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I recently picked up a copy of Poets & Writers from my local Newsstand Store (it’s not actually a stand!), part of an ongoing effort to get myself being creatively productive. And since there’s a whole blogpost that follows from that one action, and reading an article, I think it’s working.

“Spilling Blood: The art of writing violence” is the article that caught my attention. Appearing in the section “The Literary Life,” it’s by Benjamin Percy and Aaron Gwyn and is an excellent review of violence in fiction, especially in ages past. It freely flips between cinematic and literary references, providing an excellent overview of the different ways that violence has been portrayed in popular media.  From the famous shower scene in Psycho and the lopping off of the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, to Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant and chilling “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and the use of Gore in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, the two men do a great job of describing how violence best works as a literary and story-telling device.

But about midway through the article, I found my stomach churning. Not at any hardcore violence which they discussed, though a summary of a bit of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” (pretty, eh, gorey, click with discretion and not at work) did that for me.  My stomach churned at the hardcore prescriptivism they were pushing.

They dismiss Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis with a comparison to an elementary school bully – dubbed “Cody” for reasons that I’m sure speak to trauma in either Percy or Gwyn’s past – who would threaten to punch you, then when you flinched away, shout “two for flinching!” They close this section with “Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.” Saying, almost directly, “Nobody likes Chuck Palahniuk.”

Except that people do like Chuck Palahniuk. That’s why, as they say in the article, that his “latest blood-spattered, feces-smeared novel [is] on the best-seller lists.”  They are dismissing this entire genre (or sub-genre?) and, by extension, its fans, as no good. They are saying that Palahniuk’s style is wrong. The rest of the article is excellently balanced, explaining why cutting away from violence is more effective. But this section doesn’t say “Palahniuk’s work is less effective.” It doesn’t even quite stop at saying “Palahniuk’s a bad writer.” It’s saying “Nobody likes Palahniuk.” It dismisses the droves of people who buy, read, and adore his books as “nobody.”  It ignores the actual facts – that lots of people do like this, and that perhaps there is a place for it in our society – in order to say “do it this way, always.” And prescriptivism has little to no place in creative writing*. Had they left out the “Don’t be Cody” section, this article would have had me nodding solid all the way through.  Instead, I lost my focus on their “descriptivism with tips” and came away with nothing more than a distaste for prescriptive elitism.

That’s why I prefer this blog post over at Judy Black Cloud about the difference between “horror” and “shock”.  It doesn’t declare that no one wants to read about meaningless evisceration; it just says that this meaningless evisceration isn’t horror. (And that it’s probably going to be confusing to most readers.)

Huh. I found and read both of those in the same day. I guess the world wants me to write some violence! I’ll get to work on my “Ballad of the Berserker Poet”

*Prescriptivism does have a place, and fairly large at that, in learning to be a good writer; E.E. Cummings knew how to write traditional poetry.  I and my fellow writers of “free verse” back in high school, well, didn’t.

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