If we ignore juvenilia (and we should, I really think we should), I was a crime writer first, before I slipped all unmeaning into more speculative fiction. In those days, in the UK at least, crime or mystery writing divided pretty much into cozies and hardboiled; the serial-killer thriller was something new over here. So much so that publishers and bookstores didn’t really know what to do with the books I was writing, which is how they ended up on the horror shelves, which is how I made that unintended step aside into spec fic – but that’s a whole other story. Today, I want to write about violence.
“Chaz, why do you want to write about violence?” has been a question all through my career, but I never really understood it. Actually what I want to write about is people, and what interests me most is people in crisis. I’m hardly the first. The great themes of literature are love and death; “sex and violence” is a pejorative tabloid description of the same impulse, to examine what lies downriver from the drives of passion and need and betrayal. (I have been heard to say that all fiction is about betrayal, but that again is another conversation.)
From childhood bullying to global war, violence pervades the human story; from whodunits to pangalactic empire-building, violence pervades the stories we tell each other. And in the thirty-odd years I’ve been publishing, in every genre, those stories have certainly grown more graphic. Some writers want to treat more realistically with violence, some want to be more extreme; paradoxically, both tendencies lead to the same result, more gore on the page. Sometimes I feel as though I drag this behind me (along with the whole Gay Thing, which again, another post, ’scuse me…) from genre to genre: it was a live issue when I was writing crime fifteen years ago, and it’s a live issue in fantasy today. I don’t actually claim to be responsible, but to be sure I participate. I may even be bleeding-edge. Someone who reads even more genre fiction than I do has started to keep a tally of how many recent fantasy novels feature torture, and my own will certainly be on that list.
Point is, though, it matters. Fiction, any fiction stands as a mirror to our own lives, our own times. Fantasy can’t afford to be written down – or written off – as exclusively a cozy genre, when the world is far from cozy, when torture and war and personal cruelty are the stuff of nightly news bulletins. Of course there will always be those who want or need escapism or consolation (my mother is still waiting for me to write a book she can actually read), and they will always be catered for, in new books as well as classics; we don’t need hard-edged fantasy instead, we need it in addition. And have it, these days, and I do believe the genre is stronger for it.