For our weeklong series on crime fiction, we asked two writers to reflect on the ethics of depicting violent crimes in their novels. Below, Don Winslow, whose Cartel trilogy concludes next month with the publication of The Border, distinguishes between his depictions of brutal border crime and the current administration’s concocted emergency. Read author and New York contributing editor Adam Sternbergh’s essay here.
I write crime fiction.
For over 20 years, the primary focus of that fiction has been the War on Drugs, particularly as it is played out in the world of the Mexican cartels. That being the case, I’ve researched and written about an extremely violent world.
Now I see that world portrayed in the news every day, its elements distorted and rearranged into a fictional emergency on the border. That image doesn’t reflect the reality I’ve come to know, the reality that I’ve tried to bring to the reader.
When you’re writing about violence based on real events, you’re faced with two stark choices, both of them legitimate. You can either sanitize the descriptions to avoid the risk of exploitation and sensationalism (and to make it a less horrific experience for the reader), or you can write it graphically and realistically, to bring the reader close to the actual experience. As I’ve wanted my readers to see and understand the real-life consequences of our War on Drugs, I’ve usually chosen the latter.
Not without misgivings.
There’s a thin line, with no bright white light — no concrete border, if you will — between realistic depictions of violence and mere titillation, the pornography of violence. I’ve danced on that line, and perhaps at times I’ve crossed it.
Time and time again, editors would write me notes complaining that a certain scene was “too much” or “over the top.” My response was always the same: “I agree, but that’s what really happened.” In the novels The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and now The Border, I never wrote an incident of violence that hadn’t actually occurred. On numerous occasions, I refrained from writing about real events because they were too horrible (I just didn’t have the heart) or so excessive in their sadism that I thought readers would simply not believe them.
The research was tough.
I would spend entire days and weeks poring over vivid reports, autopsy photos, and atrocity videos, aware at all times that the people I saw brutalized were real human beings and not mere grist for my fictional mill. I’m not soliciting sympathy here — journalists in Mexico have been murdered telling this story. What I’m trying to say is that the people who write about this subject, either in fiction or journalism, take it seriously and feel it deeply. I may leave the War on Drugs, but it will never fully leave me.
This goes beyond the ethics of writing about violence. It goes into the topic of fiction and truth.
My responsibility as a crime-fiction writer is to bring the reader into a world that he or she couldn’t otherwise enter, or to show it from a different perspective. While I am definitely writing fiction and embrace rather than flee that description, I try to make my books realistic. When I take the reader into this world, it has to be a real world. The characters are fictional — although often inspired by real people, or more often a mélange of real people. Their thoughts and feelings are fictional — although often drawn from interviews in which real people have expressed them. And the events are arranged into a dramatic structure, a fictional narrative that I nevertheless hope reveals underlying truths.
So that’s what I’ve done for over 20 years in writing about drugs, addiction, cartels, Mexico, America, and our common border. And then, come 2016, enter the Trumps, Bannons, and Millers of the world, cynics who use real events to create a story about a threat that doesn’t exist.
Their fiction has nothing to do with truth.
The technique is similar; they take real events and then connect the dots to construct a narrative. They take actual crimes — it is undisputed that “illegal immigrants” have committed gruesome crimes in the United States — and string them together to create a world that isn’t real. The individual components might be accurate, but the composite picture is warped, to say the least. (You might call it “fake news.”)
Witness Trump’s recent televised address to the nation:
“America`s heart broke the day after Christmas when a young police officer in California was savagely murdered in cold blood by an illegal alien, just came across the border … In California, an Air Force veteran was raped, murdered, and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history. In Georgia, an illegal alien was recently charged with murder for killing, beheading, and dismembering his neighbor. In Maryland, MS-13 gang members who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors were arrested and charged last year after viciously stabbing and beating a 16-year-old girl.”
These are all real incidents. They are tragic and terrible, and the perpetrators should be tried and punished.
The incidents are true but the resulting narrative is false. The truth is that “illegal immigrants” commit crimes at a rate one-fifth that of native-born Americans. It would be simple, a five-finger exercise for any writer, to construct a narrative about native-born Americans that would create an overall picture of violent criminality and a genuine threat to our safety.
Far from trying to avoid sensationalism, Trump’s rhetoric intensifies it for dramatic purposes: “savagely murdered in cold blood,” “raped, murdered, and beaten to death,” “killing, beheading, and dismembering.” [Emphases mine.] Instead of eschewing exploitation, Trump is precisely and intentionally exploiting victims of horrible crimes for his political purposes.
I’ve wrestled with the exploitation issue in my own work. Have I exploited real victims to create my fiction? Perhaps, but I hope that on balance I’ve used these incidents to speak important truths about the War on Drugs.
The narrative that Trump and his allies create is a flat-out lie about chaos on the border, when the people who live there, as I do, have reported the opposite: not an invading horde of rapists and murderers (most of those in the caravan are fleeing rape and murder), not a rise in illegal immigration (it’s been going down for years), not the daily slaughter of our citizens by illegal immigrants, but murders that are far more often committed by our own.
And, of course, Trump’s narrative disguises the biggest lie of all — that Mexico is responsible for the drug problem. The hard truth is that we are; that Americans’ per capita consumption of illegal drugs is five times the global average; that every year we send tens of billions of dollars in cash south across that border, money that has fueled violence that has killed more than 100,000 Mexicans. But Trump and his minions never talk about that.
Far from trying to elicit truth from fiction, they make fiction of the truth.
More From This Series
- A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines
- True Detecting True Detective: Let’s Lay Odds on Who the Killer Is
- Extremely Wicked Director on How Ted Bundy ‘Seduced’ His Victims
- The Ocean’s Effect: How the 2001 Film Changed the Heist Movie For a Generation
- Why Is TV So Addicted to Crime?