On Reading Violent Stories
I can read violent stories, but I have never been able to watch them. This dates back to a particularly traumatic viewing of a filmstrip of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier. But recently someone I love wanted me to watch a Quentin Tarantino film. He promised to tap me when I needed to look away. (There was much frantic tapping, but I already had my trusty pillow between myself and the screen.) The movie, which offered a revisionist take on history, forced me to ask good questions: If a smaller act of violence prevents a larger one, might it be justified? What is the difference between revenge and martyrdom? And what is it about violent stories that pulls us in, even when we cower?
Last month my reading rotated between two stories with violence: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas, both authors I’ve read before. I was simultaneously in a corrupt Mexican prison and in the neighborhood of Garden Heights. The two heroes, both teenage boys: John Grady Cole, 16, and Maverick Carter, 17. Both are in love with a woman with whom there are complications. Neither one chooses violence, but neither runs away from it either. Both have opportunities to show someone else undeserved mercy.
There are readers who don’t want any violence in their stories. If that’s you, stay away from McCarthy, whose books are both lyrical and brutal. Other readers can handle some tough stuff, but nothing too graphic. I think Thomas falls into that category, since her books are for a YA audience. Both books also have beautiful passages. In Cormac McCarthy, it’s the untamed West, best seen from horseback. In Angie Thomas, it’s the love of family and friends. These elements are all the more poignant because they coexist with violence.
Some people say they want nothing to do with violent stories, yet they read cozy mysteries, which still revolve around a dead body. As I was writing this post, the sweetest friend I’ve ever known told me she chills after a hard day of teaching school to true-crime drama.
So what does it mean to approach generously our need for stories with violence? I think it’s our way of journeying to the underworld, safely.
Odysseus must visit Hades’ realm. So must Orpheus. And several characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe we don’t confront the undead, but maybe our hell is a hospital room. Maybe it’s a courtroom. Too many funeral parlors.
Most terrifying is the hell inside us. John Grady Cole must look into the “gorgon in an autumn pool,” the “maimed and raging djinn” inside his soul and decide if that is who he wants to be. Maverick, “a drug-dealin’ gang-bangin’ high school flunkout” with “two kids by two different girls at 17” must choose whether he is brave enough to finally live up to his name.
Likewise, I have had to look deep inside and decide what my response will be when I am betrayed. What harm is there in a little non-violent revenge fantasy? When does it veer into the harmful? If I go there, can I ever come back again?
I think the difference, for me, in reading about violence versus watching it is the images my mind creates. In All the Pretty Horses and Concrete Rose, no one, not even an illustrator, dictated what I saw. I can open those books right now and again be immersed in my imagined version. But I can never unsee that terrifying moment when the boy throws the tin soldier into the fire.
I’m Nobody! Who Are You?, by Emily Dickinson, edited by Edric S. Mesmer
Poems for Young People: Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illus. by Chi Chung
The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, by Jack Prelutzsky, illus. Arnold Lobel (children’s poetry, much scariness and violence implied)
Picture Books and Early Readers
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Susan Jeffers
Poppleton in Fall, Poppleton in Winter, Poppleton in Spring, by Cynthia Rylant, illus. Mark Teague
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by A. Wolf, by Jon Scieszka, illus. Lane Smith (Join us for Children’s Book Club next Friday, August 13!)
The Mystery of Mrs. Christie: A Novel, by Marie Benedict
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (reread)
“Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard, essay in Teaching a Stone to Talk (hat tip Glynn Young)
Good Smoke, Bad Smoke: A Texas Rancher’s View of Wildfire, by John R. Erikson
All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Love Poems from God, translated and edited by Daniel Ladinsky
1. Have any of your thoughts on violence shifted, over time, or even today?
2. Guess which Tarantino film I saw, based on hints in the text and this post’s photo.
3. Share your July pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reading Generously
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro