Apparently, even someone who claims he isn’t a writer can get writer’s block and I was stymied for a post topic. Nothing on my short list of post ideas was sparking inspiration, so I threw it out to a group of friends for suggestions. One proposed I write about “violence in books.”
Recent events in the US brought out the normal contingent of “experts,” blaming real violence on pretend violence in movies and video games. Although seldom mentioned, should books get a free ride? Was this idea a trap? An attempt to get me to go political at Indies Unlimited, which seemed like the second quickest way to get The Evil Mastermind to return the post with the message, “Nah, I don’t think so.” (The quickest way is saying BigAl’s favorite word deleted by EM.)
However, this did get me thinking about the reasons certain kinds of content appeal to some readers. I’ll try leaving it to the pundits, “experts,” and other media blowhards to decide what the implications of violence in books are to society and leave discussion of the political repercussions for elsewhere. Instead, I’ll go the touchy-feely route.
I often find myself evaluating the appeal of a particular book and wondering, what value could a reader potentially get from reading this? Many non-fiction books are to teach about something and that’s their primary, probably only purpose. But for fiction and much narrative non-fiction, this isn’t always so clear. There are the obvious answers, entertainment and escape, which I think most people would mention. I have a theory that if you dig deeper, the books that appeal most to a reader are, whether they are conscious of it or not, helping them do one of two things, either working out personal wants, needs, or issues, or helping them in understanding others better – some books do both.
A good book, more than anything else, allows us to walk in the shoes of another person that may be nothing like us. Just like the cliché claims, doing so should help us understand that fictional character better and that can translate into better insights into the thinking and motivations of people you know in real life who are like that fictional character. At least this is the justification I use for reading Chick-Lit and Romance.
When we get more personal, I see three ways a book can help us work on ourselves: Validation, consideration of alternatives, and living vicariously. When we see a character react to a situation that feels similar to one we’ve been in ourselves, if his reaction or feelings about the event are the same as ours, it validates that reaction as reasonable. Even if we might wish we had reacted differently, we know this character (or at least the author who created him) understands why someone might feel that way. When the character reacts differently, it can be food for thought. Is that reaction more reasonable? Why does he see this differently than I do?
How much the things I’ve discussed thus far apply to an individual are going to vary a lot from reader to reader, depending on their reading diet and how introspective they are. The last one, living vicariously, I’d guess applies to every reader at times. Books in some genres are almost always going have this aspect to them. The travel narrative allows you to see somewhere you might never have the chance to visit through the eyes of someone who been there. Erotica allows me to have vicarious experiences that I’ll never be flexible enough to try in real life. Chances are you won’t be around when or if the future envisioned by your favorite science fiction author happens, but you can still experience it in a book.
To close the circle, thrillers, some mysteries, and many other genres, especially horror, often have violence. Sometimes this violence is perpetrated by the character the reader is most likely to identify with – how many times have you read a thriller where the protagonist has left a string of dead bodies in their wake? We all have our dark side. Maybe for most of us, having that part of our personality find release through a vicarious experience such as this is a good thing. Wouldn’t you rather have Kat Brooks find vicarious release by watching the Rambo marathon on AMC or by reading a book? I know I would. What do you think?