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Violence in Fiction

Last weekend, I went back to my home city of Hull and was awestruck by this sculpture in Queen’s Gardens.

The Knife Angel was built by Alfie Bradley and is made of thousands and thousands of knives which have been handed into to the police during a national knife amnesty. The statue stands at an imposing nine metres height and there was a fair crowd of people gathered to see it. What was striking was how quiet the crowd was. Dozens of people stood contemplating the impact of knife crime and the effect it has on the victims, their families and the wider community.

This got me thinking about violence in fiction. If you look on the shelves of any bookshop, it’s clear that the crime fiction (specifically murder fiction) is the big trend at the moment. Not only that, but there are many, many genres of fiction whose central plots and themes are based upon acts of or systems of violence. I’m thinking of thrillers, fantasy, sci-fi, and many more. The same is true in film and TV, often the most “exciting” part of the show is someone shooting, or getting shot or blowing someone up or destroying something.

Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t particularly enjoy violence in fiction. I’m reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire (Mistborn 1) at the moment and it contain long sequences in which the main characters Kelsier and Vin are off killing people or trying not to get killed and, to be honest, when I come to those sections, I skim them or skip them entirely.

If I think about All of our Tomorrows, my own novel-in-progress, it doesn’t contain much violence at all. There are certainly no quasi-pornographic descriptions of axes entering skulls or intestines leaving abdomens. The main reason for this is that I don’t think that violent description move the plot forward, violence as a motivation is frankly passé and the stories in which violence is the plot are rarely worth reading.

Last month, I stopped reading Who Fears Death, mainly because within the first fifty pages we’d had descriptions of gang rape, child sexual abuse and female genital mutilation. I felt gross reading it. I have a similar opinion about violence on the screen. A couple of years back, I was really excited about the release of Altered Carbon on Netflix, but again, I had to give up because of its long, pointless scenes of gratuitous violence. Violence is fucking boring.

I appreciate that I have a different perspective than most. I am a doctor and an anaesthetist and I spent a year working in Europe’s biggest Major Trauma Centre. I have been responsible for picking up the pieces (sometimes, literally picking up the pieces) following acts of violence I can tell you, violence is not fun, it’s not exciting; it’s depressing and it’s often heartbreaking.

At the end of the day, fiction is for entertainment, and if there is too much violence in a story, my answer to that classic question from Gladiator has to be: no.


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