Monday, 22 October 2012

Violence in teen literature by Bryony Pearce

First of all an apology to anyone who was looking for the new Edge posting on Friday – I missed my spot and it won’t happen again.

Now, if anyone was thinking angry thoughts at my lack of a post, you’re on trend for this week as I’m posting about violence. 

When I first came up with my story idea for Angel’s Fury, I realised that it might have some violent moments.  I thought it might even be a ‘horror’ but I wasn’t sure how far I could go, seeing I was writing for teens and not adults.  So I did some research to make sure my book stayed within the realms of what was suitable.  I got a Darren Shan novel out of the library – Lord Loss. 

I had to put it down before the last page.  I was, I’ll be honest, horrified, and I am someone who read Stephen King’s The Stand at 13 years old.  The levels of violence and gore were almost incomprehensible to me. 

James Delingpole, writing in The Daily Telegraph described the book as dark but moral, he says "The scene in which the boy's father, mother and sister are disemboweled and shredded by the demon Lord Loss and his vile familiars Artery and Vein, must surely be the most jaw-droppingly grisly in children's literature."

A recent Amazon review of the same book reads:

“I am a fifteen year old girl who loves horror and everything in the genre. I've in fact read ALL of the vampire series by the same author so was expecting the same sort of style of writing and was quite surprised when reading this how GORY it was. …  this book is not recommended for children's bedtime reading unless nightmares are your thing!”

Do parents really know what their kids are reading?  It seems impossible to me that they do.  The chances of my kids ever reading a Shan, after my own experience with his work, are next to zero. 

How is it that there are endless debates about the portrayal of sex and drugs in children’s literature; that I am not allowed to drop the f-bomb, and yet I can, if so inclined, graphically portray the mutilation and cannibalistic disembowelment of a teenager (I just finished Shadows by Ilsa Blick and she does just that)?

Is it because this graphic violence is commonly fantasy violence and therefore not sufficiently realistic to raise an eyebrow amongst established gatekeepers?   
Is it because children may go out and have sex after being titillated by teen literature, but are unlikely to turn into cannibals or werewolves?  
Is it because we think teens are so de-sensitised to violence already?   
Is it because the religious right are less interested in violence than in sex and swearing?   
Is it because publishers think that only torture porn will get boys reading?  
Is it some reason I haven’t even thought of, or an amalgamation of factors?

All I know, is that I’d rather my daughter read about a healthy sexual relationship with perhaps a few swear words thrown in, than be given horrifying nightmares by reading scenes of such graphic violence that they made me, an adult,  feel dirty and nauseous.

Perhaps this debate needs to be opened up.  I'm not keen on censorship, but I wonder if the same amount of thought should go into the horror elements of teen books, as it does into the sexual side.

What do you think?


  1. In my experience the gatekeepers are far more nervous about contemporary realism violence than they are about fantasy violence. I'm not sure why.

  2. Great post, Bryony. I think there is far more graphic violence allowed in many books aimed at boys because most of it is within a fantasy setting. Hence gatekeepers feel this acts as a buffer. When you place that violence into a 'real' contemporary setting, suddenly it becomes 'too close to home' and uncomfortable. However, if done well, and as an integral part of the plot, violence portrayed in a realistic way/setting can be effective in conveying the repugnant consequences of these actions.

  3. Honestly violence has to be necessary. I am not a fan of books who have gore for the sake of gore. Not even horror titles because I believe real horror is in suspense. When I see too much gore it just feels like the author is trying too hard to shock us and seems... ameturish. Darren Shan can do horror well. I still believe his vampire series in one of the better ones about vampires and it was genuinely shocking at moments. It was dark, but not too gory and didn't need the blood. In Lord Loss and the other books in that series it's just there for shock value and after the first few scenes, you just don't care anymore. For our children, and even for adults, torture porn is sick, and unprofessional, but occasionally gore and violence adds a healthy layer to your story... if it is done well.