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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I just read some reviews of "A Tale of Despereaux" and was struck by how many people were upset because the of the cruel things that happen to characters. Well, not surprisingly as it is a children's book and most people don't want too much darkness in those.

But that's not really what caught my attention. It seems to me that people are reacting as though the writer wasn't just depicting cruelty, but was actually being cruel. And when I think about my own opinions of books, I guess I sometimes feel that way myself. A recent book -- I think it was "The Windup Girl" -- I could not finish because of the sexual violence in it and it did feel as though the writer was not just showing cruel acts as participating in them :p

Is that rational?
 

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That is a very interesting observation. I talk a good talk when I say I like stories that don't always have a happy ending, but then sometimes I get a little angry when things don't quite work out. Humans are funny things.

As far as cruelty in a story ~ I wouldn't read a book that was based on violence or cruelty, I really have no desire to read a book that is loaded with torture or rape.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Neaughea, I agree. 
Although there are some writers that can depict violence and cruelty in a way that does not feel gratuitous.  I still find it upsetting but I don't feel as though I'm participating in a perversion. For example, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is pretty harsh but I did not feel that the violence was done for a thrill.

On the other hand, some writers just seem to get off on violence.  I feel that way about Richard K Morgan. I hope I can separate the writers from the characters they create, but I do find myself judging.  :-\ 
 

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Back in the days of the gentlemen publishers, when a literary novel had a "library print run" of about 2000 copies, you could count on every reader being generally sophisticated enough, and in particular familiar enough with the learned conventions of fiction, to grasp that the writer did not agree with the views of every character or even leading characters, and that the writer was the reporter of a vastly disinterested god's-eye-view, not a participant.

Around about 1990 the gentlemen publishers were replaced by big conglomerate publishers. The oldstyle publishers had literary quality as their standard. The conglomerates, operated by and answerable to accountants, had popularity as their standard. They consequently widened the readership tremendously. This coincided with the outcome of a decades-long general decline in the quality of public education (I mean "free" here, not the British sense of expensive elite fee schools called "public schools" to distinguish them from being taught at home by private tutors), typified as a flight from the Three R's of reading, writing and arithmetic, into other "less socially divisive" subjects like basket weaving, truancy and playground drug dealing. The result was a much wider, more demotic, but also less literate audience for a less literary general class of book. There were some good features to this too, but this discussion is about one most dangerous of the negative results.

Then came Amazon with their mercenary dream of grabbing the entire e-book market to sell Kindles into, an ambition in which indie publishing was a handy tool. Now anyone, regardless of literary merit or even literacy, could publish a "novel". Some of them found kindred spirits among the new readers brought in by the ferment of the Kindle itself, and I don't mean the anoraks and technofreaks (a class I'm closet member of...), I mean people who wouldn't be seen dead in a library. As an example, The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, written at a sub-Robert Ludlum level, sold, the last time I looked, 70m copies, and with the enthusiastic complaisance of journalists was meretriciously boosted as "literature" for the admitted reason that Larsson was a saint of leftwing politics and feminism (in reality rather limply as a political activist though he told interesting lies about his early life, and demonstrably quite the contrary in the second -- European left-wingers of Larsson's Trotskyite stripe are by conviction anti-feminists). A book Andrew McCoy and I wrote exposing the lies behind the promotion of Larsson, and analysing the books, has attracted a great deal of vicious comment from readers who appear to believe that literary criticism is spelt H-A-G-I-O-G-R-A-P-H-Y. (Actually, I liked the books; I'm a Larsson fan; I like Ludlum too; and no, I'm not embarrassed by a taste for cheap literature. But liking cheap thrillers and writing literary criticism are two distinct activities I have no difficulty separating...) Only twenty years ago you could count on most readers knowing what "hagiography" is, or at least where to look it up. Outside of enclaves of culture like Kindleboards, Goodreads, LibraryThing, can you guarantee that today? (Ditto for "disinterested" above, meaning unbiased, not "uninterested". You read it correctly and passed it over, right? Not everyone would. That's the difference I'm talking about.) Even the Amazon book fora, where you would expect to find book lovers, are in the control of semi-literate book burners.

This is a bed the education system has made for communicators of any kind to lie on, and writers are just about as guilty as the educational theorists. Frankly, I expect the trend that disturbs Masha, of readers presuming identification between writer and character, between writer and fictional activity, to continue and deepen. What makes it more difficult to counter at this late stage is that it is a natural human tendency, out of which people have to be trained by familiarizing them with the conventions of fiction, usually by reading to them as small children and encouraging them to read during their formative years, and by pro-actively teaching good literature, something now only done in fee-paying private schools.

It's a horrid symptom of a deeper malaise.

***
[Duh. I see now that this is in Book Corner. Just in case the mods chuck off this post for mentioning one of my books, however tangentially and relevantly, I've also put the article on my blog. Mods, if you have to do your thing, please leave this parenthetical remark. I think it is a subject of interest to the class of reader we get on Kindleboards.]
 

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If a book has elements I don't want to read (torture, cruelty to animals, gratuitous anything) I don't give a rats behind if it's the author's real opinion/inclination or just the story.  It matters not a whit.  I am not going to read the book and given that the author is willing to tackle subjects I don't want to read about, I'm going to avoid the author.  The reason behind the writing simply doesn't matter to me. 
 

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My problem isn't that I think the writer is perpetrating the cruelty he writes about, but that depending on how it's written, I can feel as if I'm participating. The older I get, the less willing I am to participate. For instance, I gave up reading anything written from the POV of a serial killer sometime ago. Now I no longer will read anything featuring a serial killer at all.  Maybe that has to do with age and a been there, done that feeling, but it's there. I read for pleasure. Murder mysteries and thrillers allow me to experience adventure vicariously, but I don't want to experience those adventures in the head of the villain and find no pleasure in detailed cruelty or perversion. My quota for realistic ugliness is filled every day by reading the news.

Many of the books I avoid are bestsellers. Even if some readers complain, there's obviously an audience for everything.
 

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Masha du Toit said:
I just read some reviews of "A Tale of Despereaux" and was struck by how many people were upset because the of the cruel things that happen to characters. Well, not surprisingly as it is a children's book and most people don't want too much darkness in those.

But that's not really what caught my attention. It seems to me that people are reacting as though the writer wasn't just depicting cruelty, but was actually being cruel. And when I think about my own opinions of books, I guess I sometimes feel that way myself. A recent book -- I think it was "The Windup Girl" -- I could not finish because of the sexual violence in it and it did feel as though the writer was not just showing cruel acts as participating in them :p

Is that rational?
Your question is a rational one. The answer is both 'Yes' and 'No'. Some things are placed in a book for effect. Readers may consider that an act of cruelty. Personally, if the act of cruelty does not add to the novel, I don't see the purpose of it. But there is an unfortunate truth. Cruel things happen. To children. To teens. To adults. Things that couldn't be shaped by words even if a master wordsmith tried to bend the words to form the depths of such cruel acts. So that is part of the subjective nature of reading. One reader's unnecessary cruelty is another person's "something they can relate to."
 

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Can a writer be cruel? Sure, they are people, and therefore by definition, they can be cruel. Now, whether or not any cruelty a reader perceives in a book is a reflection of the author versus, say, a subject the author wants to investigate and try to understand (along with the reader), is possibly only knowable by getting to know the author personally -- or perhaps by detecting a trend over several books? (Even then, it could still be a reflection of other causes, such as perceived market requirements and not necessarily the author's actual beliefs or attitudes.)
 

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It's probably not rational, but I have felt it too - with my favorite writer!  A couple of times Stephen King has killed off a character or done something where I felt that he was being particularly cruel. 
 

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Masha du Toit said:
Is that rational?
Completely rational. Every reader has their own level of tolerance when it comes to violence. The best an author can do is target a range of tolerances that is appropriate for the story and intended audience.
I personally have a very large tolerance and enjoy books without violence (such as Rama) to continuous (such as the Horseclan novels), but there are some things that I wont tolerate at all.
 

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Sure writers can be cruel. As long as people have been writing they've done things to their characters we as readers might object to. Really depending on how attached we get to the character(s) being abused. And an author is the god of his/her own universe. For example, I think George R.R. Martin is a real jerk when it comes to what he does to the Starks in A Song of Ice and Fire. Does he enjoy doing these awful things to them? I get a feeling that he does. But we buy their books because they are good at playing with our emotions. (Same goes for movies and TV shows.)
 

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No, I don't think of a depiction of cruelty as cruelty by a writer.
I think of a writer subjecting me to long, boring passages as cruelty.
 

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Mankind regenerates through violence. Cruelty can be of much service to the human spirit when it is confined within literature. That's my opinion on the matter.
 

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Being able to depict certain actions in specific thorough ways, is a great quality however graphic and unpleasant it may appear to some. Making somebody feel like they are participating is fantastic, and emotion with it adds to the book.  Writers can be cruel but i think writers HAVE to be cruel on certain issues or it wouldn't be an accurate compelling reflection of what is being portrayed.
 

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I have never felt that way except maybe with Anne Perry. Because she is a murder herself and she writes about murder, it's difficult for me to separate the two. But otherwise, no, I try not to think about the author at all when reading - I like the story to stand on it's own, like it's being told by an unknown narrator.
 

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I think authors sometimes have an agenda.  I don't recall ever reading a book with, say, explicit and gory violence, and assuming the writer was a horrible human being and wanted to really do those things to someone.  That said, I'm an anti-fan of such things so if it's extreme and seems to be gratuitous I'm not reading the book.  

I more often see the agenda in terms of characters' political or religious leanings -- if one side is always praised and the other always put down, I DO assume that the author feels the same way.  That's also something I don't like to read -- and it doesn't even matter which side is pro or con.  I don't want to be preached to at all. :-\  

 

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It depends on the way it is portrayed. For instance, since Anne Perry was mentioned, in her crime novels (those that I've read at least) crimes and injustice and violence do happen, but the point of view of her characters is very clear, I feel without doubt that for the voice who is narrating the story crime is bad.

When I feel that the violence is there for no specific reason or the author goes into the kind of detailed description that, to me, smells of fascination, in short when I feel that the story is just an excuse to write about violence, then the author has lost me.  
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
Seleya, agreed.

That's exactly how I feel about Richard Morgan. Smell, sound, taste, all described in loving detail :p :p
 

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Hi all,

don't want to bring gender into the equation, but I remember a time, just a few years back, when quite a large fraction of the most successful thriller writers with the most gory killing and torture ideas was female. Thinking Minette Walters, Val McDermid, Nicci French (although I think that was a collaboration between husband and wife). It just struck me as kind of odd at that point in time, as I always thought men are the more violent type. However, in the end it's also an individual writing a book, and who knows how they came up with the ideas towards the "worst" murders. Could be real life examples, research, ...
Best regards,

Yves
 

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Occasionally an author can go overboard, I agree.  But that's up to the reader to step away from it if it's too much.  The reader has the ultimate power!
 
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