That's Entertainment!?

I Don't Get It!

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Do you have a conscience about what you write? By that, I mean do you ever pause to reflect that your fictional story might have a harmful effect on a reader?

Obviously, we can't anticipate exactly what will upset someone. A vegetarian might well be horrified at reading about the protagonist of a story butchering a chicken before cooking and eating it.

When writing details of crimes and forensic dissection in my crime novels, I've occasionally wondered why people like reading about such terrible things. I re-wrote a scene where a serial killer recalled strangling a child, simply because I'd put in too much detail of how to kill someone using a garotte. Instead, I made the act horrific by the killer's quiet contemplation of how he'd proceeded, looking for any mistakes he'd made that might have given him away. Even worse, in a way, was that he derived no pleasure from the girl's death, for she was simply a pawn in a bizarre role-playing game

British band The Jam released a song called 'That's Entertainment' in 1980, in which lyricist Paul Weller laconically contemplated the sometimes violent distractions that we use to pass time, dismissing them with a chorus of "That's entertainment, That's entertainment." In 2017, his cynicism is even more accurate, for we're all observers and the observed, thanks to CCTV, and as long as whatever nasty thing is happening doesn't involve personal harm to us, then it's a form of entertainment.

The Anarchist Cookbook is one of the most controversial books published. Dating from 1971, it's been variously suppressed and freely available, nowadays even for sale on Amazon. Because it details how to manufacture explosives and make and distribute drugs, it's been implicated in criminal acts, which has led to simply possessing the book being a prosecutable offence.

I don't know that anyone would turn the pages of The Anarchist Cookbook as an entertaining fun read, but it's a good example of that old excuse about 'putting an idea into someone's head'.

Over the years, many novels have been implicated in real-life crimes. Mark Chapman was obsessed with J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, quoting from it in his defence for shooting John Lennon. President Reagan survived being shot by John Hinckley Jr. who'd also read Salinger's book. It's impossible to say that a fictional work, be it a book or a film, will never pass from entertainment to inspiring a tragedy:

11 Famous Books That Actually Inspired People To Commit Horrible Crimes

I could mock, ;) by saying that such dreadful events must have done wonders for sales of the books which planted a demon seed in the criminals' minds, but I wouldn't want anything that I wrote to mislead those open to suggestion. Think how horrifying it would be if a criminal stated they'd been inspired by your writing to devastate a community.

One of the founders of the BBC, Lord Reith, proclaimed that the aim of the new television company was to 'Inform, educate and entertain'—though he never said in what order those things should happen. These days, the educational content of much broadcasting is minimal, while information is manipulated through spin and false news. The entertainment factor is often mindless—bubble gum for the brain—which is preferable to the disgusting violent images available online that ghouls post for fun.

I'm mindful of Reith's words when I write my Cornish Detective stories, trying to juggle the setting of a scene by the use of facts, and letting the reader into my characters' thought processes while indulging in some showmanship through humour and enjoyable word choice to keep them reading. One of the pitfalls of novel writing was identified by Iain M. Banks,

"The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn't."

So, does that mean that if I create a convincing story which sweeps the reader along, then they might be influenced into breaking the law?

Although I love writing crime stories, exploring what makes the good and the bad tick, I still question why I'm tackling such nasty things. When I do slow down, I remember a Roger McGough poem, called Survivor:


I think about dying.

About disease, starvation,

violence, terrorism, war

the end of the world.

It helps

keep my mind off things.

Do any of you worry about how your stories are not so much entertainment as instruction manuals for the gullible?

Have you changed anything you've written, as being too explicit or offensive?

Have you ever read anything, that you thought was too shocking to have been printed?

No one's going to do something that isn't in them to do. They can blame their reading matter all they like.

I think we sometimes need to look into the dark. If one has the stamina for it. There are times when one's skin may be just too thin, and who wants to know about all the sad things they can't help?

But we're a funny specie(s); both predator and prey. So a fascination with the notion of threat is hardly surprising. That's not the same thing at all as being cruel. It's just the honesty of the primeval in us.
I have just sort of read Bright Air Black by David Vann. And I have surely read the worst bits including the beginning and the end but still, I can't bring myself read the whole thing. Elegant prose. Poetic.

It's a shocker but what did I expect? It's the story of Medea. I thought it might be different, as told in her voice you know, historical misrepresentation type thing, but, em, no. The voice is true to legend.
It's not so much the violence and gruesomeness. It is the horror of what she will do to those she loves, while still loving them, for the sake of power.

Murder out of revenge would be positively wholesome in comparison.
Not nearly so grim as your example, but I've got a couple of first-aid scenes in my current WIP, and my characters don't necessarily know proper first aid, but I checked with a friend who is an EMT to make sure there's nothing actively harmful or misleading in what they do to help their injured friends.
I don't do gratuitous, sensationalist violence or rape scenes and I try to avoid stereotypes or caricatures. I agree with @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine though that readers bring their assumptions and prejudices to the book they are reading and I don't take responsibility for their decision to keep turning the page even when subject matter distresses them.

It's an interesting question: I do believe books can transform our lives but not harm them.
Thinking about what @Robinne Weiss said: I think I mentioned this in a thread here ages ago about plant poisons that are also hallucinogenics. Many indigenous plants in southern Africa are psychotropic and used for lucid dreaming or altered shamanic states. They're also dangerous if misused and while, as an amateur botanist and plant-lover, I know a certain amount about the side-effects, I wouldn't write anything that might encourage a young or immature reader to do some experimenting. That's another level of authorial responsibility.
Crime writer Ann Cleeves Vera and Shetland series, is just saying to James Naughtie on BBC 'Meet The Author' that people like reading crime because ultimately, it is reassuring. Their detective will prevail and even if the events are grim, order will be restored.
So true. Detective novels are often restful, especially the older ones. The victim (whom we hardly knew) is dead on page one or shortly after, so all we have to think about is solving the problem of how, when and who did it. It is a detached exercise even if we know there's a murderer prowling about. The detective and her or his friends are clearly smart enough to outwit evil-doers and as readers, we're smart enough to have our suspicions too. It's a collaborative exercise and enjoyable. No messy ends or loose threads left dangling. Everyone gets back to their tea and scones in the country house parlour, or carries on courting or cooking or looking out for another murder to solve. There's always another book in the same crime series for us to pick up and read before bedtime.
Now look what you did @PaulWhybrow.

Last night I dreamed this man was out to murder me, very cheeky about it, and I asked a passing police officer to bear witness to this threat and he pretended not to hear. The murderer smiled, seeing this, basically saying 'see you laterzzzz,' and I reacted in two ways.

1) decided I had to go way up the ladder of police command, something had gone very wrong here
2) hissed in his face, 'not if I get you first - and I will'.

Goldfish kill each other by psyching each other out, pheromones in the water. We can potentially do the same. Good ol' magic. Oh yes, I knew which runes to use.

But where did this come from? Eh? This thread, I reckon. Yes, you, Paul.

Blimey! Me, influential? Can't be me...I've perfected the art of not being responsible for things: I've no 'proper' job, no girlfriend, no children, no family, my nearest friend lives 250 miles away, I don't talk to people locally and spend most of my time hidden away in my garret making up stories that no one reads.

Perhaps I'm just a figment of my (and your) imagination...

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I watched a documentary on the author of The Anarchist's Cookbook not long ago. It's called "American Anarchist". The author wasn't an anarchist or violent or even a writer. He wrote the book when he was a young man and it was a sort of protest. He didn't have experience doing or making anything which was in the book. He got all of his information from readily available resources -- libraries and such. It took him about a week to write it.

He became a teacher and I felt bad for him because his day to day life wasn't about The Anarchist's Cookbook. It's something that would show up in his life, from time to time, like a sort of nightmare.

I imagine the author of The Anarchist's Cookbook would say he should have thought about it more before writing and publishing. His book reads like an instruction manual. I believe he meant it to be ironic. That's what happens when people take you seriously. It's quite possibly the biggest mistake made with the book was that his intent was not made clear.

No, I don't have a conscience about what I write and I'm not worried about people getting upset. White rabbits can trigger people. There are things I wouldn't write but that's because I don't want to write them.
Blimey! Me, influential? Can't be me...I've perfected the art of not being responsible for things: I've no 'proper' job, no girlfriend, no children, no family, my nearest friend lives 250 miles away, I don't talk to people locally and spend most of my time hidden away in my garret making up stories that no one reads.

Perhaps I'm just a figment of my (and your) imagination...


Figtrees of one's menagerie? Don't talk to people locally? Well, you talk to them here, and how!
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I Don't Get It!