While working on a short story on domestic violence recently, I was privileged to get a colleague review it. ‘It lacks suspense, no action, not gripping, it fell flat like a biography’, this was his response. To bring it alive, he suggested we add some action. This he did, by injecting some dose of violence, a scene with a strong narration of one violating one’s kind. Amazingly, the story came alive with suspense! It took the ambiance of most familiar fiction novels I know.
I am still amazed at the ease with which violent writing came to my colleague, unlike it came to me. I have tried to look at this event with a gender lens; are male writers better at writing on violence than women writers? This is a huge argument, but gendering this, is not the focus of this article.
At the soul of this piece is the need to explore how writers of literary fiction have engaged with the theme of violence in their work. Do they write to excite, inspire or discourage violence, or do they just flirt with violence for the purpose of adding shock to their work?
No work of fiction is written in a vacuum. All of them cling to issues that are of relevance to the society. Violence is trending in almost every society these days, governments no longer hold monopoly to violence, in all forms of unruly politics, citizens now exercise rights to different types of violence. You may call it terrorism, war, sexual or physical abuse, mutilation, child abuse or anything else. All of these names rest on violence; the act of violating one’s kind. The reality of this in our society cannot be ignored. From the city streets to the country sides, within our homes and in our daily lives, like air, violence is speedily and easily penetrating our life.
The rising number of war, the growing incidence of terrorism especially among developing countries, introduced a very high note in the rhythm of global violence. Like most violent acts, terrorism uses force to attain political end. What makes it incomprehensible is that the victims often have no relations or affiliation to the political issues they fight. Perpetrators of this type of violence, show a profound disconnection that amounts to hatred of one’s kind, a disregard for life and all it represents. This facts make me wonder if such disconnection and disregard are experienced by writers and their readers when conjuring, narrating or engaging violence in novels? I am still unable to comprehend violence, I cannot effectively narrate it fictionally, and hence I cannot answer to these experiences.
While the above questions represent questions of process, the questions on intent are also important. What is a writer’s intention for projecting violence? It seems to me that some writers use violence in their narratives to compel action in our society. For example, the generation of Apartheid writers in South Africa would use violent narratives to reflect the evil of the existing apartheid system and incite people against racism and injustice. Other writers may need to inject violence to gain a balanced reflection of a true society, considering that violence is understood to be organic. A later group of writers may use violence because it sells; it shocks or can indeed be entertaining.
Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’, ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis among others are example of fiction novels reeling in violent narratives that should disturb even the coldest hearts. While they are highly rated, I may highly underrate such dark writing for exciting violence. This category of literature, often termed ‘Transgressive Fiction’ or ‘disturbing Novels’ are characterized with presenting protagonists who thrill with terror and taboo, with all willingness to portray forbidden behaviors or shock readers. Like the terrorist of the real world, they are emotionally disconnected. Their striking detachment from life enables them to dice, slice and saw their fellow humans. Novels in this genre have been subject to many obscenity trial, but are often permitted.
Novels do not just entertain, they impact. Engaging with such blood-drenched books with routine killing of women, children and everything alive, I often ask, how are they helping shape the society, how are they contributing to helping people change their mental paradigms on violence, towards the peace and well-being our world so desperately needs? This may be defended as another genre of literature, yes a ‘disturbing genre’ with huge fan base to whom such violence is comprehensible and perhaps entertaining. But are there no better way of creating these types of work without indecorously portraying violence in all its stark nakedness?
It’s an understanding that violence is organic in our society, I am not sure if such violence can be extinct in fiction writing but I am sure we can change the stories around it to ensure we do not glamorize violence. Writers have a responsibility to reflect in their work, the world as we want to see it. I agree with Gail Larsen that ‘if you want to change the world, tell a better story’. I still believe that it is possible to live an inviolate life. Perhaps, we can indeed start with how we project violence in writing.
– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye