Sex and Violence

This post was originally published on Alex Davis’ blog as part of his July blog swap. Read the latest here:
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.

Writers’ Tears

I recently finished the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea, a full six weeks ahead of schedule, just in time to go off on holiday to the South of France. Hooray! Celebration! Get out the champers!
Once the initial jubilation fades, it’s time to think about what happens next. And – oh dear – what happens next is the most terrifying part of the whole writing process. Giving the manuscript to another human being to read. Aargh! Can’t I just lock it away on my hard drive, never to be seen by another pair of eyes? Well, I suppose I could do that, although it seems a little self-defeating. After all, isn’t this what I want, isn’t this the whole point – not just to write, but to be read?
Well, yes. But. Handing over the book to someone else can be pretty nerve-wracking, even if it’s someone you trust. The essential problem for the amateur scribbler, of course, is that anyone you can cajole/bribe/emotionally blackmail into reading your book will inevitably have a vested interest in keeping you happy, and so there’s always a doubt that they will be entirely honest. My husband – long after the fact – confessed that when he started reading my first book, he was terrified that he’d hate it and not know how to tell me. Luckily, either he enjoyed it, or he’s a remarkably good liar playing a very long game. This time round, there’s more confidence, on both sides: he’s confident I can deliver a decent read, and I’m confident he’ll give me his honest opinions on anything he doesn’t like.
Oh dear. Honest opinions. Every writer’s greatest desire, and greatest fear. We want absolute honesty, but only if you loved it. The writing process is a very solipsistic one, and after spending many hours locked away in your own very carefully constructed castle in the air, it can be difficult to come back down to earth and be told that your character motivations are unclear and your chapter transitions too abrupt – and by the way you’ve used dashes when you should have used commas, and vice-versa.
How should the writer respond to criticism? Well, there’s any number of possible options. Crying uncontrollably. Sulking. Arguing with your reader – ‘I think you’ll find if you read more carefully you’ll see that was foreshadowed near the beginning of Chapter 3’. Ignoring the criticism – after all, what do they know, they’re not an artist! – and listening only to your muse. These options are all possible, but none of them is remotely constructive, and some may result in permanently falling out with your long-suffering reader. If you want to derive something helpful from the process, there is only one way to deal with criticism.
Suck it.
That’s right, suck it all up, take it on the chin and get over yourself. Listen carefully to everything the reader has to say, and don’t try to argue with them. So they didn’t appreciate your plot twist? So they didn’t much like your main character? Well, so be it. Maybe your plot twist is stupid and your character is insufferable. Maybe not. But the point is, you’ve got an opportunity here: your reader has given you the precious gift of an honest opinion, before the book is unleashed on the world, and you still have the chance to make some changes.
And of course, if they say nice things, you can bask in the smug joy of having created a thing of beauty. And, if someone is prepared to tell you the bad things, you know that when they say good things, they mean them. Honest praise – the most precious thing of all.
I’ve also found that my latest read, Misery by Stephen King, has been very good at putting things in perspective. Hey, so my husband found fault with some parts of my book! At least [SPOILERS] I’m not being held prisoner by a raving psychopath who’ll burn my manuscript and amputate assorted body parts if she doesn’t like what I’ve written.
Now to start thinking about that third draft…