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Don Winslow: The Complicated Ethics of Writing Violence in Fiction

There are some hard ethical questions in the writing of crime fiction.

For me, the most difficult one is how to portray violence.

For one thing, should you depict it all?

And if so, how do you do it with some sense of morality?

I wrestle with this issue all the time. It’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand I don’t want to sanitize violence—I don’t like presenting murder as a parlor game, or worse, a video game in which there are no real consequences. On the other hand, I don’t want to cross that thin line into what might be called the pornography of violence, a means to merely titillate the worst angels of our nature.
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But we have to deal with it.

After all, we write crime fiction, and crime often involves violence. So either we choose crimes that don’t—the slick, bloodless heist, the clever con game—or we write scenes that involve shootings, stabbings and various kinds of murder.

And maybe that’s the answer—maybe we have come to a time when we should stop writing violent crime altogether. But if we make that choice, we say goodbye to the murder mystery, the procedural, the forensic novel.

And maybe I’m wrong about not sanitizing the violence. There is, after all, a place for the cleverly plotted, suspenseful whodunit with its witty dialogue, exotic locales, and intriguing characters. (Who am I to judge?) It’s fine, as long as we know it’s a game and we play by its rules and know its conventions. So if Colonel Someone kills Lord Someone Else in the study with a monkey wrench, we don’t expect to see the blood and brains and we don’t feel much from the grieving family except anticipation of the will.

Fair enough, I suppose.

But I write realistic crime fiction.

For twenty-three years, I wrote close-to-the-bone novels about the Mexican drug cartels. The actual violence was horrific, and I was faced with a stark choice: Do I back away from the violence, soften it, mute it, make it less terrible than it was, or do I bring it to the reader in realistic, graphic language that showed it the way it was?

For the most part, I chose the latter option.

It was hard choice.

Just researching these events was a brutal experience, and I knew that reading about them in these terms would be likewise brutal. But every violent incident in those books actually happened in one form or another , and I wanted the reader to understand the real tragedy of the so-called War On Drugs, I wanted the reader to feel the suffering of the people involved, comprehend the consequences of the violence.

If you’ve ever seen a gunshot wound, ever talked the family of a murder victim, ever gone to the funeral, you there is nothing sanitized or antiseptic about violence.

It is not the beautifully lit, slow-motion ballet seen in many films, nor the glittering, pounding action on the video screen.

It is ugly, it is dirty, it is heartbreaking.

But does that mean we should burden the reader with all that?

Not necessarily. Many readers of crime fiction go to books for an escape from reality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a legitimate choice on both the writers and reader’s part. I’ve made that choice myself, in pieces that were never meant to depict real events.

I felt a different responsibility in writing realistic novels about the drug cartels. I wanted to get behind the headlines, to bring the reader into a close relationship with individuals instead of stereotypes, so that when one of them was killed – as so many were – the reader felt something.

But the question still remained—how far do you take it, how graphic do you want to be, where is that thin line?

At times I did back away from it. There were some incidents in the drug wars that I knew for a fact happened that were so horrific as to be surreal. I didn’t think the reader would even believe them. But, in all candor, the larger reason I didn’t was that just couldn’t bring myself to write them. I just couldn’t do it to the reader—or to myself.

Did that violate my precept of wanting readers to feel the effects of the drug wars? Yes, I suppose so, but at some point, enough is enough—how much pain do you want to inflict?

Not that much.

There is also the real danger of inuring the reader to violence, by repetition or escalation desensitizing the reader – the actual opposite of what I intended.

It can happen—researching those books I often spent days looking at atrocity photos and videos. The first one I saw was sickening, the thirtieth…was just depressing. (I always made an effort to put names to the victims, it was the most I could do to not be a simple voyeur.) But trying to convey those images on the page, to be accurate, realistic and truthful without being merely obscene was an ethical dilemma. I went back and forth on whether I should do it all and then decided that I had to because it was the truth and people needed to know the truth.

I hope I was right.

I became aware of the phenomenon of desensitizing the reader about halfway through writing the second book, The Cartel, which depicted an extraordinarily violent era. More and more, I stopped depicting the scene of violence itself, but had a character come upon the scene and react to it. That way, I got the emotional and psychological consequences of the violence, which I think is the more important value. I think it also made it easier for the reader to relate in real human terms—we can all understand grief, revulsion and anger.

There were still times when the story required that I write the actual violence, but I started more to write the funeral, the wake, the feelings of the survivors., the effects over the course of years. Maybe I’ve just softened over time myself, I don’t know.

I do know that when I was on tour for those drug books, there was not a single event at which someone didn’t come up to me who had lost a relative, a loved one, a friend in the drug wars. Or someone’s who had lost someone to an overdose. A few even asked me if I could tell them something about a missing family member. When that happens, over and over again, you feel a keen responsibility to the people that you write about, even if they are fictional.

I became more careful about how I wrote the violence, knowing that while I could still be realistic, what I must never be is glib.

Maybe our ethical responsibility lies in depicting the results of violence, the real human pain of the victims and their loved ones. In spending time with cops, writing a book called The Force, I learned, for instance, that a homicide detective’s primary relationship in a crime is not with the criminal but with the victim and the surviving family, and that they feel it intently and forever. I once sat with a retired detective and watched tears stream down his face as he told me about the killing of a child that happened thirty years before.

I didn’t write about that murder. Couldn’t do it—not to myself, the reader, that detective, or that child. I wrote around it, in an elliptical reference to a police officer’s past and what haunted him.

That felt fair, that felt right.

And I think it was effective, because it was human feeling that I was after. I wanted the reader to understand the cop.

And maybe that’s our guide. Maybe we have to feel our way to the right approach, case by case, consult our own humanity in deciding how far to take things, how graphic we can be without violating that humanity.

Again, it’s hard not to cross that invisible line.

I find that I use fewer words these days to describe violence, that I try to make small images stand in for large ones, symbolic ones for graphic ones. I find myself cutting more in the editing, while adding more lyrical sequences in the remembrance of a violent event.

I’m still realistic, but perhaps in a different way.

How do we ethically portray violence in crime fiction?

I wish I had all the answers, but I certainly don’t. Perhaps one answer is that we write what we think is necessary and then make sure that we also write the consequences. Maybe we just try to be human, aware of other humans, their experiences and their emotions.

And maybe that’s what being ethical is.

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