JK Rowlings creates characters I care about–that’s one of the reasons it was hard to close that book: I really wanted to be sure Robin got out of it okay. And I really want Cormoran and Robin to get together–those two wounded but valiant people who deserve real and honest love.
I could not, however, finish A Career of Evil.
I took the book out from the library, figuring I could balance that borrowed book with a non-fiction from my shelves and not fall completely off my ‘read what I’ve got already’ wagon. I had read the first two Galbraiths, and although they were, as my friend Terry says, a little harsh around the edges, I worked through those uncomfortable edges. I found them compelling reads.
A Career of Evil is compelling, too, but the violence is so very graphic and so horrific, so mindless and debasing, that I had to put it down, close it up, take it back to the library.
I am, to be sure, a gentle lady of a certain age–but I think I’m neither wilting nor a prude. And I’ve had conversations with students and loved ones many times over the years, in which we’ve wrestled with the issues of violent activity, sexual explicity, obscenity, vulgarity–the whole gamut of ‘ities’–in writing. My stance has always been this: if the inclusion advances the story, if it is necessary to the telling, you must include it.
If it’s there only to shock or titillate, I believe, you must exclude it.
And the level of detail can exceed a necessary telling.
In the Galbraith book, that thick and viscous, smearing, cloying violence–well, it may be that it’s necessary to convey the level of evil, the chilling threat. I just don’t think it’s necessary for me to read the book.
It seems to be a stain seeping into our pop culture–the stain of triumphant, sadistic, and vividly described violence. I wonder why.
I wonder what that says about us.
My son points out a growing trend in superhero movies for the good guys to beat up on each other. Instead of conquering the Joker or Zod, for example, Superman and Batman are whaling the tar out of each other, angry and brutal. There’s a superhero civil war brewing in a different cinematic universe, where the good guys team up and use their legendary powers on each other. Instead of using them to fight evil, they use them to seriously hurt former allies, erstwhile friends.
When did the good guys get so layered with awful inclinations? When did the violence get so explicit and gleeful? When did the dirty conflict, instead of the resolution, become the point?
I struggle with reactions. I don’t want our characters to be stock ones–Polly Purebred, Dudley Do-Right, and Snidely Whiplash, the sniveling villain, the upright cardboard hero and the trembling, faint-of-heart fair lady. I want to read about people who struggle with temptation and greed, with fear and cravenness–people who struggle and sometimes,– maybe most times,– triumph. I want my heroes to be heroes–frightened people, tempted people: people who overcome. Not people who give into violence so lurid it’s almost pornographic, and then suffer qualms and doubts and self-loathing afterwards, spiraling downwards into a pitiable life.
Superman was created by those two Ohio boys at a time when people felt powerless; those people took to heart a hero who would fight for truth, justice, and the American way. A strong man created for a people afraid of what might happen: this is a reasonable result of a culture immersed in a tragic and frightening World War.
So what do brutally violent heroes say about the culture that spawns them? It frightens me to contemplate. Are we a people who feel sullied, spoiled, compromised? Is our self-ness tarnished by the corruption we perceive in our world? Are we convinced the well-aimed steel-toed boot is the only effective solution?
Whatever. This could well be the over-reaction of a timid woman of a certain age. But there is good literature out there, hidden in library stacks, findable under the more lurid offerings at bookstores and on line. There is fiction that illumines; there is non-fiction that compels.
And there are people, I am sure, who completely disagree; and I applaud their rights to do so.
But for me, and for now, I will search out my stories carefully: I will look for the tales of strength and challenge and fear and cowardice and triumph that happens in the sad gray places. I will read stories where harm and death occur, but I will not see every detail of evil’s handiwork, its wicked painful embroidery upon the tender human flesh of characters. I will read those authors who make their points without dripping bloody fangs or vividly described, degenerate wounds. I will not hide from harshness, but neither will I glory in the gory detail, the rank fascination with inflicting hurt.
There are choices we make, and how to be entertained is one of them. To be entertained by torture and cruelty smacks to me of wrongness–especially when there are so many other compelling stories to be read. The search, I think, is worth the treasure to be found.
I hope that Cormoran prevails, and that he and Robin do indeed connect. But I’ll have to hear about it second-hand.