Saturday, June 18, 2016

Graphically Violent Fiction

The content of fiction is essentially without inherent limitations, at least as adult authors are concerned. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America protects any person's right to dictate the content of any work he or she creates. In practice, this carte blanche extends only to adults. Constraints to content may also be enforced by anyone who wields control over any given forum through which any given work may be presented: a publisher generally publishes what the publisher desires to publish, or the owner of a website chooses what may appear at the website, for example. Furthermore, a minor's right to freedom of expression extends only as far as the minor's guardian allows it to extend. For the most part, however, as long as the creation of a work of fiction is neither an act of plagiarism nor of libel, the author's will reigns supreme.  Just because anything can be written in the name of artistic license under the banner of fiction, however,  does not mean that anything under the sun necessarily should be written.

I'm rapidly approaching a chapter of my life in which leisure time will become a distant memory. Any extra time that I'm fortunate enough to find will probably need to be devoted to sleeping, studying, or taking care of absolutely essential business. Consequently, I've been trying to spend almost every spare minute in these past few days either practicing one of my musical instruments or reading.
I've used a few gift cards as well as my Kindle Prime account  to access and read nearly forty books in the the last seven days.  Not everything I've read this past week would impress an internship/residency interview panel. In fact, some of my recent reading material has been the literary equivalent to junk food or worse.  Even with my very relaxed standards at the moment in terms of what Kindle books were worthy of my time, a particular Kindle book has caused me a bit of concern. I will not  name the book or author, or provide too many identifying details here, as I don't want the author to google himself and come across my blog. I'd really prefer to stay off the person's radar screen. If you're interested, feel free to email me or to otherwise ask, and I'll be happy to be more specific.

The book that is bothering me me tells the story of a young man who went through an LDS temple ceremony and was bothered by parts of of the temple ritual.  Other forces as well seemed to be conspiring against the young man. He dealt with his cognitive dissonance by returning to the LDS temple [a year to the day after his initial visit] and shooting everyone he found there.  The descriptions of the action in this shootout in the temple are every bit as graphic and sensational as one might imagine.

I'm not trying to serve as the arbiter of what should or should not be written or published.  Moreover,  LDS temples are far from my favorite places in the universe. I suppose that, on some level, perhaps I can understand why,if a fantasy mass murder has to happen somewhere, an LDS temple would be as good a venue as any.  Nonetheless, I'm not sure it's prudent for modern fiction to feature mass shootings. With terrorism hate crimes of all sorts happening almost everywhere a person looks, and likewise with the inability of some perpetrators of crimes to come up with original ideas for their acts of violence, it might be better not  to provide such challenged individuals with ready-made plots for the Lifetime movies in which they hope to be featured posthumously. 

When I described the movie to my mom, she talked about attending an educators' conference of some sort at which a presenter addressed the topic of graphically and explicitly violent student writing and artwork.  It was all the more ironic after the fact, my mom said, that the presentation was happening just before 10:30  (PDT, one time zone away) on April, 20, 1999. As Dr. Anita Archer of San Diego State University was discussing explicitly graphic student writing, Klebold and Harris were opening fire on the students and staff of Columbine High School. The timing really couldn't have been any more eerie. If that were to happen today, someone would be accessing news on a phone almost as it unfolded. In 1999, though, phones with Internet access were in their early stages. It was extremely unlikely that anyone at that central California event had one.

Dr. Archer told the school personnel something to the effect that a common thread among perpetrators of heinous crimes was that many if not most of them had written disturbingly violent material as students. (Klebold and Harris both had histories of including explicit violence in their writings for school assignments.) Dr. Archer told the educators, among other things,  that they should not allow student writing or artwork graphically violent in nature, and that it should be turned over to proper authorities if it was submitted.

While schools have far more latitude than does society in general in banning graphic violence in written work or artwork, some discretion is obviously in order. Going so far as to say that no one can ever be hurt or killed in any story written at school or for school purposes would be a mistake in most instances. Allowing unlimited explicit violence would be erring equally in the opposite direction. An educator with an IQ approaching 90 should be able to find an acceptable middle ground.

I have no idea what the author of the story described earlier hoped to accomplish with his account of the young man exacting revenge at a Mormon temple. In a perfect world, a person could write a work of fiction with a disconcerting plot. It would be fiction, after all. Writing a work of fiction in which an event takes place shouldn't have to be considered one and the same as condoning the happening of said event.  On the other hand, the world we live in is anything but perfect.  

Stephen King writes all sorts of stories in which characters behave in a deviant manner and commit bizarre crimes. I haven't noticed a lot of psychos imitating the stories of Stephen King in real life.  Perhaps it's just crimes with shooting sprees about which many of us are extra-sensitive now. I only know that if I were a seventh-grade English teacher grading that story as a writing assignment, I would be most uncomfortable. And if it's not OK for a seventh-grader to write it, is it really any more OK for an adult to write it?  Where do we draw the line?



  1. I avoid that issue by reading non-fiction.

    1. If it bothers me much, I don't read it. It's more an issue for me of being concerned about people who might act on the suggestion reading it. We can't censor all literature because there's a psycho element in our society, but I'm not thrilled with highly suggestible people reading such things, either.

    2. Yeah, that's true. There have been people out there who have been inspired by the arts to do terrible things. Of course, they probably would have done terrible things anyway.