if you are good enough - and through sheer violence if you are not. And for my dollar, this stuff bores me pretty quickly. This has become the lowest common denominator of "action" writing. Go sneak up on and murder a bunch of people (or aliens, or whatever) while they go about their day.

To me, this is a lack of sophistication. Where is the nuance?
For those familiar with The Last of Us 2 consider the nuance offered (2 perspectives) but both are mass-murderers of the same type.
 

Cthulhu.Science

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Video games such as The Last of Us are action based, thus there's going to be violence, not to mention the story takes place in a dystopian world, where violence would no doubt be a reality. I believe it comes down to the material regarding how much violence should play a role. I also believe that violence in video games could be a good thing, since it allows us to explore our 'darker side' without causing any real harm to others.

Station 11, on HBO, is interesting because the dystopian future offers an image of a society composed of a group of communities that primarily live in peace within themselves and with each other. Even as they live with the awareness that there are violent people in the world around them.
 

CrazyKB

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Station 11, on HBO, is interesting because the dystopian future offers an image of a society composed of a group of communities that primarily live in peace within themselves and with each other. Even as they live with the awareness that there are violent people in the world around them.
Thanks for the recommendation, that miniseries looks promising (got good reviews). I just finished the first episode of The Man in the High Castle. Liking it so far.
 

Cthulhu.Science

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Thanks for the recommendation, that miniseries looks promising (got good reviews). I just finished the first episode of The Man in the High Castle. Liking it so far.

Station 11 is a slow burn. I'm not certain if I am recommending it. Either way, it is a very different idea of a post-infection future than most.
 

Toby Frost

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Our heroine(s) spend far more time simply being mass murderers of people going about their daily business. And this is something fundamental in many, many games.

Personally, I don't think The Last of Us does anything especially new, but what it does it does well. I'm pretty sure that John Wayne made a PG rated film years ago, where a violent old loner becomes a better person for looking after a child but ultimately is still selfish and violent. It's certainly the sort of story you can imagine him being in. TLOU is a computer game, and so it has to do computer game things, but what if it was a game about puzzles instead of murder? Telltale games have made thoughtful choice-making games based on more violent intellectual properties, and there are "hidden object" puzzle games with the same look as Bioshock and Prey.

I don't like to see excessive violence and I don't consume graphic TV/movies, but my suspicion is that reality is violence, and civility and security is a thin curtain many of us draw across our eyes to protect ourselves from the disturbing truth.

There's a lot of truth in that, but novels like The Day of the Triffids and The Death of Grass were telling extremely grim stories in the 1950s without much actual violence. Whereas The Lies of Locke Lamora has much more overt violence and none of that fundamental bleakness. I'm not sure that a bleak (or honest, or whatever) story actually needs graphic violence. But it may make the story stronger.

I also wonder if our definition of what constitutes extreme violence has changed. I suspect that a film where the hero literally hacks Nazis or zombies into bits would probably get a lighter rating now, although I think modern people would be much more shocked if a murderer killed the family dog after slaying the family.
 

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