While Action seems like a fairly straightforward element in the HEAVES, what follows might not seem so obvious, though it is something of a logical (if controversial) extension…
This next excerpt comes from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Ralph heard the great rock before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.
The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.
This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came out.
The letter V can represent a few things. It can stand for Visuals – like a conch shattering on impact the way bones might when encountering a bolder – or it can stand for Visceral – that moment when an instinctive reaction tugs at the internal organs and leaves a person speechless in the face of such images. But the V I’d like to talk about is Violence.
I have to step aside for a second here and make it clear that I am not an advocate for gratuitous violence. However, we do not live in a violence-free world and to ignore the role violence plays in our lives, in our world, and in the lives of our readers – especially in a boy’s life – sends a very clear message to all our readers: this story is unrealistic.
Golding understands this is in the nature of boys and that how they deal with this violence says a lot about character and society. He doesn’t dwell on the gorier aspects of Piggy’s death but is nonetheless vivid in description and visceral in the reactions the boys have to the incident. There is emotion but it is only described and not explained. And while none of the characters do so willingly, they experience the force of the action physically – Ralph doesn’t just see the rock fall, he hears it and feels it, to say nothing of what it does to Piggy.
Would it help if we called the subject conflict? That’s a nice, pretty little word for it. Struggle is another good word to hide behind. We can talk freely in reviews and on blogs about inner conflicts or character struggles. No one ever says: “How jolly! Let’s discuss the violence of this scene!” because it somehow feels wrong to use the words “violence” and “children” in the same sentence, much less in discussions about writing for children.
But since we’re talking about boys, we need to consider the role of violence among their reading preferences.
Boys don’t talk openly or easily about their personal issues, and short of rewiring culture, we need to give them avenues to examine and explore violence in an articulate and, yes, entertaining way. Otherwise, we doom them to learning all their interpersonal skills from video games and action movies.
And, yes, violence is a form of entertainment. Consider the gladiator battles in the Colosseum and backwoods cockfights. Or the original stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the stock and trade of fairy tales. The Grimm stories live up to their name in their original recording but we have seen a whitewashing of the violence from these stories over the past decades. Many refer to this as the “Disneyfication” of the classics, but I promise you there are more spayed and neutered retellings of fairy tales in picture books published every year to dwarf Disney’s efforts seven times, over.
If you’ve ever looked at the men in your life, young and old, and wondered what they saw in that form of theater known as professional wrestling, what the attraction is to professional sports and movies with graphic violence, understand that it isn’t the violence that they connect with so much as the characters involved in life-or-death situations. In these violent confrontations what we tend to find is either an attractive villain or an underdog to root for – often both – someone who must literally fight his or her way toward some understanding and resolution.
In Reading Don’t Fix No Chevy’s: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, authors Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm discovered in talking with boys that they relate strongly to these villains and underdogs. They want to root for the underdog because they understand those feelings, and they admire villains for their freedom and their ability to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is what draws boys to watch the testosterone infused fake wrestling on television, and in following the narratives of favorite professional sports teams. Understanding violence, which is another form of Action, is how boys come to learn empathy.
We can see this clearly in Lord of the Flies, with prep school boys breaking off into separate tribes, one of self-appointed Savages and another of law-abiding underdogs. Within the framework of Golding’s story a boy reader can flip back and forth between sides and effectively “try out” violent situations as proxies that help them better understand the roles and repercussions of violence. They don’t want a message spelled out for them – just as they don’t want to be told how to feel an emotion – they want to see a problem in action and and sort it out for themselves before the characters do.
Because of this, violence is only successfully employed when both sides are equally matched. It isn’t enough to have a force of evil for the main character to take action against, there has to be a compelling reason for the antagonist to behave as they do. Sadistic, evil villains who wish to control the world do not provide a reader with an opportunity to understand their violence or rage, don’t show them how to empathize with their circumstance, and don’t gain anything from the violence they create as a result. The violence, and those perpetrating the violence, has to have a distinct purpose both in developing character as well as driving the plot.
It is also difficult to ignore that in physical comedy there is usually a lot of violence. The appeal of the physical comedy stylings of The Three Stooges comes from that tradition of Vaudeville (another V word) known as slapstick, which itself goes back to old Punch and Judy plays and the Italian Commedia delle Arte. There is often hostility at the base of a lot of boy humor and, right or wrong, boys look for it as a sign of realism.
In preparation for this article I revisited Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, with it’s prep school setting and confrontation between boys that results in a bout of fisticuffs. While my memory of Cormier as a masterful writer hadn’t changed in the 20 years since I last read this book, I found the fight scene to be wordy, almost too cerebral, in its attempt to convey the sense of the violence without glorifying it. Sentences like the pedestrian
Janza let his fists fly in a flurry of violence…
left me flat. And then there’s this rather leaden sentence:
He had never struck anyone like that before, in fury, premeditated, and he’d enjoyed catapulting all his power toward the target, the release of all his frustrations, hitting back at last, lashing out, getting revenge finally, revenge not only against Janza but all that he represented.
Passages like this kept pushing me out of the scene right when I should have been getting sucked in. I get that Cormier was trying to present the character’s emotional state of mind, but were he to write that story today, with modern audiences culturally more accustomed to violence – at least more so than when he originally wrote the book in 1974 – he’d have to ratchet up the tension and tighten his language in order to hold the reader’s interest.
For better or worse, young readers today are culturally accustomed to level of violence that increases their expectations for their reading to provide the same level of intensity. If writers pull their punches when it comes to violence, so to speak, readers will do more than dodge these stories, they’ll walk away. And, again, if books skirt the issues surrounding violence and don’t show boys a different way of processing and dealing with violence, then we doom them to learning these lessons from perhaps less conscientious sources of popular culture.
Next week, the final two elements of the HEAVES and maybe a hint of what’s coming next with the NONS. Previous parts of Building Better Boy Books is being compiled as I go into a single post permanently located as a page at the top called “@ boy books.”