Sex and Violence

This post was originally published on Alex Davis’ blog as part of his July blog swap. Read the latest here: http://alexblogsabout.com/the-blog/
Before sitting down to write this post, I asked Alex if there were any restrictions on subject matter, and he said ‘no’. So I’m here to talk to you about sex and violence. There may also be curse words. You have been warned.
Now, if there’s one thing you can learn from looking at the history of literature, it’s this: humans sure do love reading about sex and violence. Trust me on this, I’m a classicist, I’ve read Homer. There’s nothing those Greek heroes like more than splitting a few skulls before retiring to their tents for a bit of R&R with some nubile slave girls and/or each other. Throughout history, you’ll find no shortage of authors willing to cater for the reading public’s bloodlust and, um, lust-lust. Also throughout history, self-appointed moral guardians have loved wringing their hands and wailing ‘won’t someone think of the children?’, whether it’s Romantic poetry or violent videogames to blame this time. But we all know there’s no such thing as bad publicity – just ask EL James. Publicly reviled by everyone from grammar pedants to BDSM practitioners, and yet she’s laughing all the way to the Bahamas. And what does she write about?
As writers, therefore, should we seek to incorporate as much sex and violence in our tales as possible? Not so fast. First let me tell you about some books I’ve read recently and my reactions to them.
Let’s start with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Now, I’m not normally much of a crime fan, but so many people told me I ought to read this book that I eventually gave in and gave it a go. As well as telling me to read it, several people warned me about the content, in particular a horrible rape scene. When I got to the scene in question, I found my own reaction to it weirdly fascinating in its duality. On the one hand, I found it luridly excessive, an obvious attempt to shock for the sake of it rather than for the sake of the story. On the other hand, it completely failed to shock me. Call me jaded, but I’ve read plenty of other stuff far worse – remember that 2012 Delhi gang rape case? After reading about that, no fictional rape scene is going to have a lot of impact, unless I really care about the character(s) involved. And there’s the rub – Larsson just hadn’t made me care enough about Lisbeth Salander, and so his scene fell completely flat for me, the literary equivalent of a tantrum by a six-year-old who’s just learned to say ‘fuck’.
Now let’s move on to The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, a book whose cover promised me it would be ‘delightfully twisted and evil’. And so I was expecting blood and viscera smeared all over the pages. It failed to deliver. Oh sure, there were a few descriptions of skulls being split a la the Iliad, but the skulls in question belonged to redshirts so I didn’t really care. Part of the problem was that I had just finished reading Misery by Stephen King, and The Blade Itself suffered in comparison: I had thoughts like ‘meh, this finger-chopping torture scene isn’t nearly as bad as the equivalent scene in Misery.’ And why did the choppy-choppy scene in Misery have me quite literally squealing in panic, whereas Abercrombie’s version had me shrugging? Because King had made me care about the character whose digits were under threat.
Finally, I’ll mention The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, a book with hardly any actual violence which nonetheless manages to be completely bone-chilling and memorable. What’s her secret? Well, she has a constant sense of threat, all the more frightening for being kept vague. And – guess what – she makes you care about her characters. I really, really wanted her teenage protagonists to find happiness – and when they have (loving, consensual) sex, even though the scenes aren’t at all explicit, it had far more impact on me than any amount of would-be shocking stuff from Stieg Larsson.
So there you go – the answer isn’t simply to stuff in as much sex and violence into your tales as possible. From The Iliad’s Achilles and Patroclus to The Death House’s Toby and Clara, what makes an effective story is a suitable amount of sex and violence, happening to characters we care about.

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