Torture Without Porn: Can You Write About Violence Without Fetishizing It?

It’s an age-old problem–or maybe a problem peculiar to the modern era. Humans are drawn to violence like moths to the flame. Warn them against it, describe its horrors, and you’ll only inflame them further. So how do you create art about violence without inciting it?

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot of late as I teach my class on war literature. War literature is full of books by people who went to war expecting to become heroes, discovered it was actually a lot less fun and more horrifying than that, and wrote stories designed to warn the next generation against making the same mistake they made–only to have the next generation tell them how these authors/filmmakers/etc. had inspired them to join up and go make war. Arkady Babchenko, who set off to fight in the Chechen wars with stories by Remarque tucked into his breast pocket, found out exactly what Remarque had been trying and failing to tell him: that war made at least as many villains as heroes.

OSW cover

Probably the grittiest war stories you will ever read.

Babchenko’s furious condemnation of the Chechen wars and the Russian army has earned him lots of enemies–and a certain number of letters from teenage boys telling him how they want to join the army and have adventures just like him. Meanwhile, in the US, anti-war movies made about Vietnam such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket have probably done more for recruitment than all the recruitment drives ever held.

Other types of violence are at least as vulnerable to similar misunderstandings, with sexual violence leading the way. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, featuring the iconic heroine and victim-of-sexual-violence-turned-avenger Lisbeth Salander,

Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace as Salander in the Swedish film adaptation of the books.

was specifically inspired by the author’s own guilt at being unable to stop the gang-rape of a friend of his. Violence against women is placed front and center in the storyline. But the movie adaptations in particular have come under fire for doing exactly the opposite of what they set out to accomplish: rather than making sexual violence more taboo and less attractive, some critics have said that by featuring such scenes in such explicit detail, they actually make sexual violence less taboo and more attractive.

Of course, the franchise that has gotten the most bad press for glorifying and fetishizing rape and torture is Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones cover

Somehow GoT has morphed from a fantasy story to a horror story.

Part of the problem may be in the change of media. The HBO show has done its HBO thing and turned the sex and violence up to 11, although it should be noted that in doing so, it has trimmed a number of the less “sexy” sexual violence scenes, and added in much sexier scenes of sexual violence instead. An examination of Martin’s original books, and his statements about the books, would strongly suggest that he has an agenda of highlighting the dangers and abuse that women faced and continue to face, while also creating complex and powerful female characters.

At the same time, Martin’s books strengthen an underlying conception of women as inherently being victims of violence, especially sexual violence. Notably, the rape victims in Martin’s books are all (as far as I can remember) female, even though the rape of men by men, especially in all-male institutional settings such as prison and the military, is common: contrary to popular wisdom, the prevalence of rape is related not to the presence of women in a setting, but the presence of men.

And then there’s the torture…Martin’s books, and the HBO adaptations of them, are famous for violence in all its forms, and people lap it up, even as they can’t turn away. But they are hardly the only example of that kind of thing: “torture porn” has been a popular movie genre for a while. In the old days torture was carried out in the main square as public entertainment; these days we watch lushly imagined fake torture scenes on our screens instead. Progress? Maybe. If it feeds our hunger for violence and pain without actually causing us to satisfy it on living, breathing sentient beings, so much the better. But what if it makes people want it more? Has transferring our need for violence to sport and entertainment done more good or more harm? I’d argue for the former, but with a major caveat. Humans love violence, and we all have to walk a fine line between giving it an outlet and letting it get completely out of control.

While I have mixed feelings about Martin’s (excessively lavish) depictions of torture in his books, let alone the HBO reimagining of them, there are some other epic fantasy novels that, in my opinion, get it right. Plus they’re just great all-around books.

First of all, and maybe to the surprise of the uninitiated, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy books treat the subject of torture with a subtlety rarely seen in fantasy.

Kushiel's Legacy

The first trilogy in the Kushiel’s Legacy 9-book series.

The books feature a number of characters with strong proclivities for BDSM, and one of the issues that comes up repeatedly for them is the relationship between their favored pastime and torture. There are a number of nuanced meditations in the books on the natural inclination to violence and the nature of consent, especially when the characters find themselves as the victims, witnesses, or perpetrators of sexual violence and/or torture. The books do an unexpectedly good job of making a distinction between consensual BDSM and non-consensual violence, and making the former attractive and the latter unattractive.

Another great series that deals with violence, especially torture, in a nuanced and sympathetic away, is Robin Hobb’s 9-book Farseer Series  (spoiler alert: I am currently reading Fool’s Assassin and loving it). The best, if one can say such a thing about such a grim subject, torture-related moment for me in the series came in Fool’s Errand, when FitzChivalry, the main character throughout the entire series, decides that he needs to torture a captive for information. Hobb does a brilliant job of setting up the situation by showing how people who have been victimized in the past feel the need to victimize others, and how Fitz’s past experiences have made him inclined to believe that torture is the right choice here.

Spoiler alert!!!!!

Fool's Errand

Fitz is, I am glad to report, talked out of it, and experiences an intense sense of horror at what he almost did. Fool’s Errand may be the best of the Farseer books, and that scene is one of the reasons why.

So when I went to write my own torture scene in The Dreaming Land II, I had both the Kushiel and the Farseer books in mind as examples of how to do it “right.” I don’t know whether I did or not, or even how you could define “right,” except to say that I wanted to make it, not sexy or exciting or even gory and gritty, but as a searing test of character for my characters, one in which they had to fight against their belief that it needed to be done for the greater good, and against their innate proclivity for violence. I’ll leave you with a little excerpt from that scene:

I turned to Ruslan. “What about you?” I demanded.

He shook his head. I gave him a sharp prod with the toe of my boot, making him and everyone watching me jump. In my mind’s eye, I saw Tanya shiver with pleasure and say you with your boots and your sword and that look on your face, watching us…I looked down at my boots for a moment, and realized, more intensely than I had ever realized before, that they had once been someone’s skin, and that they had been ripped from their original possessor in blood and pain and fear and death, so that I was encased in death and cruelty and pain, and that no matter what I did, I was already guilty. I felt like I would never be clean again, as if I were covered in my own vomit, which I was helpless to wash off. Everything around me seemed strangely sharp and clear, and I could see the others fidgeting, wringing their hands, looking back and forth at each other as if hoping for salvation, salvation from me…the children were watching, the whole caravan was watching, and I couldn’t appear weak, and I couldn’t let them down…lives depended on me getting these answers, not just my own but the lives of my companions and the children we had rescued and all the children we could save, if we won this battle, maybe even Zem’ itself…the darkness of who I had become rose up inside me like a great tide and washed over me, until the old me was washed away, until I was this new person, the person I had always threatened to become, the person who did the things that others needed to be done, even if they themselves couldn’t do them. Many lives depended on me being this person, and there was nothing I could do about it…

TDLII Front Image with Text

The Dreaming Land II will be officially released on November 3, but the Amazon page is already live so that ARC readers can leave a review (massive thanks to those who have already done so!), and the impatient can read it for free on KU or get the paperback now here.
AND The Magical Book of Wands, in which I have a brand-new story in a brand-new world, is available for pre-order here!

 

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