Friday, March 28, 2014

Ross on the Ethics of Murder in Fiction

Over at her blog, Deborah J. Ross (The Seven-Petaled Shield) gets down-and-dirty on the ethics of murder in fiction. Excerpt:
I've been thinking about my best friend, who died last year from ovarian cancer, and about my mother, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor teenager on drugs in 1986. Over the last couple of decades since the latter, I've exchanged stories (and tears, and laughter, and anguish) with other family members of murder victims. Sometimes when I read a story in which killing someone is presented as praiseworthy, I want to scream at the author, "Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you understand how much pain your characters are causing?" I want to sit down with the writers and make them listen to what it's like to lose someone you love and all the years you might have had together for no good reason. I'm feeling really angry about it right now. Hence the rant below.

I admit that I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that deliberately ending someone's life is laudable. Yes, things happen by accident. People drive around in lethal weapons all the time. People get angry or frightened and lash out. But writing a story is not something that's over in a flash and can never be taken back. It's an act of deliberate creation and as such, calls on us to be mindful. Listen, folks. Life is all too brief, and incredibly precious. It's totally not okay with me to deliberately cut short a human life. For greed, for bigotry, for revenge, for patriotism. In fiction we often do kill off characters. If you do it, do it with full awareness of the cost.
Read the whole thing. If you dig deep enough, I'm sure you can find something to quibble with in Ross' piece. For myself, I'm not so sure it's fair to compare accounts of soldiers fighting in wars with pulpy splatterfic that gleefully reduces antagonists to chunky bits. But that's beside the point. Writers love to preach artistic freedom; they get awful quiet, though, when the subject of artistic responsibility comes up. Ross understands this, and her post is a clarion call for creative types to understand fiction's power to affect others for good -- and for ill. "Good fiction has structure, tension, and resolution," she notes. "The Greek playwrights understood this. Shakespeare knew it. So should you. ... Go deep in your fiction. Go true. And go with compassion." Well said.

(Picture: CC 2010 by paukrus; Hat Tip: My Little Corner)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

If there's one pet peeve that I'm quickly developing, it is the way that children's entertainment increasingly glamorizes the killing of innocent people for no good reason but personal fulfillment.

The Lego Movie was, of course, the nadir of this, but so many epics have this problem. In The Lego Movie, we first know that the main character might be The Chosen one when he's capable of a high-speed chase in which a bunch of semi-faceless police officers are presumably killed. That's right: kids films now present heroes whose creative ability to play with LEGOs boils down to the murder of cops. Presumably because, since he doesn't know any of them or their families, they don't count as human. And then we wonder why, as a nation, we aren't at all concerned about the number of American citizens and foreign citizens who are executed by drone without a trial.

That said, I think the responsible presentation of situations in which "the deliberate ending of someone's life is laudable" is a pretty central to literary practice. I can't imagine King Henry V without the scene where he hangs his friend Bardolf, because the law is the law and King Henry must be just. Similarly, the Illiad has one of the most profound scenes of grief and reconciliation in literature, but it is only enabled by the "rage of Achilles" in which the world's greatest warrior kills the epic's most sympathetic character, loses his best friend to the violence of war, and is nearly overcome by the rage and chaos of war.

Honestly, I think the problem with literature is that it needs more violence, rather than less. We need more Katniss Everdeens, whose acts of killing provide such a toll on her that in the end she's reduced to a quivering pile of PTSD neuroses. We need kids shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, where the young heroes have to deal with allies willing to wipe out a town of civilians to further their righteous revolutionary aims. In short, it's not that authors shouldn't ever celebrate violence--it's that they should tell the very disturbing, ugly truth about violence. What we need to get away from is films that lie about violence. The problem is not the glorification of violence; the problem is stripping violence of its horror.

Loren Eaton said...

Want to talk troubling trends in children's entertainment? For years, Disney has made the prime conflict in its stories the killing off of or abandonment by parents. That's troubling on a thematic level for little viewers.

Regarding the via negativa (showing the "negative way" in stories), I agree that there's a place for it. Violence is horror. However, I always use it sparingly because I know that somewhere out there is a maladjusted person who's ignoring my intent and getting his jollies from the portrayal.