Francis Bacon is one of my favourite artists, and even though this quote from his journal applies to painting, we as writers can glean a good deal of inspiration from its overall meaning:
“To me, they mystery of painting is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making? Van Gogh speaks of the need to make changes in reality, which become lies that are truer than the literal truth. This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of reality … He has to reinvent realism … to wash realism back into the nervous system by his invention … We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And sometimes I think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of those veils or screens.”
Viktor Shlovsky comments further on this technique when he asserted that: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. The essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things."
I agree. I agreed then when I originally posted this quote, and after two years, I thought I might like to circle back around it again. My own writing has been thought of as violent. The Kissing Room and Logos particularly so, but I don't really like the term violent. Sure in both books there is a great deal of physical brutality; I am not opposed to murder and mayhem for the sake of making a point, but physical violence is only one component of a larger idea. Our characters are meant to struggle; that's what people want to read, but not every struggle is physically violent. Not every struggle is about force and action. Much literary fiction is based on an existential struggle, which is more internal than external: more changeable, flighty, fleeting, transient, threatening and tending to fluctuate -- sharply. That is how we often portray an emotional struggle, and struggles of that lot are most engaging to a reader. Those are the struggles that hit at the core of what it is to be human -- volatile versus violent.
Subtlety is not my thing. In Kissing Room and Logos my characters tend to externalize their struggles in the form of cruelty and aggression towards others. That's what worked for those two particular stories. In Thin Wall and Antiquity, my characters tend to internalize by expressing themselves intellectually, often without shame. Sometimes my characters like to get all abusive and stabby, and other times, they tend to favor introspection. I like to dig in and really feel the psychological rage. Physical violence, or force and action, if you will, isn't always necessary to do that. But alas, that is a question of semantics and a discussion for another day because I think I am treading into the "write in scenes" territory.
So, how violent should you get in your story? Well, it depends on the story, or more precisely, it depends on the characters in the story. Should an artist get extreme or should an artist censor their work, alter their choice of imagery, symbolism, and metaphor to make a story more palatable for a wider audience? Will the story lose its truth should we leave its symbolic nature open for interpretation or non-interpretation? Is the story really telling a truth about the human condition, and should we, as artists striving for truth, endeavor to lay bare that truth which might be construed as beautiful and poetic in one person’s eyes and yet offensive in another’s? Do you need to be violent if volatile will work equally as well? Or should you strike a balance between the two?
I've asked this question before. Would Ellis' American Psycho have had the same impact had he chose volatility over violence? Bateman was quite introspective on occasion, but his addiction to externalizing his inner conflict was what made him a killer and not just a man with a mental illness. Ellis' character was capable of handling that sort of physical force, and the story just wouldn't have had the impact it did without it, in my opinion. For me, the truth is the art, and the truth an artist seeks to portray directly affects how the scenes are written and what language and depth of emotion the writer chooses to use, not to mention which boundaries can be pushed, crossed, or even obliterated. My own work primarily deals with love, romance, sex, death, and societal dogma, on the surface, but ultimately my stories are of the redemption variety -- every single one of them. We all know that sometimes redemption is a physical journey and sometimes it isn't. Laleana in Thin Wall was an academic and an introspective thinker, violence happened to her, as it did for grief stricken Merle in Kissing Room. Joliette in Antiquity was an extremely physical being, climbing mountains, digging holes in the earth. She subjected her body to the torturous forces of nature in order to seek the enlightenment she was denying herself by refusing to look inward, and in Logos, Selena is immortal. Whether someone died or not was ultimately her decision. She had taken all the abuses heaped upon her soul, and, under the guise of duty, had turned around to wield her hurt with a vengeance. She was strong enough physically and mentally from a lifetime of pain to carry the history of violence on her back. So in that story, I could get away with a whole lot more of both volatility and violence. It made her weakness for love stand out all that much more.
Ultimately, you, the author, will have to make the decision. You'll hear the old cliché: sex and violence sells, but in truth, when it's gratuitous and poorly executed, it doesn't. In the end, writing is all about making choices. You can censor yourself and your characters, but then that wouldn't really be making a choice, now would it?
Cheryl Anne Gardner