A couple months ago, the New York Post wrote on television shows — ones otherwise known for their writing — pushing violence to new levels, raising the ire of even dedicated fans. The article notes that these shows seem to be in an “arms race” to see who can outdo each other.
I don’t think the Post is being prudish here, and I get that everyone has their tolerance levels, but at some point gratuitousness becomes a crutch that replaces good storytelling. I suppose everyone’s answer to, “How far is too far?” is a bit different, but those answers are no doubt reflective our own beliefs. The article also ponders how much television is reflective a cultural norms — or is it not reflective of any majority? That’s a whole other discussion, but right now my focus is on the writing, as this applies to books as well. Novelist Robert Bidinotto wrote on how he addressed this issue:
My stories deal with rough, tough people doing a lot of vicious and violent things. However, fiction always has dealt with unpleasant subject matter, yet the finest narrative artists have never found it necessary to descend into gore-fests, or to detailed descriptions of degeneracy and perversion, in order to write tales about evil that are compelling. (Think of Fyodor Dostoyevsky [Crime and Punishment], for example.)
Art is all about selectivity in presenting reality. Artists do not have to show everything, let alone dwell on it, in order to focus on the most important things.
This dovetails in my previous discussions on details in books: Finding balance between too much or too little.
The craft — the art — of writing demands learning to balance details and to avoid crutches. Also, violence and the unpleasant aren’t to be avoided, but there are thoughtful ways to present it. Regardless of where you choose to draw the line in your books, choose craft over laziness.