Sunday, October 16, 2011

Depravity, Thy Name Is Crime Fiction

Yeah, it's a rare Sunday post, but yesterday, I came across a story in my blog reader that accomplished something that never happened to me and it affected me so bad that I need to write this blog post to get it out of my system.

1} The title turned my stomach.
2} I wrote a rather scathing comment to the editor.
3} I deleted the RSS feed.
4} I deleted my following.
5} And it left such an incredibly bad impression on me that not only will it take days for me to get rid of, but I'll be hard pressed not to let it bleed into my current writing project.

This past Friday, I wrote a short opinion piece about the crime fiction genre, in which among other things, I lamented about the game of one-upmanship that seems to be going on as of late within that genre. In other words, it seems that each writer is trying to show that they can be more depraved than their fellow writer.

To whit:

"My story features violence against women!" says the first writer.
"But wait, my story features violence against teenagers!" retorts the second.
"Oh yeah, well my story features depravity with bodily fluids!"
"That's nothing, my latest story features the same topic as the movie 8MM!" (hint: this is what drove me to write this post)
The first writer's jaw drops and he quickly moves away from the second writer, all the while spitting out chunks of vomit and mumbling the phrase, 'Holy Shit!' over and over again.

Is it me, or has crime fiction finally reached the point of no return, in that no topic, no matter how disgusting, loathsome or disturbing to the senses, is taboo?

Now granted, I don't write crime fiction and to be honest with everyone, the amount of crime fiction that I read is basically confined to David Cranmer's masterful e-zine, the e-zine that the incomparable Dave Barber edits and the few anthology reviews that I've posted here and on Amazon.

So I'm what you call a casual reader of that genre, and as a casual reader of that genre, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to stay a casual reader of that genre because the story topics are becoming increasingly depraved and disgusting.

Yah, I know exactly what some of you are saying at the screen. You're saying, "If you don't like it, don't read it."

Well, my answer to you is this: "At my age, I'm trying to open my mind and expand my horizons when it comes to reading. I've tried my very best not to be judgmental when it comes to other genres because I truly want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But if I come across something that actually makes me physically ill and leaves me with a disgusting memory seared into my brain, I'm sure as hell gonna speak up and say something about it. It may not be pleasant, but you can be damned sure that I'll stand behind it 100%"

So my question to you is this:  Has my entire reaction to this particular issue simply been a case of shooting from the lip? Have I overreacted? Or has my reaction been within the norm of acceptability?


  1. ....I already told you what I think - but it hasn't appeared in the comment section of your previous post yet (or maybe it's one of the ones you nuked?)

  2. G, I am firmly in entrenched in the "if you don't like it, don't read it camp." However, I am also firmly entrenched in the camp that says you have every right to voice your concerns. Especially from your blog -- that's what I like about blogs in the first place.

    You said Friday about crime fiction: "it seems like everyone is now trying up the ante by making their stories more disturbing than whatever their fellow writer can come up with." As a writer who lives at least half my writing time in the crime genre, I don't think I disagree with you. Where I would disagree is in the use of the word "everyone." I would say "many writers" instead. There are certain themes I'm weary of, and they certainly DO inform my writing because there are things I just DON'T want to rehash.

    Even so, the best of the stories can still hit those themes and be interesting, because the writing is good. I would never tell another writer what to write, but I'm certainly wary of what I'll read. I like the writing that avoids the easy, low hanging fruit gross outs to seek to disturb by aiming a little higher for something unique or original.

    It's a good topic for discussion, certainly.

    Oh, by the way -- since I switched to posting from a Mac, I can now access your blog without the problems I described previously!

  3. I have rejected stories like what you have mentioned and I have accepted a couple that made a few readers upset along your lines. The main thing for me is that there has to be a story and the violence has to serve a purpose in the story. I don’t like violence for the sake of violence.

    I would have to see the story you mentioned but I'm betting you didn't overreact.

  4. Sue: I rarely nuke a comment. I've been moderating comments on my blog since the fall of 2008 and on the weekends, I'm usually on and off my computer. I try to publish comments as soon as I can get access to my blog, so that people don't wait forever and a day for a response. I thank you again for your thoughtful comment on Friday's post.

    Chris: I stand corrected on using the word "everyone" in Friday's post. I shouldn't have generalized like that becasue I don't like it when people do it to me.

    Having said that, I agree that there are some stories that do hit a home run even though they're written about a particularly sensitive topic. Good writing about a sensitive topic will always trump bad writing about the same thing.

    I also have no problem in following the dictate of "if you don't like it, don't read it". The problem I seem to be having is that sometimes the title of a story doesn't really give a clear picture of what the story is about unless you read it.

    Glad you can access my blog with a Mac. Sometimes an original like a Mac is better than anything newer. Exspecially if you want to do something and you can't.

    David: The story in question was called "Snuff Film" at TKC, and the title alone was sufficient enough for me to do what I did.

    I agree that violence shouldn't be used for the sake of violence in a story (lesson learned the hard way), it should be used to either advance the story or be an integral part of the story.

    It takes a lot to offend me, so the crime genre will be something that I'll simply have to deal with on my own terms.

  5. Wow. Considering how open-minded you are, I think it must have been *really bad.* And are you overreacting? No. If something's in poor (or in this case, sounds like awful) taste, you're totally entitled to do what you like. Now I'm curious where you saw it!

  6. As society we have become more taboo and just don't seem to give a crap what people write or show anymore. It's like we're progressing backwards or something.

    I have no problem with it when it's in there because it makes sense to the story. But when it's thrown in there for the heck of it, just to try to one up the other guy and get some shock value and a few new readers, I think it's stupid. But that just my opinion.

  7. R: It was at the e-zine called Thrillers, Killers & Chillers. Like I stated earlier, it was the title that got me. Like the issues that you have with certain types of writing, I have a few as well, and for the most part, I don't read those particular stories. As the old saying goes, if I don't like, I don't read, which I have no problem in doing from time to time.

    Pat: While some of it may be for shock value, I don't think it's done to get new readers. The crime genre is more than a niche, judging by the vast amount of writers who specialize in that stuff, of which three of the commenters here do write in.

    I do agree that to throw something in just for the sake of shocking isn't good, but by the same token, a writer can and should push the envelope as much as he/she can. However, they should realize that sometimes pushing the envelope can backfire and make it harder to gain new readers to their writings.

    If you're just consistently preaching to the choir, how does that help you grow as a writer?

  8. I was around in the splatterpunk era and "Snuff film" was fairly tame compared to some of the stuff that came out in those days. Certainly it isn't to everyone's taste, and that's probably why Splatterpunk faded from the scene. It ran the risk of disappearing up it's own ass, I guess. I'm generally with David, that it depends on how the piece works as a story. Also, the story in question was flash fiction and flash fiction almost requires a greater amount of in your face stuff because there isn't enough space to do a more fully developed and plotted story. I'm not sure I've ever been particularly bothered by a story's title, though. But to each reader his own, of course.

  9. Having lived through the Splatterpunk era, I've seen a lot more graphic stories than the one in question. Still, tastes differ, of course. Flash fiction in general is often a bit more graphic because it doesn't have time to develop a larger and more complicated plot

  10. Charles: I can understand that particular point with flash fiction, which is why I'll always have a problem in reading it. There are some that I can wrap my head around in spite of the topic that is used, and there are some that I can't.

    I will admit that condeming a story simply because of the title might appear to be a knee jerk reaction, but I took in consideration that most of the flash that I've encountered in the past year, I have read all the way through before forming a opinion on it.

    As you say, to each reader his own.

  11. Very interesting post G - now I love crime fiction -it's my first choice but I have to agree with you there's a lot of violence/detail there that isn't necessary.

    Anyway just for the record I gave up reading Patricia Cornwell cos I bored reading about maggots and post-mortems. I mean a maggot is a maggot - unless it's a fly of course:)

  12. I've always liked crime fiction and it does often contain some unsavory bits, but nothing squemish me can't handle. My dear friend Karin Slaughter writes very successful crime novels and I asked her once how in the world she thinks up some of that stuff. It's never depravity for shock value though - it always seems like something that advances a plot and is never stranger than truth.

  13. G, as I said in your earlier post, you don't have to read the stories. (In this case, I don't think you actually have, have you?)

    Yes, you are entitled to your opinion BUT I don't agree with you on bad mouthing editors of magazines, which you did in your comment on TKnC.

    Things happen in this shitty world we live in that fuel our ideas as writers. Unfortunately, a nice fluffy cat sat on a window sill or a beautifully cared for flower garden aren't going to go down well with a crime and horror site. Their title alone should tell you the types of stories they are going to publish: Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers. It doesn't take a genius, G.

    My mag, The Flash Fiction Offensive. Unfortunately, some stories are going to be offensive! (I've calmed them down a bit since I've taken over. You should read some of the stories I've turned down.)

    BUT, as I've said, you don't have to read them. I wouldn't go and read a story on "Soft Cute Bunnies" magazine and slate the editors because they published a story about soft cute bunnies. I wouldn't go on their site at all because soft cute bunnies isn't what I want to read.

    Thanks for the compliment BTW. You have opened a discussion but I think you've been a bit harsh, especially on the editors who do their job for the love of it.

  14. Dave: A couple of points. I don't believe that I badmouthed the editors of TK&C. I will admit that my comment was very pointed but I've always tried to make my criticisms pointed and respectful without badmouthing.

    I have read the stories on both TK&C and yours. Most of the time I do not comment on a given story because I don't want to come off as either overly gushing (like some commenters do) or completely ignorant (which has happened in the past to me and of which I was called out on my ignorance).

    As a rule, I don't slam anyone for what they write or for what they publish because you know as well as I do that taste is purely subjective, and as you pointed out with your example of snow bunnies, you wouldn't read an e-zine with that type of stuff because that's something that you don't like.

    I knew what exactly what I would be getting by going there to read, so the title of the e-zine really didn't come into play. Before actually going to that e-zine, I spend quite a few months reading about it on the various blogs before deciding to take the plunge.

    And I pretty much did the same thing before I took the plunge and started subscribing to your e-zine, so I don't go into these things with my eyes completely closed.

    And you're more than welcome for the compliment. Even though I don't comment much at your e-zine, I still enjoy reading it.

    And I am sorry if some people took my comment over there differently that what I intended or implied. I was merely voicing an opinion that other who are causal readers might want to voice.

  15. Lynn: Interesting point that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. As a rule, I'm not terribly squeamish either, considering that I used to peruse old coronor's records when I'd worked at the library those many years ago, but there are some topics that I simply will not read about, no matter how well written they're presented.

    As it's been pointed out to me time and time again, if I don't like it, I don't have to read it. Sometimes though, in order to have a better understanding of what makes the literary world tick, you have to read that kind of stuff.

    Jane: Most of the crime stuff that I've read previously has been basically of the non-fiction variety, so the fictional stuff is pretty much a new concept for me.

    There will always be room in my virtual book shelf for this type of stuff, but there will always be a few topics that will always make me squeamish that I will have to decide on case-by-case basis on whether or not I should read them.

  16. Sad to say TK&C has sunk to a new 'low'. I think it is now publishing some stories that not so much 'near the knuckle' as half way to the elbow!

    I used to look in there regularly and yes, some of it was mildly offensive or of a nature that I didn't spend valuable time reading to the end.

    Normally I only comment if I have anything positive to say - if I don't like the work viewed, I don't comment.

    However, the latest story there forced me to speak my mind - to say nothing seemed to me to almost condone what had been published.

    I think what we're now seeing is going beyond the plain 'don't read if easily offended' disclaimer. The trouble is, having no 'bottom line', will future contributors have free reign to concoct even more depravity in the name of fiction? It will become a case of 'how low can you go?'.

    I am at a loss to know how to confront the editors - whom I've met socially and they seem really nice guys.

  17. Sue: That's my point exactly.

    There has to be a bottom line in what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.

    If you keep sinking low enough, then you run the risk of having your e-zine being compared to the disturbe writings that come from the minds of seriously disturbed criminals.

    I don't think anyone really wants that to happen.

    If the other commenters on here, David and Bruce, can set a minimum standard for decency on their e-zines, why can't the same be done over there?

    As for confronting the editors about it, I will admit that it will be touchy thing to do, especially since you've said that you'd met them personally.

    I wish I had a suggestion for you on how to do that, but beyond what I had stated in my original comment left there a couple of weeks ago, I'm not sure what else I can offer.

  18. Well - I've been right royally crucified for raising my head over the parapet and questioning boundaries! What's harder to take is that one editor contacted me privately and said they agreed with my concerns. This begs the question - is the tail wagging the dog? I give up - somewhere along the line the moral compass had been lost.

  19. Sue H: I've been in your shoes before, in that I've voiced my opinion on a particular subject and have been crucified by going against the general groupthink.

    I'm not sure if the tail is wagging the dog. I've come to the writing game extremely late in life (2006), so my exposure to the publishing game is pretty limited.

    However, I'm sure it's just like any other kind of business out there, so quite often you have the situation of people agreeing with you privately and yet disagreeing with you publicly.

    Because I'm such a casual reader of the genre, I'm sure that my concerns are not being taken seriously enough.

    And that, my good reader, is why some niche e-zines will stay niche e-zines. If you don't want to expand your readership, then by all means publish every little thing under the sun related to your genre.

    If you want to expand your readership, then you need to take a serious look at what you're publishing, and maybe take a few steps back and rethink your approach.

  20. ......and colour me 'so surprised'!

    The article has been withdrawn.......! :-0

    Maybe the voice of reason was finally heard!

  21. Sue H: I read the comments to the link that you left, and seems to me that one of the writers who was reacting rather negatively towards your comment wasn't really seeing or considering the entire issue as it applied to that story or to noir fiction in genernal.

  22. Well - whatever, the story author has written other stuff of good quality and there is no bad feeling between us.

    However, I am tiring of the excuse 'read the disclaimer' when the submission guidelines have been clearly flouted.

    The fact that one editor emailed me privately agreeing with my comments and stating that they would have instantly rejected the submission does give me hope that there will be some careful selection in future.

    Not that long ago this particular story would have only
    surfaced on porn sites - if we don't stop to question what we are offered to read then Lord help us!

  23. Sue H: Ahh, the guidelines.

    I didn't realize that the guidelines were really in flux. Most of what I've seen elsewhere are pretty concrete and much adhered to.

    Most publishers make it very clear on what they will not accept, and some make it very clear on the difference between erotica and porn.

    The problem in questioning what we read is often misinterpeted as either censorship by the offending parties, or they say, "well, if you don't like it, you don't have to read it."

    I guess what it boils down to is that (to me at least) noir is blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction.

    Which in the long run can't be a very good thing.


Go on, give me your best shot. I can take it. If I couldn't, I wouldn't have created this wonderful little blog that you decided to grace with your presence today.

About that comment moderation thingy: While yes, it does say up above I can take it, I only use it to prevent the occasional miscreant from leaving thoughtless and/or clueless comments.

So remember, all of your comments are greatly appreciated and all answers will be given that personal touch that you come to expect and enjoy.

G. B. Miller

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