In this Vulture original essay, the outspoken author of Dead Pig Collector and the graphic novels Transmetropolitan and Red explains that, now more than ever, violent fiction is essential for helping us understand real-world horrors and de-fang society's monsters.
"I don’t understand." How many times have you read that in conjunction with a violent act?
“I don’t understand why he did it.” Or “I don’t understand why this happened.” Sammy Yatim, shot dead and then tasered by police on a Toronto streetcar, and even the chair of the Police Services Board asks, "How could this happen?"
We hear it every time: “I don’t understand.” You’ll hear it the next time a tasty piece of necro-porn lands on Big Media’s desk. You know what I mean by that — dead-body news.
Here in Britain, our weakling government is attempting to launch a web filter that would somehow erase “violent material” from Internet provision — placing it, by association, in the same category as child pornography. Every week seems to bring a new attempt to ban something or other because it’s uncomfortably or scary or perhaps even indefensibly disgusting. Meanwhile, Jim Carrey is refusing to promote his latest film, Kick-Ass 2, following a change of heart in which he “cannot support that level of violence.”
That, right there, is the problem, as I see it.
Imagine if Mr. Carrey had instead decided to do the press tour for Kick-Ass 2. Imagine if, on every stop on the junket, he’d used this promotional soapbox to talk about real-world violence versus violent fiction. His reticence to appear in support of the film comes from the Newtown shooting event — an event, like all the others, characterized by those left behind saying, “I don’t understand.”
The fact that he didn’t use the opportunity is less a failure of intelligence and imagination than it is a symptom of the way we generally demonize violent acts and violent work. We make them Other, and we just distance ourselves. They are Other, and they didn’t come from us, and we’re just going to stand over there and shake our heads sadly. And, moreover, anyone who gets closer to it in order to experience or understand it must be a freak.
Which, I guess, is where I come in.
I’ve just written a novelette called Dead Pig Collector, which is largely about a person who kills other people and efficiently gets rid of their corpses. Just a day ago, as part of an interview session, I was asked how I would feel if the story were used by someone in the real world as a manual for murder and body removal. Which hadn't really occurred to me. The person asking the question really didn’t seem happy that the story was out there at all.
The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.
I can watch footage of Sammy Yatim being shot, but my government doesn’t think I should watch violent films, and Jim Carrey needs to pretend he was never in a violent film. In every case, violent fictional content is separated, sometimes with the consent and intent of the creators and performers, from discussion. And yet it’s fine for our television news providers (which in the U.S. and the U.K. has probably never been worse) to hammer us with this crap and then insist that it must be witnessed — but that no one can or should ever hope to understand it.
Possibly this is just the biased viewpoint of an author whose novelette takes place inside the perspective of a man who kills people and disposes of their bodies for a living, but it seems to me that we don’t begin to understand something until we talk honestly and directly about it. Difficult topics must be engaged with, and in the way that fiction invites us to engage but numbing news-porn deliberately does not, because news wants us only to witness and have our buttons pushed, and denies greater emotional and intellectual immersion. The news doesn’t want us to think, only to react, like plants.
We don’t even understand indefensibly disgusting work until we give it the protections and investigations of speech. The most horrible things in the world, the real cancers of our society, have to be interrogated. You can’t ignore a tumor. If you do, then it quickly becomes too late to do anything at all about it and you’re nothing but a skinful of the stuff. At which point, saying, “I don’t understand why this happened” is not only disingenuous but utterly offensive.
We learn about things by looking at them and then talking about them, together. You may have heard of this process. It’s sometimes involved in things like science. It’s also the system of fiction: writing things in order to get a better look at them. Fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters. To lock violent fiction away, or to close our eyes to it, is to give our monsters and our fears undeserved power and richer hunting grounds.
It’s entirely possible that we need a little blood in our eyes to see some things more clearly.
Warren Ellis is the author of Dead Pig Collector and many graphic novels, including Red, which has been adapted into two films starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. His first nonfiction book, on the future of the city and the science-fiction condition we live in, arrives in 2014. He lives mostly in Britain.