I’m reading an interesting book right now called Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. It’s interesting as it deals with many of the concerns in my genre: Violence (how and when to do it), set pieces, designing suspense, etc. Percy’s writing is fun to read for the most part (though I will admit to getting frustrated while reading the beginning of the book. He waxes long and poetic about his childhood, which has little to do with the purpose of the book).
I read something last night, however, that genuinely surprised me. He was explicating the restraint writers should use when inflicting violence on our readers, and the fine line between authenticity and gory indulgence when he mentioned the writing of both Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. To wit:
“That’s what the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis occasionally feels like: a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach…Their flamboyant style aestheticizes the mayhem, as if the authors love what we are meant to despise. They linger on the violence, wallow in the gore, celebrate it to such a degree that I can almost see them smirking, hear them snickering, and they essentially become that kid we all went to middle school with – Cody: big ears, buzz cut, braces – who would fake a punch, and then, when you startled, would screech, “Two for flinching,” and sock you twice in the shoulder. Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.”
Why did this surprise me? It’s not because I disagree. I haven’t been able to stomach Palahniuk’s writing since Survivor for precisely this reason, and I despised American Psycho so much after watching it that I’ve never agreed to watch it again despite many impassioned pleas for me to give it another chance because the violence is symbolic and a commentary and blah blah blah.
No, I was surprised because it’s quite rare for an author to publicly disparage a fellow author in this way. There’s an unspoken code of honor amongst authors that our critics are hard enough on us, so if you can’t say anything nice, keep your mouth shut and change the subject. (With the notable exception of Dan Brown. For some reason, it’s always fine to make fun of his writing, which doesn’t bother him in the slightest as he laughs at all of us plebes from his castle).
In a book like Percy’s, there’s plenty of room to use various authors’ work as an example of what to do, instead of what not to do, and up until now that’s almost exclusively what he’s done. That was why I was so surprised to see these two getting singled out. It’s possible they write their stories in precisely such a way as to elicit this kind of disapproval, in which case this was a smashing success.
I thought I’d open this up to all of you and see what you think. How do you feel about violence and gore in storytelling? Any pressing thoughts on either Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis that you’d like to share? Hit me up in the comments section!