When people say there is too much violence in my books, what they are saying is there is too much reality in life. -- Joyce Carol Oates
I can remember my Grandmother saying to me a year or so ago, “I couldn't finish it. So many horrible things were happening to that poor woman.” when I asked her about my first novella The Kissing Room. Let's just say, I am not shy about writing the darkness: The story also fluctuates frequently between gentle, romantic, or bittersweet moments and truly ugly, stomach-churning scenes of violence and despair. When it is all said and done, Cheryl Anne Gardner’s The Kissing Room is a deeply touching love story; you just won’t know it til it’s over. -- Suspense-books.com
I suppose I enjoy writing from the abyss. Most of the literature I read when I was younger would be considered very dark stuff. Humanity's duality has always just intrigued me for some reason, and the darker bits make things all that much more interesting. Could you imagine The Bible without all the fire, brimstone, and violence??? That's right; it just wouldn't have the same impact, now would it? That is what literary fiction is all about -- Impact. That's what makes us think. It's what forces us to put our worldview into perspective. Being exposed to the darkness allows us to flex our immune system, adapt, fine-tune our coping skills. If we only ever received praise, adoration, and fists full of daisies in our childhood, imagine how unprepared we would be to reconcile criticism, rejection, hatred, jealousy, and death. All very much a form of violence in their own way.
We always hear from the daisy-throwing fear monger zealots that exposure to violence desensitizes us, but I don't think that's actually true. Maybe for sociopaths, but for most people, exposure allows us to put the scenarios into perspective through our awareness of it so we can safely work through how we would react emotionally to such circumstances. Shit, Disney has been doing violence and death forever and you hear barely a complaint about it in so far as accusing Disney of desensitizing our children. How many orphaned children appear in Disney movies? How many parents have died horrible deaths? What about kidnapping, domestic abuse, etc. Disney has always been very successful at balancing the light and the darkness in its stories. They are touching and horrific at the same time. They allow children a means to cope with the evil in the world and yet retain a sense of hope despite the brutality. The same can be said for my novella The Kissing Room, which is about an emotionally distraught woman who finds herself in a physically abusive relationship after the death of her husband. I confront a lot of emotionally disturbing issues in this rather short novella: suicide, depression, self-mutilation, and domestic abuse, but I never stray too far away from the light at the end of the tunnel, which is hope.
Sure, some people prefer to read only escapist fiction, meaning everything works out all neat and tidy complete with a big red happy ending bow. And while I agree that, on occasion, it's nice to read and experience a perfect world I can readily admit is a complete fake, I would much rather read literary horror because it helps me meditate on the realities of life from a safe distance. And sure, we get bombarded with horrific abuses on the news every day. There are rapists and serial killers out there, truly evil people, but unless we have direct contact, they are nothing more than abstractions, and that's where art comes in. Art attempts to give depth to the abstract concept of evil we find ourselves exposed to by proxy every day.
Most of the fiction I like, as well as my own work, tends to centre around the same themes: sex, death, love, and faith, specifically faith as it relates to spirituality and God, and I am sorry to tint the windows here with a bit of faecal spooge, but every single one of those thematic subjects has a dark side -- a nasty one at that. If duality weren't necessary, the Devil would not exist. And the Devil often has top billing when it comes to art and literature. For instance: Dragon Tattoo, while brutally evil in it's thematic nature, has got nothing on Ellis' American Psycho. Patrick Bateman was all Id and Ego, a satirical portrait of the 80s overindulgent successful male. The book is brutal to read because it's frightening to come face to face with someone who is so self-actualized. Bateman recognized the apathy around him, hated it, acted upon it with a vengeance. I think that everyone fantasizes about experiencing for themselves that sort of emotive response from time to time, so most readers were able to sympathize with a killer on some level, even if they didn't want to admit it.
I am a huge Jung fan. Carl Jung that is, and that should be no surprise: most writers who write about the human condition tend to dabble a bit in Psychology and Philosophy, and Jung speaks often of the Shadow self when describing the five main archetypes: Self, Shadow, Anima, Animus, and Persona. The Shadow is the repressed negative aspect our self. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Jung also believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” Jung believed that for a person to be whole he must reconcile with his shadow aspect. “Beneath the surface a person is suffering from a deadly boredom that makes everything seem meaningless and empty...as if the initial encounter with the Self casts a dark shadow ahead of time. The more consciousness gains in clarity, the more monarchic becomes its content...the king constantly needs the renewal that begins with a descent into his own darkness.” In essence, in order to reach totality, or rather, enlightenment, one needs to do a meet and greet with one's own shadow. I think the same can be said for all things dark and disturbing. You gain no perspective with avoidance.
People with phobias are often treated with what is called Systematic Desensitization or graduated exposure therapy, which is a cognitive behavioural process. The same process takes place when we expose ourselves through art to the dark side of life and the human psyche. We are allowing our minds, in this case, to process the violence in our world and consciously sort out our rational from our irrational feelings about such things.
We all know the old adage: Art mimics life, including the blackest parts of it, but I don't necessarily think mimicking is the point of the exercise when Art chooses to portray the darkest depths. The real point of Art is to create impact by attempting to understand life, not mimic it, at its deepest most subconscious levels. Nietzsche once said that when you stare into the abyss it stares back into you, and maybe that reflection is what we seek so we can better understand ourselves and the world around us, including its violence. Introspection is what we are after. Art just gives us a proper mirror, that's all. Sometimes the mirror reflects the blue of the sky or a field of daises, and sometimes it doesn't.
The Art this week [used with permission] aptly illustrates the point of this article and is titled Domestic Violence by Dale Crum. Stop on over to the Redbubble site to read what he wrote about the piece. You may purchase a print there as well.
Cheryl Anne Gardner