Writing about Violence

I've made it my mission to read the other books nominated for the Edgar Award for "Best First Novel." Not only does it seem like the right thing to do, but as a connoisseur of crime fiction, I am eager to discover the best new talents on the scene. At the moment, I'm deep into Nic Pizzolatto's Galveston, a tough-talking, tough-minded book that deserves the praise it's received. Next up is Bruce DeSilva's Rogue Island, about which I have also heard many great things.

After I make my way through the Edgar nominees, I am eager to read Andre Dubus III's, Townie: A Memoir. I had the privilege of studying with Andre at Emerson College, where I received my MFA, and he taught me many valuable lessons about how—and why—to write.

Clayton Moore has a great interview with Andre over at Kirkus Reviews. I recommend it in its entirety, but here's a section that really spoke to me:

The sequences about your fights are gripping, but observant, too. What are some of the challenges in writing about physical violence?

Writing about physical violence is challenging in the same way writing about sex is challenging; you have to walk this fine line between being too explicit and too idealistic. If you write too explicitly, the reader is just watching a physical action, like it’s pornography. If the writing is working too hard to show the beauty or ugliness of the act, then the reader gets a romantic treatment of the subject, which strikes me as dishonest. So, because I, like a lot of people, know first hand what being in a physical fight feels like, I worked hard in this book to simply capture that on every level I possibly could—its physical choreography, its emotional and spiritual dimensions while engaged in the act, etc., and I tried to do all this without moral judgment, though that certainly shows itself later on.

I understand completely what Andre means about how easily writing about violence becomes a kind of pornography. In fact it's a source of real ambivalence for me as it relates to crime fiction. Real violence is horrible (I can say that from personal experience). Sometimes, I become uncomfortable when I contemplate the idea of entertaining people with stories of murder and maimings. I have to remind myself that human beings crave these stories for a variety of powerful psychological reasons. The best I can do is work hard not to romanticize acts I find abhorrent.