It’s Time to Bite the Bullet: Taking Responsibility for Violence in Fiction

Sexual, racial, gender violence and other forms of discrimination and violence in a culture cannot be eliminated without changing culture—Charlotte Bunch

I didn’t know who Charlotte Bunch was the first time I read this quote but it has resonated with me for a long time. And I have been thinking a lot about the necessity of changing the culture for a while too. I make my living with words and at a certain point, I began to be aware of just how casually we integrate violence into every aspect of our conversation without even realizing it. “I don’t want to beat a dead horse,” we might say when we don’t want to belabor a point. “Kill me now,” we might moan as we’re forced to do some distasteful task. “That’ll kill two birds with one stone,” we observe when it looks like doing something will be a win/win situation.

Scientists have been making connections between acts of violence and violent entertainment for decades. I remember back in 1986 when the movie Heat came out, it took a lot of flak for a scene depicting violence against some homeless men. When that scene was mimicked in real life, a chorus of voices rose condemning Hollywood for its violence. Thirty years on, that movie looks like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood compared to mainstream movies and cable content. Heat came out thirteen years before the high school shooting in Columbine ushered in a new and terrible era in gun violence, a wave of crimes that has broken over the American psyche like a tsunami and left wrecked lives and seemingly endless debate, in its wake.

I used to scoff at the idea that violent entertainment bred violent acts in real life. Paul Verhoeven was criticized for the violence in RoboCop and famously had to trim a crucial scene where a robot shot a boardroom of people to pieces (the scene goes on so long that it becomes grotesquely comic, a lesson that Quentin Tarantino took to heart in his gleefully violent movies). I didn’t bat an eyelash when I saw RoboCop, though I remember being horrified in college by a similar scene in The Godfather where a mobster gets pulverized by bullets. It upset me enough I had to look away.

What a difference a decade makes.

It’s like the famous “boiling the frog” analogy. By the time I realized that I’d become desensitized to violence, I had become part of the problem.

One of the drawbacks of writing crime fiction as “a girl” is that there’s a perception we’re not as tough as the men. And that pressures us to be more hard-boiled than a plate of deviled eggs.

Never one to accept pigeon-holing, I rose to the challenge. A lot of my fiction was dark, much of it was violent, either emotionally or physically. My characters rarely used guns, but there are many ways to “skin a cat” as yet another common saying goes, and I dealt murder and mayhem like a Vegas croupier.

I won some contests with that writing.

I even won a few awards.

But a few years ago I stopped scoffing at the idea that writers were responsible for inciting acts of violence.

And I kept thinking about that Charlotte Bunch quote and wondering what role I should play in that change in the culture. And I wonder where that leaves me as a writer of crime fiction. Does that mean I should only write cozies?

Kill me now.

Except don’t.

I’m still trying to figure it out. And in the meantime, I write blog posts about gun laws and vote for candidates who share my concerns, and write checks to organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Americans for Responsible Solutions.

And when I write a violent scene in one of my stories, I make damn sure that it’s there for a reason. There’s too much mindless violence in real life, I don’t want to add my voice to that cacophony.