Now that I have your attention . . .
When JT asked me to come up with a tagline for the Murderati site, I was at a loss. I simply couldn’t come up with something as witty as the pun comma sutra, or the cool double meaning of ghost writer. As the only romantic suspense writer here, I decided to simply tell it like it is: sex and violence.
My books have a little sex, a lot of violence, and bad stuff happens. My disclaimer is that they are “Rated R” whenever someone asks me about my books in a non-book related setting (for example, I’d never say this at RWA or Thrillerfest unless someone specifically asked.) But when I’m at my kids school, or at church, or even at the grocery store when my favorite checker tells everyone in line about my books (see why she’s my favorite?), I stick with my standard line.
This habit came about when a friend of mine, a woman a few years younger than my mom, was thrilled for me when I sold and wanted to read my book. She’s a huge fan of Nora Roberts, was so excited that I had written a romantic suspense novel, and told everyone about my books-she has a lot of friends. So of course I gave her an Advanced Reading Copy. She read it and emailed me a week later saying that while she enjoyed the book, but she had to skip the sex scenes which were more graphic than Nora wrote, and said “I think of you like a daughter. It made me uncomfortable.”
I appreciated that, but then I thought, wait-my mom reads ALL my books!
Mystery readers who like my books tell me they skip the sex scenes, too. I just smile and nod, but inside I’m scratching my head. The scenes are there for a reason-to show the emotional connection between two people, as well as to both resolve and create conflict in the story. Much like sex in real life. It’s not gratuitous, or there “just” to sell books, as I’ve been accused of (as if selling books is a bad thing!)
Then I get the emails from people who don’t like that bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, I want to say, “Bad stuff happens.” (Well, I really what to say sh*t happens but figure this is a PG blog.) Bad stuff happens because that’s the story. I’m really sorry that Lucy Kincaid was hurt in my book Fear No Evil. I’m thrilled that readers became so attached to her that they cared what happened to her and were worried about her. But if she didn’t get hurt, the story wouldn’t have been the same. It wasn’t the book I was writing.
And then the people who simply think I’m a closet psychopath because I can even conceive of such ideas in the first place. As if I have control over my imagination. If I actually had fantasies about killing people, I certainly wouldn’t put them in print first!
I try to maintain a balance. The sex scenes serve a purpose in the story to raise the stakes, add characterization, solve problems, and increase conflict. The violence . . . ditto. I show it because it happens and I want the reader to care about the resolution, to empathize with the victim. If I wanted to write a cozy mystery, then I’d write a cozy mystery. I’ve chosen to lay it all out there on the page because I like a solid dose of reality in my fiction. I like it when people email me and say that my characters feel like real people, that they come alive off the page. Well, sometimes these emails scare me, like those who ask me what my characters are like in REAL life. :/
There are some who feel that writing stories with sex and violence-and especially movies with sex and violence-spread said activities. That violent shows beget violent behavior. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that romance novels are fantasies that distort a woman’s perception of relationships. Yes, they are a fantasy, but to have a man love you for who you are and be faithful is a distortion? Well, sorry, I’ll cling to that fantasy as being ideal, thank you very much.
Human beings are violent. We are sexual creatures. Obviously, both activities can go to the extreme and be dangerous to ourselves or to others. But I don’t buy into the philosophy that sex and violence in media-television, movies, or books-has increased sex and violence in our culture. There’s been plenty of both, long before commercial books and movies existed. Cain slew Abel, after all; hordes of people watched gladiators fight to the death; and men have paid prostitutes for sex before there was online pornography.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a point where gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t have an impact on society. I do think that our acceptance threshold is higher-meaning, it takes a lot more to shock us. I believe strongly in keeping kids young and innocent for as long as possible . . . yet at the same time, to keep them safe we still have to warn them about bad people. In an episode of CSI that aired a few years ago, Catherine Willows young teenage daughter was making some bad choices in her life. A girl of the same age was murdered, and Catherine–who at first feared the victim was her own daughter–took Lindsay to the morgue to show her what could happen if she didn’t get her act together. Several characters on the show criticized Catherine for this action, but I applauded her. Damn straight–your kids start going down the wrong path, there’s nothing wrong with showing them what could happen. It’s the same philosophy as bringing a wrecked car to a high school before grad night–look kids, don’t drink and drive, you could have died in this car. Other kids did–kids who won’t be going on to college because of one stupid decision.
Well, I segued into a completely different topic! Back to commercial fiction. Sex and violence . . . there are lots of books out there-statistics vary depending on whether you include non-fiction or vanity press and others-but because of the marketplace, more publishers are trying to fill more niches. And I know not everyone wants to read books with sex and violence-I’m okay with that. In fact, when I need a break from writing and reading my favorite genre, I’ll pick up a romantic comedy, still one of my favorite genres to read . . . maybe because I can’t write it.
But my books are Rated R, and I have to forewarn people, at least in certain situations. My personal disclaimer so I don’t get any more emails from friends who were scared spitless at the violence or whose face turned scarlet during the sex.
I ask you: do you think that violence and sex in media (either books or movies) propagates violence and sex in society? Are we just so desensitized to it that to sell more books and tickets, writers and directors are upping the stakes to shock us?