We live in a violent world and an increasingly violent country. That is reality. So should we object to graphic violence in books meant for adults?
In theory, I don’t. We write mysteries, almost all of which involve violent death. In the Golden Age of mystery writing, a victim died to present the sleuth with a puzzle to solve. Rarely was the corpse dwelt upon in loving detail. Then enter fascism and other totalitarian regimes, the Great Depression, a war that destroyed our faith in all reason or decency, and a growing acceptance that being a victim of random violence is just as likely going to the grocery store as it is living in a war zone. Seeing a torn apart corpse can no longer be considered improbable in our modern day life. The current reality therefore has a reasonable part in modern day fiction.
But theory only goes so far, and each of us has a defined tolerance for detailed scenes of mutilation, torture, and a multitude of body parts. In my case, I still have nightmares from my first reading of concentration camp details when I was fifteen. Other graphic scenes in films, fiction, and nonfiction have haunted me for years. There are very fine books I cannot and should not read because the graphic violence will literally torture me. But I am also not the audience that must be educated or reminded of what our fellow creatures, left unrestrained by war or political fashion, are capable of inflicting on the rest of us.
So is there a limit to literary graphic violence? And, again, I am talking about books for adults only.
I still hold to the dictum that the story rules. If the amount of detail exceeds story needs (whether it be sex, research, violence, or superfluous scenes), then it doesn’t belong. In my own writing (see Wine of Violence), I haven’t shied away from graphic stuff, but I don’t dwell lovingly on it. My decision. Other writers may legitimately decide that more graphic violence is required by the nature and point of the tale. All of us are bound by the same demands of good craft.
But we readers also bear responsibility. Like food sensitivities, we must do our reasonable best to avoid books we cannot endure. With few exceptions (mainly because the writer was one I felt I should read), I have managed to avoid works that exceeded my tolerance. I don’t need a warning label. I am adult enough to do a quick check for violence, dull or incompetent writing, syrupy romance, or sleuths who can down a few bottles of scotch while driving off a third story parking garage and emerging with just a gash. Never once, when I did buy a book that was beyond my tolerance, did I blame the writer.
So my answer to graphic violence is simple. Write it if needed. Read what you can tolerate. Publishers will publish what they think the market will bear, but none of us, writer or reader, has to exceed what we think is enough.