Where Are You Taking Me?

In art there is no virtue in shocking or scandalizing someone simply for the effect of shock or scandal. In fact, I would say that it is a vicious temptation that should be avoided; the artist should generally consider that the measure of their vision and skill is judged by the ability to achieve a deep and lasting effect through subtle means. Shock and scandal are good for one-dimensional responses, so they have a place, but it should be very small.

I have in mind a novel I recently began, but put down after two pages.

I read two kinds of novels. The kind that get my glands pumping, and the kind that make me thank God for who he is. That is to say, fiction (adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, whatever) and literature (you know). Of course, a good example of either type will elicit some of the reaction I associated with the other. But controlling that is what separates the true artist from the pretender.

Take this novel I have in mind (I can't even remember the title now). I read the dustjacket, and was made aware that the book, which was marketed as a piece of literature (and not "fiction"), was the story of how a man's life came apart and was reassembled through the trauma of the protagonist accidentally killing his own very young daughter. Wow. Pretty heavy stuff. Okay, I'll read it.

Now, if this had been a crime or suspense novel, or a romantic fast-paced tale of revenge and redemption, I would have expected a viscerally engaging description of the actual moment of trauma. The author would be interested in eliciting an emotional response, but would also want to move me along quickly through the story, so that my attention would be kept on the adventure about to be had, and so that I might buy his next book.

Instead, there was something of the artistic to this story. I was supposed to let the book lead me down paths that would make me consider the complexities of human nature, and the depths to which accident and circumstance can sink us. A skilled author might elect to share the moment of trauma with us, or he might not...just knowing that this had happened to the protagonist would be enough for him to tell his story with moving effect. Or so you'd think.

Instead, the first page was a vivid and detailed and very physical description of what it was like for the man to run over his own toddler (isn't just that idea enough to sadden you?!). I read through the whole thing, perhaps two paragraphs, flipped to the next page, then stopped. I couldn't continue reading.

The artist had shown the skill to evoke a deep-felt response from me. He just hadn't shown the craft to be able to lead me where he wanted. And yes, I do put that on him. There's this pernicious idea out there that shock has its own merit in art. It doesn't. Lead me to the end, sir. If I stumble on your stumbling stone, you must help me up. The stumbling stone is not the point.

True works of art ought to take you somewhere, not knock you down.


  1. Yes, I see.
    I read a description of the movie Precious last night and just that much was enough to turn me away.

    I've also never watched The Passion of The Christ, but that's probably for different reasons.

    Perhaps you are one of those who still has an imagination and sensitivity to his own emotions.
    I cried within the first few pages of reading Cry, The Beloved Country out loud to my wife. There's some tough stuff in that book, but, oh the beauty of the prose and how it takes you on a journey through Johanessberg (sp?).

    I was talking with my wife about these topics just last night. Another film we liked that dealt with very difficult topics without smothering was Affliction with Nick Nolte. The film was made in a way that you felt like you were out of control (as was Nolte's character). I left with a headache, but I was moved by the representation of depravity, not discouraged and hopeless.

    The thought of accidentally killing your own child is so horrifying that it hardly needs any description. If you have children, or are even aware of the joy of childhood, you are going to have a deep emotional response to the the idea of it.

    The only possible merit of shock I am aware of is that it has the potential to touch a person in a dead place in their life. If I have committed myself to have no feelings around a certain subject or conflict, then it may take a shock to cause me to give up that committment.
    Some people become extremely insensitive about certain things or live in deep denial about their own frailty and neediness.

    Peace, John

  2. Joffre, thank you for instruction.

    I have thought long about this since the day you posted it. It is no credit to me that words I have written, once or consistently over a period of time, have given a person of your caliber, and literary and Christian generosity, reason to tap me on the shoulder. You are good, and God is merciful. I pray to do better immediately for the long haul.

    About your experience with that book's graphic details, I hear what you say. It is obvious, irritating, or troubling when details are used gratuitously in a story, especially in the very beginning, but it is not usually obvious to the writer of those details.

    Deceit plays deeply where the emotions run, and if a father is ready to complete his grief, he may think (erroneously) that writing it down in detail and sharing it will bear it away.

    Do you think writing to readers on a blog can be considered "a means for escape, that ye may be able to bear it," for a writer who is not able to bear something? Or is that not Christian, but escapist?

    If a mute were experiencing a tragedy too great for him, and his only recourse was to die under the burden of it, or make himself speak, would he be responsible for over-burdening those who saw him dig his vocal cords from cadavers to get through to God and man? Or would God be responsible, having given the mute tragedy and recourse?

    I think that a Publisher has equal liability, if not more, for the burden of a writer's words to readers. That is why I take your blog post seriously to heart. Again, thank you.

    There were other thoughts that came as I considered, so I may post them later.

    Goodbye now,

    Nancy Bopp


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