Bang, Bang – You’re Not Dead

Apparently, even someone who claims he isn’t a writer can get writer’s block and I was stymied for a post topic. Nothing on my short list of post ideas was sparking inspiration, so I threw it out to a group of friends for suggestions. One proposed I write about “violence in books.”

Recent events in the US brought out the normal contingent of “experts,” blaming real violence on pretend violence in movies and video games. Although seldom mentioned, should books get a free ride? Was this idea a trap? An attempt to get me to go political at Indies Unlimited, which seemed like the second quickest way to get The Evil Mastermind to return the post with the message, “Nah, I don’t think so.” (The quickest way is saying BigAl’s favorite word deleted by EM.)

However, this did get me thinking about the reasons certain kinds of content appeal to some readers. I’ll try leaving it to the pundits, “experts,” and other media blowhards to decide what the implications of violence in books are to society and leave discussion of the political repercussions for elsewhere. Instead, I’ll go the touchy-feely route.

I often find myself evaluating the appeal of a particular book and wondering, what value could a reader potentially get from reading this? Many non-fiction books are to teach about something and that’s their primary, probably only purpose. But for fiction and much narrative non-fiction, this isn’t always so clear. There are the obvious answers, entertainment and escape, which I think most people would mention. I have a theory that if you dig deeper, the books that appeal most to a reader are, whether they are conscious of it or not, helping them do one of two things, either working out personal wants, needs, or issues, or helping them in understanding others better – some books do both.

A good book, more than anything else, allows us to walk in the shoes of another person that may be nothing like us. Just like the cliché claims, doing so should help us understand that fictional character better and that can translate into better insights into the thinking and motivations of people you know in real life who are like that fictional character. At least this is the justification I use for reading Chick-Lit and Romance.

When we get more personal, I see three ways a book can help us work on ourselves: Validation, consideration of alternatives, and living vicariously. When we see a character react to a situation that feels similar to one we’ve been in ourselves, if his reaction or feelings about the event are the same as ours, it validates that reaction as reasonable. Even if we might wish we had reacted differently, we know this character (or at least the author who created him) understands why someone might feel that way. When the character reacts differently, it can be food for thought. Is that reaction more reasonable? Why does he see this differently than I do?

How much the things I’ve discussed thus far apply to an individual are going to vary a lot from reader to reader, depending on their reading diet and how introspective they are. The last one, living vicariously, I’d guess applies to every reader at times. Books in some genres are almost always going have this aspect to them. The travel narrative allows you to see somewhere you might never have the chance to visit through the eyes of someone who been there. Erotica allows me to have vicarious experiences that I’ll never be flexible enough to try in real life. Chances are you won’t be around when or if the future envisioned by your favorite science fiction author happens, but you can still experience it in a book.
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To close the circle, thrillers, some mysteries, and many other genres, especially horror, often have violence. Sometimes this violence is perpetrated by the character the reader is most likely to identify with – how many times have you read a thriller where the protagonist has left a string of dead bodies in their wake? We all have our dark side. Maybe for most of us, having that part of our personality find release through a vicarious experience such as this is a good thing. Wouldn’t you rather have Kat Brooks find vicarious release by watching the Rambo marathon on AMC or by reading a book? I know I would. What do you think?
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Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

11 thoughts on “Bang, Bang – You’re Not Dead”

  1. Definitely food for thought. I do see a big difference in reading about violence, though, than in acting it out as a participants, as in video games. It’s much more immediate and therefore gives a more subjective high. While I don’t have the research to back me up I feel fairly confident in saying that some sensitive kids my get hooked on that high and could translate into real violence.

  2. People in general have a tendency to confuse correlation with causation. I think this is an area where more thoughtful consideration is really required. Political motivations sometimes taint analysis and interpretation of data – I have seen it many times myself.

    People know the difference between right and wrong. I don’t think books or video games or movies can cause violent behavior, but that doesn’t mean that people prone to violent behavior are not drawn to portrayals of violence in those media.

    But this may be an A/B B/A phenomenon. Just because someone is drawn to that sort of entertainment does not mean they are prone to violence or will become so as a result of the exposure. As Al alluded to, it may even be cathartic and therapeutic, providing an outlet for emotions that otherwise could become internalized and find a more real and harmful outlet.

  3. Al, I agree with you that books can take you somewhere you’ve never been and give you an experience you’re never likely to have. And certainly it’s possible to gain insight into characters in books that will translate to the real world.

    What concerns me is the continued coarsening of popular entertainment, including fiction. Is there some redeeming value in the “Saw” movie franchise that I’m missing? And what twists in their psyches are readers of “50 Shades of Yikes!” working out? Not to be a curmudgeon, but I do sometimes think we’ve gone too far. And I don’t see any way to ratchet it back — not as long as this stuff keeps making money, anyway.

    But I don’t like (American) football, either, so what do I know.

  4. Thanks for this post, Al.
    I just finished “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and was shocked *spoiler* by the vicious and quite brutal murder of Basil. Did Victorians run about slashing each other’s throats as a result? I suppose I should research that. Probably not.
    I do think some of the shooter games require more parental oversight. I was strict with my son on what I would allow him to play until I thought he could handle it. At his school, however, some of the books he was reading as a young teen discussed genocide, drug addiction, etc. He seemed to handle it okay. I think a lot depends on how it is presented and the mental stability of the person. Parents need to know when their child cannot handle something, and if they are not sure, consult a professional.

  5. Big Al, I do believe you’re spoiling for a fight, or maybe just being the guy with the big wooden spoon and the brown arm?

    In my life, I have found there are many opinions on this subject; depending on environmental, social, religious and any of a dozen other precursors that affect an individual’s decision making. My personal feelings on the matter are that fairly strict guidelines should be set down insofar as minors are concerned; however, where functioning adults are concerned we need to, I believe, give the individual their autonomy.

    Having said that, I have known some individuals who’s stimulation (in regards to… well, anything really) should definitely be limited.

    Excellent post, Big Al.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. I’m going to respond to them in one long one.

    I think my opinion (maybe informed, maybe not too much) is closest to Stephen’s. Most people know right from wrong and a video game, movie, or book isn’t going to change that. Some people don’t (and there are diagnoses for that). Those people, might be more likely to act out based on a book, movie, or whatever, but if we start making decisions for all of society based on what might inspire someone with abnormal pathology to act out, I think we end up in a much worse place. As one political segment pointed out recently, every chance they got, people inclined to kill will find a weapon. (How or if that should guide the laws in the US, I’m not going to express an opinion, but I don’t argue with the truth of the statement.)

    However, Yvonne, Lynn, and Lois all make a distinction between books and video games/movies. I don’t think the most explicit book can be as explicit as what a movie can show and, given the picture quality of video games now, they aren’t much different. However, other than providing guides and protections for kids, I’m not sure that anything should be done. The only things that could be done, IMO, would be traveling down the censorship road, which I’m always going to be leery of doing.

    My biggest concern with both video games and movies is that what they depict isn’t realistic. You die, you get a new life. The good guy almost always wins in the movie and isn’t hurt that badly. The most recent wars have drawn soldiers from the generation now in their early twenties who grew up with video games that have realistic graphics. I read the other day that there have been more soldiers from the war in Afghanistan (this is from memory, it might be Iraq) who have died from suicide as killed by the enemy. I wonder if these might not be related to how much making war today is like a video game, yet they also see the ugly aftermath, in friends killed or maimed, etc. War is ugly and I wonder if this fact is something that mentally stable kids are becoming conditioned against recognizing from video games and (to a lessor degree) movies.

    Hopefully I’ve managed not to go political in my comment. 🙂

    1. I know a man who was a child soldier in Rwanda – now the sweetest gentlest man you could ever meet, but at that time he was a killer and felt justified. He no longer feels that way and won’t really talk about it – won’t even identify which side he was on, saying it doesn’t matter, it’s all wrong. My point is that age and environment is an important factor in learning what is right and wrong. That’s why I believe that children who have unlimited access to violent video games with no consequences or discussion with parents and educators may not learn that lesson well enough to put the barriers in place that prevent ‘real’ violent behaviour.

      Books , on the other hand, firstly require the ability to read, and suggest a certain level of maturity to to that, and are not ‘graphic’. The picture forms in the mind, it isn’t there ready made.

      I am not advocating censorship. But I think we do need to take our heads out of the sand as parents and educators and monitor what our kids ore doing nd watching and make sure we talk to them about all of it. We teach the values. When we abdicate that responsibility we lose our kids to confusion and disconnectedness..

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