At the Back Fence Issue #241

October 9, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Don’t Go In There!

Everyone once in a while, someone asks Laurie why All About Romance’s reviews don’t include a violence rating. After we take the hammer out of Laurie’s hands , we usually respond that a violence rating is not something AAR plans to create. Among the various reasons is the fact that it’s hard to quantify an opinion on violence. One woman’s horribly graphic, overly violent book, is another woman’s walk in the park. Robin Uncapher, my ATBF co-columnist, opposes putting violence ratings into reviews for this reason: “Reviewers need latitude and sticking them with the job of warning readers seems too much. Besides, everyone has a different idea of what too much violence is.”

That is exactly my feeling. While sensuality ratings have the benefit of attracting and warning off some readers, violence ratings seem tailored to make a judgment that most people will read as negative. People feel differently about this. Some readers don’t want any violence at all. Others don’t mind scenes with violence against people, but if an animal is hurt, they’ll throw the book into a fire. Others have no problem with physical violence, but despise psychological violence. Then you have readers who accept serial killings and even autopsy scenes, but throw in the towel at domestic violence.

As for me, I’ve read some incredibly grotesque scenes in books. I read Stephen King and The Silence of the Lambs. Last summer, I read a serial killer book in which the detective discovers a body that was boiled alive. Eww! Sure, the scene was gross. But I didn’t linger on it. I simply kept reading the book because I wanted to find out who the killer was, and because the detective is such a cool character.

Strangely, as repugnant as that was, it didn’t disgust me as much as some less explicit scenes. I knew what I was getting into when I started a serial killer novel. What scene freaked me out? Ironically, the description was not graphic. It was a scene in a thriller where a murderous pedophile escaped from prison, broke into a man’s house, and killed the man. He then casually

]]> Support our sponsors walked upstairs toward the bedroom of the man’s little daughter. The abuse occurred offstage, but I put the book down and decided to trade it into the used book store. Sometimes what hits us in a scene isn’t the actual scene, but our own personal “buttons.” When that child killer walked up those stairs, I felt manipulated. The doctor just had to have a darling little girl, and of course, he had to be killed so that he couldn’t save her from a horrid fate. And that was just the first chapter! I’ve read plenty of books, even romance novels, where children were hurt, or where a character suffered horrible abuse. But this was the first time that I felt an author shouting in my ear, “Oh my God! He’s going to rape her and kill her! And you can’t stop him, nyah nyah!” Yet I’m sure plenty of readers went right by that scene without a thought except “I hope they catch that killer.”

Speaking of being manipulated, I also hate scenes thrown in just to shock. Years ago, I read a horror novel that looked promising until the heroine was confronted by a creepy preadolescent child (who may have been dead). He made lewd suggestions to her and then calmly urinated on the sidewalk in front of her. The scene came out of left field, and I asked “Why is this here?” I put the book down because the scene was unnecessary, stupid and trashy. I’d rather read about a horrific crime scene than read an icky scene that exists for no reason. Since then, I’ve read plenty of books with horrid murders and shootings, but I’ll always remember that scene as being particularly offensive and stupid. Yet I’m sure many people read it without thinking twice.

We all have our pet peeves. Among Robin’s is “very graphic violence in literary fiction – not because of the violence but because of the snobbery that seems to go along with discussing the subjects. I mean, if you are going to put graphic violence in to make the story more interesting, fine. Admit it. Don’t tell me how high minded it all is.” She accepts that violent scenes often have to happen as a part of the drama. What she doesn’t accept is that readers have to be told every detail in order to make those scenes more “meaningful.”

Our reaction to violence in books is incredibly personal and difficult to define. So why is it that so many readers want us to quantify it? The answer makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry that people want their books to come with babysitters. Someone who can yank the book away when the book gets too graphic, and in this I agree with Laurie when she rants that “some readers seem to want us to walk out of their computer monitors and hold their hands, reassuring them that ‘it’ll be okay’…it’s a book, damn it. Either read it or don’t!”.

Obviously this is not a universal opinion. Some readers don’t stop at asking for lots of details in reviews, or even for violence ratings. Some readers have even called for publishers to give content ratings to books, similar to movie ratings. But how would you even begin to do that? First, how many major movies come out in a week? Usually five or six, if that. To get a rating, those movies have to go in front of a board. The board then votes on the ratings based on language, violence, sexuality, etc., and if you’ve heard about the documentary This Film is Not Rated, you’ll know how capricious those ratings can be.

Can you imagine that happening to books? In one week, a single publisher can put out several books. It already takes about two years for a book to get published after the manuscript is accepted. Do we really want to make that process take even longer? Above all, do we want to place the process of rating the content in the hands of someone else, such as an editor or publisher? Who decides what’s “objectionable”? What will the publisher decide to include in their rating? Leaving violence alone for the moment, imagine what a mess it would be to ask some intern at Signet to start rating the sex scenes in romance novels. Yikes! What if the person deciding on the rating doesn’t like that kind of book and thus is more easily offended than others? What if stores decide to stop shelving books with a more “graphic” rating than others? We don’t really want ratings on books…do we? How do you even begin to quantify sex and violence in books?

Uhm, you don’t. You can’t.

Sometimes it seems as if the most important thing is forgotten. It’s a book. It doesn’t have a choke hold on you. If it disturbs you, put it down. If a scene disgusts you, skip it, or at least skim it. If the whole book disgusts you, put it down and read something else. I know voracious readers panic about the possibility that they might not have enough to read, but take it from someone who practically puts her back out when organizing her books… You will find something else to read.

As Robin writes, “I’m never sure exactly what people are talking about when they start complaining. It’s usually pretty easy to avoid details in a book. I just skim the graphic stuff. In romance the only place I ever remember skimming was J.D. Robb and that was pretty quick. There are some authors I avoid because I know they are going to bother me.” For example, when she reads mysteries, Robin is a “Body in the Library,” kind of reader. She avoids authors like P. D. James because the first P. D. James she tried to read opened with “a horrifying description of a corpse on page one.” Robin quickly decided that writer was not for her, closed the book, and avoided her books ever since. Robin says that “Closing a book, or skipping over disgusting stuff is fairly easy.”

CindyS, one of our pollsters, agrees. “I so understand wanting to know certain things, but violence can be easily skipped in a book. If I run into a sentence that starts ‘The rookie cops were off under the trees relieving themselves of their stomach contents…’ then I know to start skimming so I don’t read anything that might cause me to want to vomit.” When she first started reading romances, Cindy came across a Johanna Lindsey romance in which the hero staked out a man (probably the villain) and castrated him! It took her a week to get back to the book. Then she read an Iris Johansen book where the villain stuffed a live woman into a trunk with lots of bugs. She also recalls an image in Linda Howard’s Dream Man where the killer cut off the fingers of his victims.

Reading Laurel K. Hamilton ended Cindy’s squeamishness, but she finds it easier to deal with violence in books that aren’t based on reality. “I guess I would be unclear as to what a reader is asking when asking about the level of violence in a romance novel. Are they asking about realistic violence where the heroine is beaten or raped…or are they asking about violence that a werewolf would do to a person? Since I don’t believe in werewolves, I can’t relate to the violence it creates, and can skip anything that would be too upsetting.” Cindy finds realistic violence harder to deal with. For example, she can watch The Matrix or Resident Evil (and I can attest that the latter had plenty of “Oh my God, they showed that?!” moments) because these are set in fantasy worlds, where she doesn’t “have to deal with the realities of pain.” On the other hand, she still hasn’t been able to watch Saving Private Ryan because she knows she couldn’t deal with the first twenty minutes of the film. Likewise, it took her weeks to deal with the violence in Schindler’s List.

Lee Brewer, another of our pollsters, avoids the graphic violence in some recent romantic suspense novels by skipping the really strong stuff. That’s how she read the latest books by Suzanne Brockmann and Linda Howard. In the case of the Brockmann, she skipped over the chapters devoted to the POV of the serial killer. With Howard’s book, she skipped over the chapters about the bad guys. Lee admits that it helped that she got both books through her library. “Since I wasn’t spending my money, I didn’t feel like I needed to read each page to get my money’s worth, which I might have if I had purchased them.”

Does every review need a violence rating? There are some good ways to discover whether a book is going to put you off. Just as some people don’t want to read about secret babies or the Duke of Slut, others don’t want to read scenes of graphic violence. That’s where reviews, message boards, cover blurbs, excerpts, and the like come in. Thanks to the Internet, there are now many ways to avoid reading books with content we find objectionable. For example, the Triggering Media website was established so that that survivors of rape and sexual abuse could look up books and movies before reading them to find out if there were rape or abuse scenes.

Reading about domestic violence can be upsetting to any woman, even one who hasn’t experienced it, because it’s something so close to our worlds. Many romance readers know people who have gone through domestic violence. We may even know someone who was killed by family member. Cindy admits that reading a scene “where a heroine is being beaten or raped can be traumatic (Nora Roberts’ (Public Secrets is a good example where the heroine was savagely beaten by her husband) as the kind of violence is something that any woman can imagine as we live with that kind of fear from a young age.”

I understand this aversion. I remember a tacky horror movie with lots of horrific murders. What made me feel most squeamish though, was the scene in which the killer mistook a teen for his deceased wife and started forcing himself on her. Yuck! Most of the movie was silly, but that scene was all too real.

My personal opinion is that it is often worth reading a too violent novel for the story. What’s the worst that could happen if I read something violent? It’s a novel and I can’t allow any book to trouble me too much. Sometimes reading a scary story can empower me to face my fears. When I was young, I could get scared by the simplest scenes in movies or books. One day, I decided that it had to stop. I hated being a prisoner to fright. I made myself watch scary movies – mildly scary ones, at first, such as Frankenstein – and read scary books. To my amazement, these movies were much less scary than my fears about them were. By facing my fears, I became a stronger person. These days, I rarely have nightmares about scary books or movies. And when I do, I usually wake up laughing at them.

I realize that not every reader wants to get scared. But it’s one thing to want to avoid the content, and another to expect a standardized measurement of violence in every review. Some reviewers worry about spoilers, although Linda Hurst thinks that reviews can warn about violent scenes without entering into spoiler territory. She argues, “I am very squeamish about violence. It gives me nightmares, just seems to stick with me. I would appreciate being warned if a book is violent. but, if it is just one scene I don’t see why that couldn’t be mentioned – just that there is a violent scene and not telling who it involved for a spoiler.”

The problem is that a single scene may barely measure on the reviewer’s radar. She may not think it’s terribly important, and as reviewers, we don’t like to second-guess ourselves as it detracts from the review’s honesty. A reviewer may have other things to say about the book, things she feels are more important. AAR reviews are usually five hundred to a thousand words long. That’s not a lot of time to talk about a book and get your point across. If the review also has to “mention” something you find unimportant, it throws the review off. Also, if a book is labeled “Romantic Suspense”, the category in and of itself lends a clue that there is likely violent content.

Kate Cuthbert believes reviewers cannot and should not take responsibility for a violence rating. She argues that “everyone’s line in the sand is a different point” and that “listing all the potential scary parts (or erotic parts, or disturbing parts, etc.) would lead to very little time for the review.”

This is not to say that readers shouldn’t want to find out what happens in a book before putting down their hard-earned money. I often peek at the end of vampire romances to make sure the vampire isn’t “cured” at the end. I skim through books before buying them to make sure that I won’t be disappointed in the big secret and how it’s handled. But there’s a line between finding out if a book might have graphic murders (or vampire cures), or even finding out how many characters die, when they die, how they die, and what time of the day they die and asking for violence ratings on books.

Here’s my opinion: we should be able to handle what we read or, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, “know when to skim ’em.”


Anne Marble

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