Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Thinking about how to write on violence

I’ve been a having a small ‘discussion’ recently with a publication for which I have written on and off for several years, on the subject of some wording they changed in a review. Along with some other activities – working collaboratively on another writing project, for instance – it’s made me think about certain aspects of choosing words, and how, and why.

The issue that has arisen is that of the strength and emotionality of words used, especially in describing or analysing violent events. In the case of my writing, perhaps obviously, this often means Israeli military violence, whether one-off acts of injury or humiliation, or the unremitting, wholesale killing of the December 2008-January 2009 attack on Gaza. The issue is that of when, and where, it is appropriate or useful to use words like ‘massacre’, ‘war criminal’, ‘slaughter’, ‘barbaric’. And where it may be more appropriate to present spare, factual description, statistics, information.

This isn’t some spurious claim to measured, ‘balanced’, ‘objective’ language. It’s that for me, superlatives and heightened vocabulary are less powerful, not more. I think it’s partly a matter of imagination and visualisation. Give me a few cold facts – numbers of dead, their ages, a tiny piece of information on how they died – and my brain will do the rest. Chuck the word ‘massacre’ at me and you’ve done the imagining and interpreting for me, there is no space left for me to work out my own understanding of the information I’ve been given. I would probably have reached a more vivid and horrible visualisation on my own. Less is more, and it feels, to me, more respectful of the reader and (I may be overestimating here) their capacity for thought and analysis.

If you’re telling me that a banker or a boss is a criminal or a murderer, you’ve made the judgements for me; I can only disagree with you or not in a yes/no fashion. I can’t shape my own conclusions. The analogies are of course problematic, but think of horror movies. Which is more frightening? The ‘Friday the 13th’ slasher that shows every drop of gore, or the eerie Hitchcock which barely shows you the killer’s face, or more than the glint of a knife? Or more erotic? – Jeanne Moreau’s outstretched hand in Les Amants, or a couple of shaven, orange-plastic porn stars going at it like bunnies? Sometimes it is much more powerful to have the outline and let the brain do the colouring-in.

This isn’t a new debate for me. I can remember being involved in a campaign against an arms component manufacturer, drafting text and having it changed by others in the group, peppered with ‘massacre’ and ‘slaughter’ and suchlike. It’s a process I go through regularly when reading some left-wing publications that shout at me that bankers are ‘criminals’ or construction site bosses are ‘murderers’. Yes, they probably are – but I’d rather you told me why.

For me, it’s like being shouted at. If someone is yelling at me, I can’t respond thoughtfully to them. I have to get defensive, or angry, or if I agree with them to start shouting alongside them, possibly at someone else who may then also get defensive or angry. I can reach no new understanding in this environment, I can simply react.

I’m not suggesting that knowledge about the facts of what is done by soldiers and states and settlers to other human beings should be diminished or sanitised. Quite the reverse. I think more information should be put out there – but information, not superlatives. Perhaps more left-wing writers need to take on the travel writing dictum of ‘show, don’t tell’.

I’m also not denying that strong language has its place. I’m especially not denying that those closest to events have the right to catharsis, to express pain and anger and fury in the strongest possible terms, if that is what works for them. And as I’ve insisted above, I’m not making (or I hope I’m not making) some patronising distinction between ’emotional’ and ‘objective’ writing. Perhaps it’s partly that my anger tends to be something icy and steely and vicious, not something hot and overflowing. ‘Revenge is a dish best eaten cold’. And partly that if you want as a writer to inspire that anger in me, you need to tell me why, not just shout at me that I should be angry. That occasional glimpse of fury when a superlative breaks through is, I think, much stronger than the continual use that simply inures the reader, builds up their resistance to being genuinely affected, and, if one isn’t careful, their scepticism.

2 comments on “Thinking about how to write on violence

  1. Tristan
    July 30, 2012

    This post challenged my own assumptions about how to describe violence. You are right, I think, that evaluative, normative language leaves nothing to the reader – only a knee jerk agree/disagree decision, which is hardly even a decision but a reaction. As a reader, and as a reader speaking to other readers I avow the position to avoid such judgements, to re-evaluate your own quick likes or dislikes of presented content. But it’s better to deal with the problem at the stage of writing.

    I can’t help but wonder if there is a link to be made here between the way we write about violence, and the way violent events are interpreted, or rather, not interpreted. I spend a lot of time thinking about the hermeneutics of conflict, about the way a revolution or state-repression is interpreted, both by its agents and its victims. I think that going on about absolute right to carry out acts of acts of political violence is about as irrelevant to revolutionary praxis as the absolute right of free speech is to writing a good book.

    So, I would present a further, perhaps trivial proposition on how to write about violence: write about it as if it is already a text. Taking this into account, there is no more a need to use strong normative language to describe it, anymore than we think to use condemning language to review a book that we do not care for. In both cases, the review should speak for itself.

  2. M. Lynx Qualey
    July 31, 2012

    Well, I think the issue is a complicated one. I’ve been thinking about how to write about violence as I read a lot of novels that are thick with violence (Elias Khoury is obssessed with how one writes about violence….) But if you’re trying to affect a reader, I think you need to either stick to the fact-and-figure language, as you describe (and let the reader imagine the rest) or else you need to use really fresh, surprising language that pulls the reader out of their skepticism.

    Ah, editors. :-)

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This entry was posted on July 24, 2012 by in Palestine, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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