When I was young, I gravitated towards books about broken and wounded women, spurred by a teenage precociousness, even a certain morbidity. I think a lot of young readers today—particularly young girls—do the same; books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, Sarah Littman’s Purge, and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay are today’s version of the books I read, like Patricia McCormick’s Cut and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.
Broken women aren’t new to fiction at all, and I see a lot of beginning writers gravitate towards these subjects. I think we all have at least a side of our personalities that is fascinated by dark subjects. And I think our society considers rape to be just about the darkest subject, the worst crime, and possibly the most traumatic event one can experience. So it’s no surprise to me that I’ve yet to have a writing course in which my class didn’t workshop at least one piece about a rape. More often there are three or four in a semester.
Years of reading queries as an intern—and, of course, books as a general consumer—have taught me that the fascination doesn’t die down for writers after college. I recently had a conversation with a friend and coworker who called rape the “go-to trauma” in books and movies, and I think that’s spot-on. It’s easy to elicit a reaction to a rape—it’s clear who the victim is, it’s impossible to rationalize or justify the act, and it still carries a lot of the shock value that violence has begun to lose since we’ve been deluged with it in TV shows, movies and video games. Rape scenes are horrifying and compelling—and I think, on top of that, there’s something about them that makes both writers and readers feel like activists, at least in spreading awareness of that issue.
But are we always spreading awareness in a good way? When we write about rape, could there be something voyeuristic about it?
See, these scenes always get me asking questions. Do we have the same responsibilities toward fictional characters that we have toward fellow human beings? If we’re riveted by a scene about rape, is that even in some small way like being fascinated by an actual rape? What are the social implications of one reader’s—or of one writer’s—fascination with one rape scene? What are the social implications of thousands of readers’ and writers’ fascination with thousands of rape scenes?
I was once drawn to books about wounded women out of teenage morbidity, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been drawn towards those books more out of concern for a society that I see as flawed in its treatment of women. Now, each time I read a book that features rape, I find myself wondering if it’s undermining or supporting a culture of rape and violence against women.
Some books bring female characters from rape or violence to redemption, and seem to have the power to spread awareness and spur action. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye opened the eyes of readers to the everyday horrors of violence against women by offering us whole, complex stories that could have been (and are) those of real women. And as the many powerful responses to recent attempts to ban Speak have demonstrated, these books are needed as much by the victims of such crimes as they are by those to whom they bring awareness.
In that respect, I stand strongly behind a lot of writers who choose to write about rape. It wasn’t that long ago that rape wasn’t even talked about. Truly, the fact that women’s voices are starting to be heard about rape is an accomplishment. That the media acknowledges, in any degree, the epidemic of violence against women in our society is a triumph. So it’s immensely important that there be books about rape and violence against women, and their crippling effects on women’s happiness and mental health.
But is there a wrong way to write a rape scene? What do you think? Have you read any books that involved rape or violence? How did you feel after reading them? Why?
Next week, I’ll dig into this issue further with some thoughts on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Until then, leave your thoughts in the comments!