Mailbag: Using Date Books, Redemptive Violence

It’s time for this week’s reader mailbag, in which I respond to some of your thoughtful comments on posts. I’m still working on a backlog, but I’m definitely catching up! This week I’m tackling comments on my post about how to use a date book as a plot device, as well as comments on my post wondering if violence can actually redeem us. Let’s see some comments!

On “how to use a date book as a plot device“, Margaret said:

Blair, neat idea — I’d never thought to use a date book/ reminder software/appointment as a plot device. I’m going to think about how I might work this into my current work in progress.

Glad to help, Margaret. I’m finding my own tendency is to veer into the abstract, with too much rambling about emotion — I’ve got to learn to use more concrete devices that will reveal character rather than lecture on it.

Mary said:

Have you ever read “The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks” by…some guy? He wrote “Fifth Business” & was all the rage in the 80s, I think. Anyway, this book is a ‘diary’ of an old, cranky man & is pretty funny.

But the datebook is more believable. Everyone OUGHT to keep a paper datebook in my opinion. I used to use them as proof during IRS audits of my clients.

That’s a great use of a date book, Mary! There are so many ways in which our lives can be tracked and recorded these days. I see it in procedural crime dramas on television in particular — the detectives can usually figure out what someone is doing and where they’ve been thanks to emails, cell phone records, online purchases, google maps searches — the list goes on. All of these concrete ways of tracking a person’s movements are good fodder for fiction.

After the jump: I wonder about whether violence can ever be a good thing, and you respond.

In my post “Can Violence Redeem Us?” I had just read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and it left me wondering whether his portrayal of violence was a legitimate one. Can violence ever have a purifying effect on our lives? Or at the very least, can it serve as a redeeming force in fiction?

London said:

Violence never came up as a serious topic in my writing until my current novel, which is set against in a society on the verge of a violent revolution. Once I started writing, I knew the violence had to have a long-term impact on my protagonist. It would have felt like I was being false to her character if the violence existed only to make the plot more exciting.

Great point, London. Violence only to entertain is a low form, the sort that glorifies it and ends up perpetuating the acceptance of violence in our culture. But violence that serves some other point may just have a place in stories. We must choose our violent scenes very carefully, because they are always carrying an extra weight of meaning, making an argument about who deserves violence and who doesn’t.

Naomi said:

maybe all we can get from violence is to learn how not to be a hateful, and abusive society always so willing to victimize those who should never be victimized and then to judge and critize them in a immoral and demeaning way…I have still hopes for a better world free from criminals, and rapists, murderers and Bigger than they need to be Government whom do nothing for the peoples except to run a nazi world type leadership.

Strong words, Naomi! But I see your point. Maybe the only lesson we can learn about violence is how destructive it truly is, and how it ultimately harms not only those directly affected, but all of us. Violence still exists in the world, of course, so we could still stand to learn that lesson (and see it played out in fiction).

Michael Washburn said:

We live in a less violent world and are becoming more and more averse to violence? That must be why sales of violent video games are astronomical and The Onion newspaper makes jokes about which country will officially host the genocides of a given year. Although I find many of your comments very astute, I can’t agree with you here. If there is one thing I have picked up on in McCarty’s fiction, particularly The Road, it is how little human nature changes over time, even in the face of rapid and breathtaking changes in technology, science, law, social complexity, etc., and how thin the veneer of civilization is.

Thanks, Michael. I agree that some ugly aspects of human nature don’t change, and books like The Road remind us of that. At the same time, using violent video games as evidence that we don’t live in a less violent world doesn’t quite serve your point. The video games are repugnant, but they haven’t actually increased violence; looking at the United States, we’re at the bottom of a sharp drop in violent crime that has been continuing for decades. And in the larger scheme of things, we most certainly live in a less violent world; many, if not most, of our ancestors could count on dying by violence or by disease spread through war, while a great deal of people today can feel reasonably confident to never encounter violence in their lives. The top killers in developed countries are now preventable, lifestyle-influenced diseases (like heart disease), while this was not true in the past.

Let me be clear: the problem is terrible, and the problem continues, but I still believe we live at a curious point in history, at which levels of violence have never been lower. The astronomical numbers of deaths occurring due to violence in past generations just don’t compare to the numbers today.

So let’s be grateful for one thing: while disturbing forces still continue to thrive, the general trend of history has been positive. Sometimes it’s important to remember this perspective.

Thanks for your perspectives, writers — it’s good to see commenters who see violence in fiction and reality as urgent an issue as I do. Until next week!


2 comments

  1. Michael Washburn says:

    I did not cite the popularity of violent video games to demonstrate that we live in a violence-ridden world. (I am a journalist by trade, and I would never put forth such a silly argument.) Perhaps I did not make this clear enough: I cited the popularity of such games in response to your point about people being generally more averse to violence, more turned off by it. If you were right, then such violent games would not be so widely in demand, would not be the commercial phenomenon that they are.

    Moreover, even in a period of declining crime rates, American society is still markedly more violent than it was only two or three generations ago, in the 1950s and early 1960s. Our cities during that period would barely be recognizable to Americans today, so civil and decent were they compared to the present. Talk with someone who lived in mid-century New York, and you will hear of a time when middle-class people slept unprotected in parks and had no qualms about walking alone through deserted streets at any time of day.

  2. Dang! I was going to revisit the topic of the ethics of violence in my next blogpost, Blair, and you remind me of this 🙂 I think I’ll still write it, perhaps using some of these thoughts as stepping-off points. Thanks for the thought-provoking original post. I’m sure it was in the back of my head when I conceived of my topic.

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