Should Authors Be Held Accountable for the Violence in Their Books?

Ink SplatterMy heart goes out to the people of Aurora, Colorado.  I live in Tucson, Arizona.  Not too long ago a similar tragedy occurred here when our congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot at an event in front of a Safeway supermarket.  Six people died, many others were injured, and it had a profound impact on our community. Tragic events such as these are always followed by the inevitable debates as we struggle to make sense of it all, and sooner or later someone always makes the comment about too much violence in TV, movies, or video games, pointing the finger of blame at the entertainment industry.

Movies, television, and books are all mediums for storytelling. All story plot lines revolve around conflict, and how the characters react to, and eventually resolve, the conflict.  Now, whether we want to admit it or not, human beings have a great propensity for violence, so violence is often an integral part of the storyline. This is nothing new.  In fact, Shakespeare was pretty darn violent.  His works are full of murders and suicides. Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, describe violent scenes in graphic detail. There is an entire literary genre, called horror, that’s all about violence.

I myself am not into blood and gore, but there are still, nonetheless, some “violent” scenes in my books.  As I just mentioned, it’s part of the conflict and part of what makes the story interesting.  It’s also a catharsis for me, as a writer, to deal with some of the not-so-nice things that have happened to me in my own life, and I find it very therapeutic.  For example, there is a scene in The Reunion in which Gillian learns that her former husband has just murdered his current wife.  However I chose not to portray the scene in a graphic or gory way.  The incident is instead described in a dialog between Ian, Gillian and a police detective.  I leave it to the reader to imagine the blood and gore.  My upcoming novel, The Deception, includes a scene in which three characters are shot.  (Yes, writing that scene was my way of dealing with my own emotions from the Giffords tragedy.)  Still, I don’t get overly graphic or harsh with my descriptions.  My story isn’t about the violence.  It’s about how my characters deal with and overcome what has happened to them.

So, should authors be held accountable for the violence in their books?  Assuming that the author in question hasn’t written a book for the sole purpose of inciting readers to commit an act of violence, such as writing a “how to” book about the best way to kill other human beings, it would be difficult to prove that the author is responsible for any wrongdoing.  While I’m aware of studies out there allegedly proving a link between violent TV shows and movies, and violent behavior in real life, others will argue that the vast majority people do not act out what they’ve seen in the media or read about in a book.  Authors, at least here in the United States, are also protected by the First Amendment, so chances are that a court would rule that those violent scenes would be considered free speech.

Ultimately it is up to the author, and his or her publisher, to determine what, if any, level of violence is appropriate.  As I just mentioned, I don’t get into graphic descriptions of blood and gore in my books, but I’m not going to put up with anyone trying to censor me either.  I know this sounds like a tired old cliché, but if you don’t like a movie or TV show don’t watch it, and if you don’t like a violent scene in a book don’t read it.  Then there is the matter of parental responsibility.  It is up to you, the parent, to teach your child the difference between right and wrong, and to use some discretion in deciding which movies and televsion shows your child should watch, and which books your child should read.  My books, by the way, are written for adults. While they do not contain scenes of graphic violence they do include sexual content. They simply are not appropriate for younger readers.

Our readers want to see the bad guys pay for their wrongdoings.  My books certainly deliver on this, as do most books by other authors.  The bad guys may win a battle or two, but at the end of the day the good guys win the war.  That’s what good storytelling is all about.

MM