Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gorebage*

Murder is a violent crime. Of course, some murders are more brutal than others, but it’s just about impossible to talk or think about murder without considering that aspect of it. In real life, police and other investigators have to deal with sometimes horrific violence on a regular basis, so if crime fiction is to at all reflect real life, you could argue that it, too, should acknowledge that violence. The problem is, of course, that for many people, violence – a tremendous amount of violence – is off-putting. That may be because we don’t like to really think about how much violence people are capable of committing. Or it may be because crime fiction, like other fiction, often serves the purpose of helping readers escape from everyday life. Violence isn’t pleasant, and escapes aren’t very restorative if they’re not pleasant. The question then becomes: how much violence should there be in a novel? And there isn’t really a definitive answer. For one thing, everyone has a different threshold for violence and gore. Secondly, each murder mystery’s different. In some, not much violence is needed. In others, the story makes less sense and is less believable if there’s little violence. The key seems to be that the violence should make sense and be a logical part of the novel if it’s going to be there. In other words, there’s a fine line between violence that’s an integral part of a novel, and violence that’s “gorebage,” or gore that’s included in a story gratuitously*.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t include a lot of descriptions of violence. For instance, in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Celia Austin, a resident at a hostel for students. Celia’s a nice, if not overly intelligent, young woman who, as one character puts it, is definitely not the kind of girl to get herself murdered. Poirot gets involved in the case because there’ve been some other very mysterious goings-on at the hostel that seem to have no explanation. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot finds out how those deaths are connected with the other events at the hostel. Even though three people end up being killed (and not by an exactly remorseful killer, either, really), Christie doesn’t include a lot of violence. There are no detailed descriptions of the deaths; rather, the reader is left to “fill in the gaps.”

That’s also true in 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). In that novel, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train from Scotland to St. Mary Mead to visit her friend, Jane Marple. On the way, another train passes in the other direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the windows of that train just in time to see a woman being strangled. At first, no-one believes her. After all, there is no dead body, and no-one has reported anyone missing. However, Mrs. McGillicuddy knows what she saw, and insists that she’s right. When she tells Miss Marple what she saw, Miss Marple pays attention and the two women soon set to work trying to figure out what happened. In the end, Miss Marple connects the murder on the train with events at Rutherford Hall, where the woman’s body is eventually found. It turns out that the woman was murdered mostly for financial gain.

Christie actually pokes fun at her reluctance to describe graphic violence. She dedicated Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) to her brother-in-law, who’d mentioned there wasn’t enough blood in her novels. In this novel, Simeon Lee, a tyrannical but wealthy old man, is brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Since all of his relatives have gathered for the holiday, and each of them had plenty of motive, there are lots of suspects for Hercule Poirot. He gets involved in the case because he’s spending the holiday nearby. Although you could argue that this is one of the most violent of Christie’s novels (it’s possibly got the most blood), even this one isn’t graphic. Christie describes the murder scene, but not in gratuitous detail.

Dorothy Sayers’s work is also not excessively violent. In Have His Carcase, for instance, Harriet Vane discovers the body of a man who’s had his throat cut. There’s no doubt about the death, either, yet Sayers’ description isn’t excessively violent:

“..for the larynx and all the great vessels of the neck had been severed…and a frightful stream, bright red and glistening, was running over the surface of the rock…

I have to confess that I don’t write graphically violent scenes, myself. My reason is that the stories I write don’t require a lot of graphic descriptions in order for them to make sense. There are many, many fine modern authors who also don’t include lots of violence in their novels.

That said, though, there are plenty of novels where violence – sometimes a lot of it – is integral to the plot. For instance, Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes is the story of the brutal torture and murder of Billy Cunningham. At first, it looks as though Cunningham may have been murdered by an Irish terrorist group, so Inspector Rebus works with the elite Scottish Crime Squad to investigate that possibility. When Cunningham turns out to be the son of Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, everything changes. Cafferty, a powerful local crime boss, is at least as eager to find out who murdered his son as Rebus is, and makes it clear that if Rebus doesn’t solve the crime, he will – in his own way. So, in order to prevent a frightening outbreak of violence in Edinburgh, Rebus reluctantly agrees to work with Cafferty to find out who’s behind Cunningham’s death. In this novel, the violence is graphic, but it’s an important part of the plot. Without it, it would be harder to believe the events in the story. So while the violence is graphic, you could argue that it’s not gratuitous.

That’s also true of Simon Beckett’s David Hunter novels. Hunter is a forensic anthropologist, so forensic details are important parts of the cases he investigates. In Whispers of the Dead, for instance, he’s visiting Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropological Research Laboratory when a decomposed body is found not far from the lab. The lab team, including Hunter, works with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and local police to try to find out who the dead man was, and how (and by whom) he was killed. Then, another body appears. Soon, it’s clear that a serial killer is at work, and Hunter and the lab team work to solve the crimes before someone else dies. In this novel, there are several questions of identification, so some of the violence done to the bodies, and lots of the forensics details, are important in understanding the story. Again, the violence here is graphic, but not gratuitous.

In Rob Kitchin’s The Rule Book, we see another example of a novel where violence is integral to a believable plot. In that novel, D.S. Colm McEvoy is called in to investigate when a young girl is found brutally murdered. Next to her body is the first chapter of what seems to be a self-help instructional manual for serial killers. Nearby are six carefully-placed business cards, each advertising the book. Soon, the killer, whom the media dubs The Raven, promises that a new chapter of the book will be delivered each day, along with a new body. The killer begins to make good on this promise when a second, and then a third, brutally murdered body is found. Now, McEvoy and his team have to “race against the clock” to catch the killer before any more deaths occur. In this novel, again, violence is a part of the plot. The story wouldn’t be believable without it. Yet, here, too, Kitchin doesn’t include violence arbitrarily. It’s all tightly connected with the plot.

So how much violence is too much? When does graphic become “gorebage?” In the end, it seems that the plot has to determine that. When the violence moves the plot along, is integral to it, or helps us understand the characters better, it’s not necessarily gratuitous, even if it’s graphic. When the violence is arbitrary, described in un-necessary detail, and doesn’t add to the plot or help readers understand the characters, it can quickly become “gorebage.” But, everyone has a different definition of “too much.” Mine is hardly the only one. What’s yours? When does violence become “gorebage” to you?


*Note: My thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading
for posting this terrific link of crime-fiction-related neologisms that helped me coin this word.

Also, my thanks to Rob at The View From the Blue House for an excellent post that made me think about how crime fiction makes us think about ourselves. As you predicted, Rob, it inspired me to ponder issues like violence. You must know me better than I suspected ; ).

26 comments:

  1. My murder mysteries I try not fill with a great deal of gore because I would have to imagine it myself. That being said, there were some chapters I wrote that left me haunted and scared. Because I often write from the POV of the police, I often find the murder victim already dead not in the process of being killed. Some types of violence bothers me more than others. I watched a Cold Case episode yesterday where a black boy was beaten and hung by some white folk and that bothered more a lot more than some of the other episodes. I don't know why.

    Great post. CD

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  2. Whilst it is partly a matter of plot, I think it's also partly a matter of personal taste. Different writers can tackle the same, potentially very gory, material in very different ways. Personally, as a writer I prefer the suggestion of gore rather than loads of grisly detail about it. But I can think of some other writers who do gory scenes very well, much better than I ever could.

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  3. Clarissa - You know, I feel the same way about my writing. I just know that if I wrote really violent, gory scenes, they would have to come to me first, and that really would haunt me. Even so, there've been one or two scenes I've written that I remembered unpleasantly later, too...

    It's funny you would mention certain kinds of violence being harder to take than others. To me, brutal violence against children or other vulnerable people just strikes me as harder to take than the same violence against healthy, strong adults. I guess it's because of the vulnerability factor.

    I think another reason some people find graphic violence hard to read is that it's too easy to identify with the character(s)...

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  4. Martin - You know, you have quite a strong point. There are writers who can write very gory scenes quite well. So it's quite possible that it also is related to the preference of the writer. And, may I say, I think your approach is quite well-done. As a reader, I'm quite well aware of what's happening in the scenes where there's violence; yet, it's not overdone. It's the more effective that way, I think. Folks, if you're not familiar with Martin Edwards' Lake Distrct series, I encourage you to give it a try. Of course, I'm a fan, but still...

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  5. I like the descriptions of the violent act (mostly so I can visualise what happened) but I don't like descriptions of the gore and remains. Maybe I'm just squeemish but I'm sure if I'm told that someone was riddled with bullet holes (the act) I can visualise the result without much prompting.
    Thanks, as usual, for an interesting discussion.

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  6. I have a low threshold for it (probably obvious, since I write cozies!) The Minnette Walters books are about as far as I can go with gore...

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  7. Cassandra - You're very kind : ). There is a difference, isn't there, between the act of murder and, as you say, the remains. And you bring up an interesting point. A certain amount of description is helpful to the reader. It allows the reader to create mental images that help in understanding the story, and that understanding is important. Without it, readers may be less engaged.

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  8. Elizabeth - The "gore threshold" is a personal thing, isn't it? Some readers and writers are comfortable with a lot of extreme violence; others have a very low tolerance. That's one reason I'm glad there is such a variety of crime fiction out there. Just about everyone can find an author whose style has the "right" amount of gore, whatever that is. I'm glad you mentioned Minnette Walters - I like her work, too : ).

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  9. "Gorebage" ~ what an excellent term, Margot! I'm so impressed! (But then again, I'm impressed every time I read your posts!). The gore doesn't do it for me...but as you've pointed out, luckily there's a variety of crime fiction out there...ah, the spice of life!
    Thanks for those great links, too....fun neologisms, and interesting points made by Rob about the appeal of crime fiction.

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  10. Kathleen - Thanks for the kind words : ). I don't go looking for gore, either, actually. And I'm not surprised that gore isn't your big thing. You've had experience as a police officer; that's enough, I would guess, to give anyone a bellyful of real-life gore. As you say, though, there's enough variety out there in crime fiction to keep just about any reader happy...

    I'm glad you liked Rob's and Bernadette's posts. They are both top-quality bloggers from whom I learn every time I visit, and whose posts never fail to impress me.

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  11. Love the word "gorebage." Funny, I was just commenting this morning on another blog that the Sandford "Prey" series scares me. Usually the killer is a psychopath; the unpredictability and violence frightens me. But then that means Sandford's writing pulls me in enough to make the story real to me, doesn't it?

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  12. Barbara - Thanks : ); I liked that word, too. You know, you make an interesting point. Doesn't violence - the kind that haunts a reader - pull the reader in and engage the reader? In a sense, yes, I see exactly what you mean. My opinion, though (with which, please feel free to disagree) is that that sort of "pull" isn't enough. There also has to be a strong plot and believable, likable characters. To me, that's why the finest crime fiction makes judicious use of violence, using it as a tool to tell a story, not as an end in itself.

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  13. I really think it depends on the need. Some books need it more than others--and it takes a good writer to know the difference. When a writer doesn't know, that's when it bothers me and that's when it seems gratuitous, or like gorebage. Great word!

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

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  14. Michele - Thanks : ). I'm kinda proud of that word, actually. And I agree with you that it's best when the author understands which kinds of stories call for more, or more obvious, violence, and which don't. Otherwise, it does get gratuitous.

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  15. I don't mind reading about gore or violence - as long as it doesn't involve children or animals - that will be enough for me to put a book down. Thrillers usually have more violence but since their pace is so breathless you move on quickly rather than wading hip-deep into the gore. I tend to kill off my victims rather bloodlessly or, if there is blood involved, the poor things went rather quickly. Long, drawn out scenes of torture, etc. are not things I can ever see myself writing.

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  16. Elspeth - I'm just like you when I write; I don't write really bloody scenes. I just can't envision myself writing that kind of story. But yes, when you've got a thriller or certain other kinds of crime novels, having lots of violence doesn't necessarily mean that the book's too gory.

    It's funny you'd mention children and animals. There are some kinds of victims that many people think of as "crossing the line," and you've definitely hit on two of them. Real violence against the most vulnerable of people is awfully hard for me to take, too.

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  17. Another very, very thought provoking post, Margot! As with most of your commenters, I don't find violence--and especially gore--too appealing. Yet I am a huge, huge fan of Sanford's "Prey" series. I've been asking myself what it is about this series that I find so compelling? I've reached the tentative decision that, as you said above, Sanford's plots are intriguing and his characters--at least the "good guys", are likable. It's not so much that there's a "pull" to the violence, but rather the violence is part-and-parcel of a psychopathic criminal. I think. Then again...

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  18. Bob - Why, thank you : ). It just seems to be that the first concern for an author needs to be the quality of the story and characters. The plot needs to be engrossing and the characters likable and interesting. The rest falls out naturally if the author is doing his or her job, so to speak. You hint at an interesting question, though: does violence appeal? I agree with you that if the "bad guy" is a psycopathic criminal, then extreme violence would go with that sort of temperament and be logical. In and of itself, though? I'm not sure whether violence has an appeal. Hmmmm....

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  19. Excellent post!

    I am not particularly sensitive, and though I read some cozy mysteries, I prefer novels which are more realistic when it comes to the depiction of crime and violence.

    To me, it makes a difference whether we see the violence through the eyes of policemen who are shocked and outraged by it (as in Rob´s excellent novel)or through the eyes of a sadist or psychopath who enjoyes killing and torturing people (some of Val McDermid´s Hill & Jordan books - I have told my young children NOT to read them).

    Another difference, which I have mentioned to you before, is how well we know the victim, and how the victim is described (a vulnerable child or teenager, or an unpleasant, despotic boss).

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  20. Dorte - Thank you : ). I think many readers share your preference for at least some realism. Many crime fiction fans want the action to be believable and when it comes to murder, that means violent.

    I think you make a very important point about how that violence is portrayed (i.e. how the characters react to it). Other characters' reactions send a message to the reader about the violence, and that certainly affects whether the reader finds the violence upsetting or just part of the plot. I hadn't thought of that before, so I'm very glad you brought that up. I'm going to have to think about that as I consider my own reactions to books I read...

    And I absolutely agree with you about the kinds of victims. The more vulnerable, and the better we know and like the victim, the more truly upsetting the violence is. I've actually chosen not to read books where I know there's going to be horrific violence against someone truly likable and very vulnerable.

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  21. I don't know if violence, in and of itself, has much of an appeal to most readers of crime fiction. I do, however, think it adds a lot to the novel's suspense and pace. I want Hercule Poirot to catch the person who poisoned a dinner guest, but I can wait for him to solve the crime at his own measured pace. Lucas Davenport has to catch the psycopathic killer who dismembers his victims NOW!

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  22. Bob - That's another interesting point. Violence can add to the suspense and sense of urgency of a story. The more, and more violent, the killings, the greater the pressure there is to solve the crimes.

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  23. It is an interesting question, indeed! I prefer a book that is very dark, than one that is violent. I have been much more upset by Karin Fossum (no violence) than many a slasher/serial killer novel. The latter often has a comic book element that removes it from any reality. Or is a cliche. True darkness, however, is hard to shrug off for the reader, or, I suspect, for the author.
    Often, if a book is not dark, the suggestion of violence can be far more effective than the depiction of it.

    I certainly despise books that revel in violence or that try to make it funny, and do not read them.

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  24. Maxine - You make such an interesting distinction between violence and darkness. They really are different, aren't they? There are, as you say, lots of books that include graphic violence, but that we can "shake off," because it's easy to suspend disbelief. When we can really identify with the characters of a truly dark book, that's much more haunting.

    You also make an interesting comment about the suggestion of violence, rather than the gory details. What happens in those cases, I think, is that the reader is invited to use her or his imagination, and that can be much more effective than having the author spell everything out.

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  25. Murder is a violent crime and it is unrealistic and even unfair to make it appear too neat. That said, I do not have high 'gorebage' tolerance (what a great word!) and don't really care for hardboiled crime fiction either. I decide between graphic or gorebage based on the emotion it provokes in me. If it is graphic enought that I feel a sense of violation and wanting to bring the criminal to justice, thats OK. But if all I feel is distaste and disgust at the descriptions, that's 'gorebage'!

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  26. Book Mole - You bring up a good point. It really isn't realistic or fair to have a murder mystery where the killing is too neat. That doesn't, you might say, acknowledge just how violent a crime murder really is. On the other hand, I think most people do have a "gorebage" threshold. You've got an interesting perspective, too, on what your threshold is: the emotions that the book elicits from you. Righteous anger at a killing is one thing. Disgust is another.

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