Thursday, August 27, 2015

Guns and writers

By Steve Weddle

Is the writer's only responsibility to tell a good story?

Yesterday, a man shot and killed two of his former co-workers near Roanoke, Virginia.

Today, crime fiction writers will get up early (or late) and write stories about people shooting and killing each other. The protagonist of the story may be a criminal and may get into a shoot-out with law enforcement. The hero of another story may be an FBI agent tracking down bad people.

Today, across notebook pages and Scrivener screens, the crime fiction writers of the world will toil away on guns. They'll research how much a pistol weighs. They'll Google the distance a bullet can fly. They'll search for images of gun powder residue on the back of a hand.

My friend Chris F. Holm, author of the amazing and upcoming The Killing Kind, writes about guns. He also writes about writing your legislator about guns.

I write violent stories about violent people doing violent things, and for that I don't apologize. The world is a scary place, and my fiction reflects that. And while I hope that, first and foremost, my books are entertaining, I'd like to think they also handle violence thoughtfully, and with due heft. I'm not writing this post due to some crisis of conscience. I don't believe crime fiction leads to increased crime any more than I believe heavy metal leads to Satanism—and even if I'm wrong, I'm not widely enough read to move the needle.
But personally, I'm saddened that we're greeted almost daily with story after story of mass shootings, yet we—I—do nothing. So today, I wrote my senators and congresswoman an email  >>
You can read his email at his blog. You can steal his email and use it yourself. Or you can do something else or nothing at all.

My friend Lauren Winters writes about guns. She writes about how guns kill people. She writes about how guns killed her friends, her co-workers.
On July 1, 1993, an asshole with guns came to my office building at 101 California Street and killed the eight innocent people >>
I grew up with guns. I hunted. I killed things. Birds. Squirrels. A chicken hawk. You can read about the chicken hawk killing in that book I wrote that time.

You can have the "guns don't kill people" fight if you want. You can argue about freedom if you want. The Constitution. I don't know that social media shares or, quite honestly, blog posts do a damn bit of good. But I do know that we as writers deal with guns all the time. I read stories with guns. I read stories about shootings. I write those stories.

Maybe writers do have a responsibility to show the effects of gun violence. Maybe they don't.

And maybe the question isn't about our responsibility as writers.

Or maybe we do have a responsibility to others. Maybe that responsibility has something to do with those who can't speak for themselves. Alison Parker. Adam Ward. Countless others. And that's not hyperbole. Honestly. Countless others.

Maybe we have a responsibility, not just as writers and readers, but as people.

Maybe the question isn't what to do as those who write about guns, as those who read about violence.

Maybe that isn't the question at all.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves what to do as those who are still alive.


Thomas Pluck said...

Name your favorite story or movie. Odds are, in that story, a man solves all his problems with a gun. Stories matter.

Gerald So said...

Fiction, even at its most realistic, is to be understood as separate from reality. I've heard it argued that violent fiction, movies, video games, etc. perpetuate violence. It can also be argued that imagined violence is cathartic and prevents real violence.

Though writers mostly write by themselves, they don't write in a vacuum. They write from the influence of other writers and add to genres of reading that will outlive them. That's where their first responsibility is.

Other responsibilities, as you say, go beyond being writers. I hope that no matter how many humans want to kill, there are at least that many who value the lives of others as they do their own.

Jay Stringer said...

I think writers have more responsibillity than they realise.

Not because fiction influences life. No. Violence in books and on TV doesn't create violence in real life, because there is no violence in books and on TV. Just as there are no actual aliens or dinosaurs. There are depictions of these things. Simulations.

However, in crime fiction we throw around death without looking at grief, we throw around violence without looking at fear or consequences, we throw around mental illness as a plot device without looking at how the illness affects real people.

We don't influences the actions of people out in the real world, but we are part of the cultural conversation, we have an impact on how all of these things are discussed, how they are presented. And I don't think we do enough.

Lauren said...

I was just responding to your email, Steve, and I thought I would bring the discussion here, because the thought I had dovetailed with the idea of guns and violence in our entertainment.

I sensed a bit of swell in the postings after yesterday's shooting, more call for action. Maybe I just happened to see more of it and it really wasn't an increase, but it got me wondering what was different this time. The only difference I can see is that this murder took place on live television. The video was posted and shared and people watched it before they knew what they were watching (or, in many cases, voluntarily). Pictures from the gunman's video are up (Hello, douchecanoe New York Daily News!). We SAW this one go down.

If there was more of a groundswell this time, is that REALLY the difference? Really what it took? That we are so inured to violence it doesn't seem real unless it plays out in front of our eyes? Our imaginations aren't sufficient to create our own mind-movie of elementary school kids being shot, it takes actual video to wake us up?

I think writers have the same obligations and responsibilities of every other citizen. I don't believe movies or fiction spur right-minded people to do horrible things. But on the whole, have we become so numbed by our books, movies, advertisements, news shows, reality shows, etc... that until we see an actual murder live on television we don't see these mass murders as real?

If there was an increased reaction and the witnessing of the event was the difference, we are in a sadder state than I imagined. Because that would evidence a more serious disconnect than I feared.

I don't think writers need to hold back or edit themselves or their writing. But I do think it's a great platform from which to discuss these issues in a meaningful way. A platform others don't have. Is that a responsibility? I don't think so. There are those who feel comfortable with such a role and those who don't, just as with us layfolk.

You are not the police of your audience, but you're citizens. If you have the platform and feel comfortable using it, I think it can have a great impact. Witness the big difference in shares and likes of Chris' post as compared to others.

Query: When crime fiction authors speak out on issues such as these, are people surprised? I'm wondering to what extent people have trouble separating artist from art when it comes to grittier forms of writing. I would guess (hope) they are not surprised, but I've been wrong before (don't tell).

I've taken up way more than my fair share of space so I'll hang up and listen. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Steve, I wish we could have a bigass roundtable somewhere (with lots of bourbon) to discuss. I think this community can make a difference just as any other can, I'm just not sure the best path.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, I think our fiction does a lot to frame the narrative. Thomas is right, in the most popular fiction the problems are most often solved with violence. And we use examples from fiction to talk about reality all the time.

I think it's worth trying to present a different narrative. Sure, it will be less popular and we won't sell the movie rights. I'm writing a police procedure series set in the 1970s now, but I can see my days writing crime fiction are numbered. I read almost none these days (you may have noticed I've stopped posting to this blog - I think about it a lot but I just have nothing to say).

When it comes to guns I'm always surprised that there's never any talk about limiting the number manufactured. We have accepted that banning drugs did nothing to make them less available. The same for alcohol. Why do we think it will have any effect on the availability of guns?

Dana King said...

My attitudes toward reading and writing crime fiction have changed. I think the closest thing to a point of demarcation was the Newtown CT shootings. Without making a conscious decision, I find my crime fiction reading leans more toward more thoughtful explorations of the causes and consequences of violence; I'm more likely than not to put down a shoot-em-up as soon as I recognize it. (This is another reason why so few modern thrillers in the Bourne/James Bond mold appeal to me: the violence is why they're made or written. I can't do that anymore.

As for what I write, I find--again, without having made a conscious decision--that I tend to show my protagonists resorting to violence as a failure,k and make an effort to show what that does not only to their victim, but to themselves. Frankly, it's not as much fun to write, but, just as frankly, I've come to more firmly believe writing about violence shouldn't be fun.

Ben McPherson said...

All very interesting, people. Thank you for this.

I'm currently writing my second novel (the first is out in the States and Canada next month) about a British man for whom a gun seems like a really good solution to a problem. I have always been struck by how powerful you feel with a gun in your hand, even if it's no more than a replica. I wanted to write about that feeling, from the point of view of someone who has often felt himself to be an unimportant person. I've known a couple of US Liberals who go to gun ranges, so I understand that the situation there is more nuanced than we want to believe it is in Europe. But there's a massive tragedy of the commons - when ordinary decent people feel scared, and when they feel that the answer to that feeling is a gun, and when that answer is very easily available, then it makes sense for individuals to have a gun. For Society, however, it looks like a bit of a disaster.

Rick Ollerman said...

I applaud the questions Steve raises. It is a scary place out there, especially when this Virginia man can buy a gun legally film, his crimes and post the footage on social media as he goes on the run. Really scary stuff, especially when you consider what seems like an increase in the random shootings of law enforcement officers.

In my fiction I have most of the death and violent bits happen offscreen. The build up and the aftermath provide both the tension and the emotional impact without actually depicting exploding skulls and blood dripping from the ceiling. Guns and their use are a question that everyone in the country should be talking about although I don't hold out much hope for a sane and rational result. Westerns and Sam Peckinpah can be fun because they are so abstract in their depiction of gun violence; it doesn't feel real, like a video game (or "murder simulators," as some of them have been dubbed).

When it does feel real, when it is depicted as such by fiction writers, there is, I think, a question each writer needs to answer as they write, and that is how they feel about the overt use of guns and other types of violence to propel their stories along. Hitchcock created suspense in his movies just fine without guns and graphic depictions of death (perhaps except for "Frenzy"). The implied violence is very effective in the story and I think--I hope--that it also serves to not glorify the weapon as much as those endless scenes of explicitly portrayed gun violence.

Neliza said...

It bothers me that so many people frame mass shootings as just "mental illness" like it happened in a vacuum. I should probably put more thought into that, come up with some cohesive way of explaining all the judgment and blame and lack of support and bootstrapping bullshit that seems to back not-quite-right people into corners noting good comes from.