the official website of author james twining

Enter your email address below to subscribe to my newsletter:


Friday, 25 January 2008

Torture Porn

I did an interview for Sky a few weeks ago. Well not actually for Sky, but for a show on Sky, or at least on one of the channels carried by Sky that is sandwiched somewhere between BidUp TV and World's Deadliest Hamsters.

Anyway, they asked me to choose a short extract from the new book The Gilded Seal and without really thinking about it, I gravitated towards a rather gruesome scene where a naked man fondles himself while watching someone get crucified - yes, believe it or not, I did manage to mark my UK television debut by saying the word penis.

The choice of scene was instinctive rather than considered, but on the train back to London I began to wonder if I hadn't rather let myself down. Had I, dazzled by the glitz and glamour of daytime TV, passed over the subtle charms of some of my more dramatic and lyrical scenes (yes there are some!) for the crowd-pleasing certainty of a bit of random violence and structured perversion. Had I become a pornographer?

There's been a lot of debate over the Torture Porn phenomenon over the past few months, or as one inspired commentator labeled it, Goreno. Any of you who have seen Saw, Hostel or Captivity will know what I am talking about, but for those of you who haven't (and can therefore still go backpacking in Eastern Europe without fear of someone taking a power drill to your thigh), this term describes the increasing appetite (some would argue arousal) of cinema audiences for the depiction of horrific acts of sadism (most often against young women), where the camera is as unflinching as the violence is extreme. Jaded by graphic violence, some, it seems, are turned on by more extreme thrills ... torture prolongs the suffering and, for some viewers, the adrenalin.

Not that Hollywood is the only culprit. The BBFC recently refused the video game Manhunt a license on the grounds of its "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying". And an unforgiveably hostile article filed after last year's Harrogate crime festival in the Independent used the same argument to put the boot into modern crime fiction, saying that "Like the Sunday gutter-press, it offers a titillating, vicarious pleasure from what it purports to expose and condemn, turning violence into a kind of pornography and contributing to the coarsening of our national sensibilities." Utter crap of course, but it might me wonder if I had fallen into this trap? Was I appealing to humanity's basest instincts for a quick sale and a sharp intake of breath?

I'd like to think not, although I have to admit that I find violence much easier to write about than, say, sex. A love scene makes me feel 15 again - all fumbling hands and awkward silences. But a violent scene can have a certain stylised elegance, edge and excitement that makes it strangely compelling to write, and captivating to read. You know what, it's fun to shock people. How many of you read this post just because of its title?

At the first writer panel I was ever invited to appear on (Left Coast Crime in Bristol in 2005), a member of the audience asked us if books could ever be too violent. A few of my fellow panelists were adamant that they couldn't, as long as the violence was necessary to the story, a rather convenient get-out clause if you ask me, along similar lines to the "public interest" one the tabloids trot out whenever their debateble paparazzi tactics are called into question. None the less, I grudgingly have to agree - The Black Sun featured two live amputations which I would argue were central to the story and understanding the characters of those involved! The danger, however, is that "quickie" violence becomes a convenient and crowd-pleasing (read "lazy") way to establishing character, motivation and pace.

I don't know about you, but I always find the violence you can't see or read about far more effective. Remember the scene in Reservoir Dogs where Mr Blonde severs the policeman's ear off-screen to the sound of Stuck in the middle with you. Or how much more frightening the original Alien is than any of its sequels precisely because you never catch sight of the creature (better explosions in Aliens though). And how terrifying The Silence of the Lambs is, even though you thankfully never see Buffalo Bill actually do anything to his unfortunate captives. In skillful hands, the threat of violence is far more chilling than the act itself.

Which brings me back to my interview on Sky and my choice of scene. Did I chose it to shock? Certainly not consciously, although it's hard to remember exactly what runs through your head when the studio lights are on and the clock is ticking. The question is as long as it's a good scene, does it even matter?


P.S. I really am rubbish at this blogging lark! My last post before this one was on 2nd December 2007, for God's sake. Contrast that to the brilliant four-letter-splattered, alcohol-inspired Arsenal blog I subscribe to, which I even received on Christmas Day! So my New Year's Resolution is to drink more - more booze = more blog