Tag Archives: entertainment

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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The Violent Death of My Writing Career

I’m coming to face the reality that the novel I am in the final stages of completing is utterly unpublishable in the current Young Adult market.  I am simply unable – and unwilling – to include the level of brutal, bloody violence that the readership demands.

Well-meaning people have told me many times that I don’t have to write it that way, that they aren’t all like that.  Actual published YA authors tell a different story.  They make clear that it’s about the violence, both in their own commentaries (and if there’s one thing writers love to talk about, it’s their own writing), and, more to the point, in the books that they publish.  Stories about a teenage cat burglar who is being hunted by her latest victim.  Stories about teens dealing with the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.  Stories about a teenager killing a convict with his bare hands.  I swear I am not making any of this up, and I am merely scratching the surface.  And this is considered suitable fare for our children.

I am not alone in my objections, of course, except most people who object to the increasingly dark and violent tone do so because they say it’s damaging to the readers, which is not the case.  It’s the symptom, not the cause.  Defenders of garbage like The Hunger Games insist that it’s appropriate for today’s teens because they live in a violent world full of hopelessness and despair, and they want to see those issues played out in the books they read.  To put it simply, that’s bullshit.

Today’s teens are the most sheltered, privileged, entitled generation the world has ever seen.  True, we are living at the first point in history where the children cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents, but that may simply be because their current living standard is already so high it’s almost incomprehensible.

These are children who have never known want or care.  They have big screen TVs, movies on demand, smart phones, instantaneous information, and the expectation that they will be entertained and stimulated twenty-four hours a day.  For them, trauma comes from having a slow internet connection. 

Even worse, they are overscheduled.  Helicopter parents whose lives revolve around their children make sure that every moment of those children’s lives is filled with sports and art and tutoring and as many activities as can be crammed in, fearful that, left to their own devices, the children might become – gasp! – bored.  Or worse, that they’ll get up to mischief.  But they have been deprived of the opportunity to explore, to experiment, to take risks.  So they ride their skateboards off of the roof in the hope that someone will see it on Youtube.  And they seek out those videos so that they can laugh when someone else is critically injured.  They play carnage-filled computer games like Halo.  They go to see movies where the solution to every problem is to kill anyone who gets in your way. And they read books about teens (whom they presumably imagine to be just like themselves) killing with abandon.

They aren’t reading violent books because they live violent lives; quite the opposite.  They read – and, more to the point, watch – violence because of the absence of it in their lives.  The children in Syria or Sudan aren’t reading books about killing.  They’re too busy seeing it in the streets.  Why would they want more?  It’s us here in the wealthy, protected Western world who want it.  We are barbaric, bestial, violent creatures, who crave death and killing.  We take pleasure in it.  For most of human history, it was a real fact of life.  Today we still want it, but have to find it in our fiction. 

Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe violent fiction is an outlet for our violent urges that keeps us from enacting violence in real life.  Maybe we should actually be encouraging young people to read violent books so that they learn how to deal with those feelings.  Maybe.  But try making the same argument for sexual content and just see how quickly people change their tune.  I have decided that there will in fact be implied sexuality in my book; there won’t be actual sex, not in this book, but there very likely will be in the next book, if it ever gets written.  And I intend to present it at all times as a positive thing: it’s okay as long as there’s honesty and respect (which is a better message than “kill or be killed”).  Teens have sexual urges even more than they have violent urges.  Will reading my book allow them to explore and learn to deal with those feelings?  I hope so.  But will they even get a chance to do so?  We’ll have to wait and see.

People tell me to hang in there, that what I have written is good, whether it’s violent or not, and that these things always go in cycles.  True, trends do change, and so I guess I will soldier on (to use a violent metaphor).  Maybe my novel will be that rare trend-buster that actually gets some traction.  But in my half-century on this planet, one thing has been made clear to me: the level of violence in entertainment has always increased, never decreased.  There’s no reason to expect that trend will reverse itself.  And it’s just going to get worse and worse.  Your children are reading books about teens hunting each other for entertainment.  What will your grandchildren be reading?

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Flee the Darkness

The news is almost unbelievable: a horrific mass-shooting in a crowded movie theater.  Once again we are forced to take stock of what we believe, what’s really important.  Such occurrences should make us take a close look at ourselves and who we are.  And we will.  But inevitably we will eventually look away.  That’s easier.

The gun-control argument has already begun, with the usual hyperbole from both sides.  One has to wonder why it is so important that people have access to assault weapons.  Yet at the same time, most gun-owners are entirely responsible and as horrified as anyone when something like this happens.  But unrestricted access to guns – or the lack thereof – is neither the cause nor solution to incidents of this sort.  Rather, we should be looking at what it is about us as a society that makes incidents such as this not only likely, but indeed inevitable.

Many have especially mourned the fact that some of the victims were children.  This should raise a couple of questions, but it doesn’t.  This was a midnight premier event, a now-common opening for high-profile action movies.  What were young children doing there?  What were they doing out anywhere at midnight?  There was once a time when children had what was quaintly called a “bedtime.”  That’s a thing of the past, apparently.  But more to the point, what were children doing at any showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a dark, violent thriller?  How is this appropriate entertainment for children?

It is, of course, because children’s entertainment is filled with violence, as is adult entertainment.  It is what we crave.  The more brutal and nihilistic the better.  I could go off again on The Hunger Games and its presentation of the specter of children killing each other for sport.  But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Another media event of late, nearly as anticipated as the Batman premier, is the return of the series Breaking Bad, a dark, violent drama about a man’s downward spiral into anarchy and amorality.  It’s just one show of many such.  There’s the immensely popular Dexter, where the main character is a remorseless serial killer.  The Sopranos gave us mobster protagonists killing each other.  The list goes on. 

Such shows are called “edgy,” and we apparently like them because they present a world of moral ambiguity.  But it’s far beyond that.  The morality of these characters is not ambiguous, it’s clear: they aren’t good guys.  Not by any sense of the term.  Even a series like Big Love, which could have gotten all the edginess it could want from the premise of an illegal polygamous family, nevertheless saw a need to include a murderous conflict between family members.  It seems we aren’t really entertained unless people die.  And then we wonder how someone could possibly armor himself, carry weapons into a theater with impunity, and open fire.  How was he not simply living out the sort of things we celebrate in entertainments such as the one that was about to unfold on the screen?

Noted horror writer Steven King has suggested we find pleasure in dark, gruesome scenes because deep down we are all crazy, and violent media is a way to safely feed these urges.  But just because we crave something, that doesn’t mean we should feed those cravings.  Children (and many adults) crave sweets, but we don’t feed our children a diet of candy.  Rather we limit such things, often trying to eliminate them entirely from our diets.  Because we are healthier for it.

Now, I’m not calling for the abolishment of violence in entertainment.  Far from it.  In context, violence can serve great purpose in storytelling.  In my own writing, after some deep soul-searching, I have come to be able to present violent content, but on my terms.  It’s ugly, not enjoyable.  One of my characters can become horrifically violent, and this tragic reality serves a major drive of the story.  I am currently looking as well into revising one of my more violent action sequences, out of which the protagonists currently emerge unscathed, changing it so that a key character receives a grievous injury.  Because that’s reality.  The bad guys don’t always miss, not like in the movies.

But then that’s perhaps the real problem.  It’s not the violence so much as how enthusiastically it’s meted out by hero and villain alike.  Just a few years ago Kick-Ass gave us an eleven-year-old girl who goes though the film stabbing, shooting, decapitating, and burning more people than can be counted, with perhaps the most egregious case being a scene where she gleefully crushes a helpless man in a car compactor, an act for which she is then praised by her father.  And she’s the most beloved character in the film.

I have a young girl, age 11-12, in my novel.  When I started out I vowed that, no matter what, she will never kill.  I also set as my standard that, no matter what happens, no matter how dark or scary the story gets, my four main characters are all basically good people, who love each other very much.  I realized then that it is this love, this bond, that is really what the story is about.  They aren’t going to slide into the abyss of amorality that seems to drive the character arcs in so much of our popular entertainment today.  Any darkness within them will find redemption.

I’m not talking about some sort of vacuous black and white morality.  I’m very much a fan of tough moral questions.  But it should be the search for answers to those questions that drives the characters, and they should naver take “no” for an answer.  There is more than enough violence, darkness, amorality and nihilism in the world; we don’t need it to be central to our entertainment.  This is especially true of children’s entertainment.  They don’t need to see a brutal world that reflects their own, or whatever other arguments the defenders of these works come up with.  Rather, they should be shown something better, something brighter to which they can aspire.  They need heroes.

We all need heroes.  But when heroes become indistinguishable from villains, then we are truly in a dark place.  And we shouldn’t be placing ourselves there.

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