Friday, 28 August 2009

Why So Gruesome?


Jill Paton Walsh’s paper at the St Hilda’s conference last Saturday morning sparked quite a debate. She suggested that it was interesting to consider why crime fiction had become so much more gruesome in recent times, and she advanced the theory that it might have some connection with the fact that capital punishment was abolished in the UK in the 1960s.

The idea was, in part, that since readers no longer had to contemplate the horrors of the scaffold, the hood, and the trapdoor, when the culprit was hanged after being brought to justice, they searched for them elsewhere As a great expert on Dorothy L. Sayers, she drew attention to the fact that Wimsey (towards the end of his detecting career, in particular) took the fate of the criminal rather more seriously than many of his fellow sleuths.

Someone in the audience pointed out that the snag with this particular theory (which Jill expressed much more persuasively than my crude summary might indicate) is that crime fiction has become much more gruesome in many countries around the world, some of which retain the death penalty to this day. On reflection, Jill accepted this was a fair point.

So, has crime fiction become gruesome in recent years, and if so, why? Inevitably, we are generalising, but the strong consensus at St Hilda’s was that it has indeed become more gruesome. That’s certainly my view. But what is the reason for it? I really don’t know, but I suspect the answer may have something to do with the fact that – at least on a certain level - life tends to feel more secure today than it did, say, sixty years ago Fiction often seeks to engage very closely with real life, but it also has an escapist component. But does anyone have a better explanation?

35 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It's gruesome here, too, and we certainly have the death penalty in many states.

In the States, many people feel it's Hollywood pushing violence down our throats (movies) and that the teen culture of violent video games is trickling over into TV and other media. As for books? Maybe it's just a reflection of that. Or writers trying to be edgy.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

sandra seamans said...

The reality, at least here in the States, is that life has become more gruesome. Just turn on the news and you'll see where some man killed his pregnant wife, a mother killed her children, a kid killed another kid because he looked at him the wrong way, judges who put kids in jail for a kickbacks.

As writers we try to understand the reasons behind these acts and so we explore these dark things. And they are gruesome, but they're also a reflection of the times we're living in.

crimeficreader said...

Well, I have a theory, Martin, based on my reading habits over the more recent years and I lay some of the ‘blame’ at the door of spaniel-loving Thomas Harris for the splash he caused with Silence of the Lambs. At around the same time we saw the media organisations becoming global forces and the development of the internet, so whereas countries may previously have kept their crimes almost to themselves, the world was suddenly more aware. Thus the serial killer became engrained in fiction, leading to many copycats and the desire to attract attention through shock and, dare I say I it, an apparent competition between some writers to outdo one another.

We also have waves of fashion in crime fiction. Cornwell opened the door for the forensic fascination that has even led to multiple locations for the CSI set of series. (Having heard R J Ellory’s comments at Harrogate on CSI Miami in the “What Gets My Goat?” session, I recently watched an episode and concluded he is right. I thought it was dire.) We have recently seen a resurgence of historical crime and I believe we are on the cusp of the same for comic crime, with so many good writers around for this.

As for the audience and why it’s read and watched, perhaps we wanted to be shocked in our safe homes and developed an appetite for it. And perhaps we are now at the point that enough is enough, and saturation has been achieved. In a world of wars in which terrorism is fought, perhaps we want to see what we can learn from history and feel what others might be feeling through the eyes of those long gone. In the days of economic downfall, perhaps we want to have a laugh to remember how to sustain our humour.

But where Cornwell’s Scarpetta took us traipsing through the morgues, Harris shocked us and unleashed a gorefest. What many of those copycats didn’t/don’t have was/is the balance of the intellectual and the intelligent battle as seen with Lecter and Starling.

Bernadette in Australia said...

I think it has a bit to do with what 'society' finds shocking which has changed over time. Surely fiction (of any genre) has to be a bit more extreme that real life to offer that kind of escapism you mention (the romance is sweeter, the horror scarier, the crime fiction more gruesome etc). So what might have been extreme in 1960 is ... well ...not ...these days. It's only part of it I'm sure but I think it's there.

Jilly said...

I think part of the reason is the wall to wall news available now. At one time none of the TV channels would have shown the horrific massacre and war footage which they happily show now. People have become desensitised to violence so authors of crime are satisfying a demand for more and 'better' violence.

Personally I dislike the trend and try and stick to authors who describe violence - if they describe it at all - in an understated way. Hence my liking for your Lake District stories and other authors such as Kate Ellis, Phil Rickman, Kate Charles, P D James, Jill Paton Walsh etc.

I think many modern authors of crime have lost sight of the 'puzzle' element which was such a big part in books written by the Golden Age authors. These Golden Age authors in the main had violence taking place off stage which to me is still preferable.

GeraniumCat said...

Interesting - but it's not just crime, is it? Scifi and fantasy are much more gruesome than they used to be, as well as non-genre fiction (I'm thinking of authors like Iain Banks in both his guises, or Jon Courtenay Grimwood - both writers I like, but I sometimes have to hide behind the sofa while I read them). Film too - my sons run a sort of "gore score" for me: too high and I don't watch.

I find it hard to believe that capital punishment has much to do with it. My feeling is that television has had the greatest impact - although what we see is to some extent censored, we still see far more of violence and its effects than we used to. Because we know more about the reality of violent crime, fiction has to make more effort to simulate that reality, otherwise the reader feels cheated. And "edginess" has become a virtue in itself - authors want to push the boundaries. I think the escapism lies in the tidy endings offered by crime fiction (admittedly not all) that we can't always expect in real life - we don't want to be too scared to go out when we finish a detective story.

Maxine said...

I'm probably not a good person to answer this question because I hate gruesome novels and I always skim over those bits of crime novels. There are many excellent crime novels being written today that aren't at all gruesome, but that rely on suspense, plot, character, etc. This is one reason why I like many Scandinavian novels- eg Karin Fossum's latest, or Inger Frimansson (whom I'm just reading) or Joel Theorin. These are bestsellers and award-winners, certainly in their home countries.

There are of course Scandinavian novels that are gruesome, eg Jo Nesbo usually puts in some really yucky set-pieces in his novels, hastily skimmed-over by me!

If you look at the really big selling crime novels in the UK and US market, I wonder if the "more gruesome" contention holds up? At first I thought yes, thinking of Patricia C, Kathy R, Tess G (detailed descriptions of autopsies etc) - and Val McD alternates between "gruesome" and "more traditional" novels. (The Darker (Darkest?) Domain was completely ungruesome, for example, unlike some of her previous which are pretty much torture-porn in places.)

however, if you look at other big sellers eg Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin- they are not gruesome at all. Probably P D James and Ruth Rendell aren't all that gruesome either, have not read one for a while.

So probably the answer is that you can't generalise. Some books seem to sell well because they have some real slash/horror/gory aspects and some readers like that, others do well because they are more traditional (eg the Connelly/Crais Marlowe/Hammett style novel) and some readers like that.

Sorry for the rambly response. I was thinking as I went along. I'd just conclude by saying that it is pretty easy to read excellent crime fiction and barely be bothered by anything gruseome or "in the mind of deranged serial killery" if you don't want to read that. On the other hand, you can revel in it if you like.

Dorte H said...

"crime fiction has become much more gruesome in many countries around the world, some of which retain the death penalty to this day"
And also in countries where the death penalty was given up much earlier in Britain.

In my humble opinion readers (and TV-viewers) want more blood and gore today. Some writers are quite willing to make do with one discrete murder, but the publishers don´t buy it, because readers have come to expect much more excitement than at Christie´s and Sawyers´ time. It is difficult to say whether the readers or the writers started this development, but it is the same with entertainment programmes such as Robinson etc (don´t know the names but can´t escape from all the trailers): today participants must expose highly private secrets or run the risk of severe accidents or near-death to attract viewers´ attention.

Mack said...

Perhaps it is because crime has to compete with reality. Stories torture, kidnap, senseless thrill killing and random violence, and terrible child abuse are rather common stories in the news.

Uriah Robinson said...

Our abilities to use our imaginations have probably been affected by watching TV and a writer feels that they have to be more explicit in the violence they portray.
I am not sure life feels more secure in certain sections of society and don't think it has to do with the death penalty. I just think society's restraints on what can be shown and written about are far less than they were in the past.

Maxine said...

Make that Johan, not Joel, Theorin, sorry.

Interesting points, all. But anyone who thinks the past was less gruesome than the present is plain wrong! I think what has changed is that it has become more acceptable to be seen to be dwelling on it, if you like that sort of thing. Newer authors, eg Chelsea Cain, are riding on that particular bandwagon. Personally, I can do without it and prefer a good Hannah Scarlett mystery myself ;-)

Barbara said...

+1 crimeficreader.

Seems to me that the gruesomeness is largely found in crime fiction that is far from realistic, mythic stories of Manichean struggle - a tormented profiler who duels with sadistic attention-seeking serial killers. The best estimates of serial homicide in the US puts it at about 1% and I would bet 99% of that one percent are committed by stupid people killing easy targets who are already invisible to most of us.

I don't find these stories at all a reflection of the times we are in, other than that anxiety is a potent force in the formation of social issues, and the invented serial killer appeals to us because we can point at it and say "that's pure evil," which is far more satisfying than pointing at teenage gang members killing each other and thinking "you know, if they had any hope of getting a job, maybe they'd be doing something less pointless. But getting them jobs would be awfully hard."

We don't want to read about the real victims of violence (and perpetrators) because they are people we don't care about but we have an uncomfortable feeling perhaps we ought to. Monsters are so much more entertaining. And consequence-free, what a deal!

I find this kind of gruesomeness more offensive because it is so reality-free and manipulative. It has a moral compass that points due Hollywood.

Martin Edwards said...

Wow. A fascinating set of comments. Thank you very much. They deserve a bit of thought as well as a response. So...I shall muse on what you have said.

crimeficreader said...

Martin, I left a comment in the friend feed room tonight as a few were anticipating your release of comments. I suggested a debate might commence and I think I am right.

I am sure I am not alone in finding other comments to stimulate to think more and as you say, reflect on what has been said before commenting further.

First off the top of my head, Maxine refers to contemporary living as not being more gruesome and she is right and I can think of more than one example to support that. I will come back tomorrow and with a link for one of them (hopefully it is still live - I need to do some research having moved to a new PC).

This could be your biggest strand of comments yet, Martin! I certainly think the debate will commence and entrench over the weekend. Thanks for prompting a stimulating thought process.

Kerrie said...

I think there is also an escapist and a voyeuristic element. But I wonder too whether I would have been in the front row watching Charles I having his head cut off, or at the guillotine in the French Revolution. Judging by my reaction watching my vet probe my poor animals, probably not. Perhaps crimes need to be more gruesome to avoid leaving clues (the bodies in the barrels case here is certainly a gruesome one), but perhaps there is also an element of heightened frustration amongs those who commit crimes, uncontrolled anger (sometimes built on pre-meditation) that makes the crimes more frenzied. Perhaps we are seeing the result of 65 years of "peace" for most of the population

Martin Edwards said...

I've been intrigued by these comments and to say they provoke thought is an under-statement. IAS Rhian says, this is (in nearly 700 posts) the widest range of instant comments that I've received, and that in itself interests me a good deal.
I'm still mulling over some of the very perceptive points made, and I agree, of course, that one has to be wary of generalisations. I shall respond briefly to everyone who has taken the trouble to comment - apologies in advance if my response doesn't do full justice to the point made.

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth,you make a point touched on by others. The influence of the global, 24/7 media is relevant, I agree. We have much more access to information about gruesome happenings than in the past.

Martin Edwards said...

Sandra, I strongly agree that this is exactly what many of us do as writers. But I do think that there are more gruesome books today than, say, in the past, and I don't think life is necessarily more gruesome generally. It feels like it, though, and that's perhaps something to do with the reach of the global media which draws the bad stuff to our attention so often. In the past, simiilar things may have happened, but there was less awareness of them.

Martin Edwards said...

Crimefic, you will gather my views are similar to yours on these points.

Martin Edwards said...

An interesting point, Bernadette, which as you say may be part of the explanation.

Martin Edwards said...

Jilly, as you say, I prefer not to dwell on scenes of violence. Violent stuff happens in my books, and is sometimes described directly, but I don't like to wallow in it.

Martin Edwards said...

Geranium Cat - I hadn't thought about other genres when framing the question, but your point is a very good one, and illustrates that we are looking at societal issues here, rather than matters simply confined to the crime genre.

Martin Edwards said...

I very much agree, Maxine. The breadth of the genre is a big part of its appeal and nobody needs to read gruesome books if they don't have to. There are many more of them out there than there used to be, though. I haven't read Theorin or Nesbo as yet - I have some of their books, but as ever, lack of time is the issue!

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, there is a definite trend here. Though some of us aren't big fans of the gruesome (like me, and some of the commenters here) there is certainly an appetite for gore, and plenty of supply to satisfy the demand.

Martin Edwards said...

Mack, this point is surely right, and again points to the influence of the media.

Martin Edwards said...

Uriah, you will gather my view is the same as yours. I agree it isn't to do with the death penalty (though Jill argued it quite persuasively.)

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine,your second comment is much appreciated!

Martin Edwards said...

Barbara, the point you make about anxiety seems to me to be a very acute one. Anxiety, I would suggest, that is promoted by greater awareness of bad stuff happening, as a result of more of a no holds barred approach to news reporting. This is coupled with the fact that many of us lead much more comfortable lives than our ancestors - and therefore become anxious about the potential threats 'out there'.

Martin Edwards said...

Kerrie, as you say, in the days of public executions there was clearly an appetite for the gruesome - and gruesome things often happened. And I take the point about the years of peace.

Minnie said...

Definitely more gruesome. No names, no pack drill ... Oh, all right: Mo Hayder's Pig Island a recent one I threw across the room in disgust.
I have a nasty suspicion the 'shockhorror' approach is taken to mask poor writing, weak plotting and unidimensional characterisation. It then becomes a kind of vicious circle, with publisher/editors & readers alike assuming it is only to be expected.
Some of the most frightening writing is essentially vague, allusory, illusory, IMHO (M R James). Violence as form of entertainment does appear to be on the increase, as other commenters suggest.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Minnie. I haven't read Pig Island, but I agree that suggestion is often much more powerful than over-the-top representation. I do like MR James, too.

Maxine said...

Great debate. I hope you'll write a future post to summarise some of it and maybe continue it.

Picking up on the Mo Hayder points immediately above. This author is one who, for me, treads a line. Most are on one side or the other (for me) - ie. "will read again" or "no thanks, one was enough". Mo Hayder has written novels which I found revolting (Birdman and Nanking) but good. She's also written novels that I've found revolting and bad (Pig Island). I think now I am at the point of diminishing returns with her and won't read more, but I have to acknowledge the power of Birdman and Nanking (perhaps one of the most gruesome books I have ever read in its description of individual events in the Nanking massacre. The last quarter of the book did not work for me, but the historical parts and the gradual revelation of the story of the protag's past were both "over my usual limit" gruesome but compelling).

At the end of the day, I'm just not going to read authors who continually rely on torture, abuse of women and girls, etc as entertainment. I like realism and honesty, but not what Crimeficreader has called "torture porn". However, she and I amicably disagree on certain novels which (say) I've regarded as torture porn or verging on it, and she hasn't - so clearly there is a subjective element in all of this.

Plot, character, place and atmosphere do it so well, though - you just do not need to have graphic, lovingly described, pain and suffering. I genuinely don't get why it is so popular, but agree that it always has been, whether the Spanish Inquisition and other religious-based excuses for tortures, or public displays of hangings and other executions, animal fights, people fighting, etc. The human condition, but not one I can empathise with!

Martin Edwards said...

Good points, Maxine (as ever.) I have read Birdman and Ritual by Mo Hayder, and thought they were very good, even if darker and more violent than my usual favourites. I really don't relish the pain and suffering, either.
As regards blog debating, I'm going to be blogging tomorrow with one or two fairly general thoughts - and questions....

crimeficreader said...

Martin,

Previous comments about history reminded me of an interview with Ken Follett for his World Without End novel.
http://www.panmacmillan.com/Features/displayPage.asp?PageTitle=Ken%20Follett%20at%20Waterstones
I think it’s about 10 mins into part three of the interview that Follett refers to the death of Edward II. He says it is gruesome and in respect of detail adds “…which I am not going to mention, even for such a grown up audience as this”. Nothing has been confirmed but rumours concentrate on the “red hot poker method of death”.

Women sat knitting in France while waiting for the guillotines to fall. It was a form of entertainment as well as seeing justice was done (if the poor about-to-be-headless ones were indeed guilty).

Henry VIII framed and chopped off the heads of more than one wife and a few others for his convenience.

Today there are still public floggings and assassinations in the eastern parts of the world, so while humans may not appear to have changed very much, culture also comes into play along with the belief and value system. We in the west do not seek it out abroad for there is safety in reading about it and fiction usually does deliver real justice.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Rhian. It's absolutely true that gruesome deeds have always been with. What has changed in comparison to, say, the 30s, is the instant availability of so much graphic material.