Crime Fiction: True Grit or Torture Porn?

Gratuitous violence, anyone?

To be honest, I didn’t know what ‘torture porn’ was until fairly recently, probably because slasher horror films (for which the term was originally invented) are definitely not my thing.  However, the question remains: where does the boundary lie between gritty reality in crime fiction and gratuitous, glorified violence for its own sake?

The reason I ask the question is that I’ve been puzzling myself over a few scenes in my crime novel which have had strong reactions from beta readers to date. One of those scenes was the original opening prologue and is particularly ‘gritty’: it’s a portrait of a terrified, frightened victim trussed up at the feet of a serial killer – told from the killer’s point of view. To be honest, I don’t like reading that scene myself and I wrote it. The killer doesn’t actually do anything to the victim in the scene – it’s the threat of violence to come and his warped view of the woman that is so discomfiting (and, believe me, it is clear from the scene that his view is completely and totally warped). But despite that, it makes me feel distinctly queasy and uncomfortable, and that’s much how it makes others feel too judging from the feedback I’ve had. But so far only two people have actually thrown it back at me with an ‘I don’t read that sort of degenerate trash’ response. Somewhat ironic given that it is written by someone who baulks at watching even worthy movies such as 12 Years a Slave because of the cruelty and violence depicted – hell, I think Home Alone is cruel and unusual (c’mon people, even burglars are real, live people and can be badly maimed or hurt – what’s with the throwing them down stairs and hitting them over the head with shovels for laughs?). OK, I confess: for me, that kind of semi-cartoonish slapstick comedy is right up there with torture porn – both to be deliberately avoided at all costs. It’s a personal taste thing, alright?

“Good art should make you uncomfortable.”

Anyway, back in 2007, shock meister Stephen King had this to say about torture porn:

“…I understand ‘torture porn.’ It’s a good phrase. But I would argue with you, there’s a fine line there…. There’s something going on in ‘Hostel 2’ that isn’t torture porn, there’s really something going on there that’s interesting on an artistic basis. Sure, it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.”

According to Mr King good horror sets out not to horrify the reader, but to assault them, grab their attention and make them forget the outside world and the difference between good horror and bad horror is character development. Good horror has it and makes us feel for the victim – bad horror essentially objectivises victims and makes the reader the literary equivalent of a serial killer on the hunt. Ugh!

That said, it is not overly easy to write a crime novel which doesn’t involve some form of violence; after all, murder of any description, whether quiet and unnoticed or noisy and bloody, is still the one of the greatest violences one human being can perpetrate against another. Therein lie the horns of the dilemma: assuming you have vowed to eschew gratuitous violence in your novel, how do you make murder realistic without allowing it to tip over into, well, for want of a better word, titillation? Too little detail and you run the risk of objectivising your victim; too much detail and you could find yourself (albeit unwittingly) slap bang in the middle of your very own torture porn.

Interestingly enough, I read a scene in a crime novel not so long ago which led the reader through an assault on the main character. It was graphic, but a necessary part of the plot. Despite that, I felt uncomfortable and disturbed as I read it and wished the author hadn’t written it like that. Then I thought: hang on a minute, Katie B., time to get real here! The act of assaulting or murdering another person is disturbing – so how else should I be feeling? Exhilarated, excited, bored, mildly irritated?  No, I was feeling what I should have been feeling – the author was allowing me to experience the character’s feelings at that point and they weren’t cosy, comfortable, warm or fuzzy. Why would they be? Truth be told, the author was doing her job and doing it well. Empathy in action, folks!

Good Intentions

To get back to my scene – I suppose I do worry that it (and perhaps others in the book) might be classed as excessively violent even though my aim in writing it was primarily to show the deranged world view of a dangerous killer, and why it is so imperative that my detectives track him down as soon as possible. And that’s where I think the boundary lies between graphic realism and porn of any description: the author’s intention. Stephen King is right about character development – empathy for your victims is very important – but to my mind you’ve also got to consider the overall aim of the book or film. Maybe there are slasher movies out there with decent character development; the problem is if the characters still end up being summarily dispatched in as gruesome and graphic a manner as possible time and time again, you gotta wonder what the real point of the film is: pandering to an audience’s desire for gratuitous violence or exploring dark themes of man’s inhumanity to man in a meaningful way? Hmmm …

 By the way, in case you want to read the full 2007 article with Stephen King in the LA Times, here’s the link and I’d love to hear your views on the grit or porn question!