How to talk about violence in literature, when the term violence is so broad? “Violence” is defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” but it’s also used to depict the “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” How to talk—or write—about violence at all, both despite and because we seem so inundated by it?
This is essentially where Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “Suffer the Children” opens—with a question, fielded from a friend in response to her new book, The Small Backs of Children: “Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?” At the heart of the question lies another, shorter question: why bring violence? Longer: why, in a world so teeming with stories of shootings, stabbings, massacres, genocides, do we devote more pages to violence? Is it necessary, and does it incite empathy or produce the opposite effect, introducing empathy’s cousin, apathy? Or, “is there any space left for not watching, not focusing, not keeping abreast of all the events and atrocities unfolding in the world, as an ethically viable option?” (Maggie Nelson)
Maybe the question is not why, but how? How, in a world so teeming with stories and narratives of violence, do we write violence? If writers are to participate as creators or re-creators of violence in literature, or to respond to it, how might we write it in a way that’s not exploitative, aggrandizing, or gratuitous? And how do we participate as readers, as spectators, of violence?