Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sons Of Leopold And Loeb

I went to the library on Wednesday and took out a biography of Clarence Darrow. He's one of those people who's always interested me, and I haven't read anything about him in a long time.

Thursday, I read the preface to the book, which mentioned Leopold and Loeb. Natural enough, since that was one of Darrow's most famous cases.

Friday, I ran errands. When I came home, I learned about the shootings at Sandy Hill Elementary School.

The most obvious descendants of Leopold and Loeb are the Columbine killers, because there were two of them. But all these young men who kill for no reason are from the Leopold and Loeb family tree.

Leopold and Loeb murdered Bobby Franks in 1924. Things were a little different then than now. For one thing, the weaponry is different. Machine guns were coming into fashion, but you couldn't simply stroll into a Walmart and buy one.

And while there was no shortage of violence in 1924, it didn't permeate the entertainment world the way it does today.

Think about it. Violence for fun is everywhere. Movies, TV shows (especially cable), video games. The most popular American sport, football, is all about physical attack.

The first thing a writer of fiction learns is that a story has to have conflict. Decades ago, when I was reading what were then called teenage novels, the books were essentially romances, and the conflict was between a girl and a boy, a girl and her best friend (about the boy) or a girl and her parents (always about the boy). At book's end, the girl would have the boy, and her best friend, and her parents. Kiss kiss. The end.

I can't talk intelligently about today's YA novels because I don't read them. But my perception is they've moved a long way from a girl and a boy, kiss kiss, the end.

What I can talk about are my last five books. I don't recall Miranda witnessing much violence in Life As We Knew It, but the entire book is about death. I joke about how much I enjoyed killing off all humanity, but the truth of the matter is, the book is about the death of all humanity.

I progressed in The Dead And The Gone. I show suicides, lots of corpses, and I had two young, important to the story, characters die in particularly unpleasant ways.

By This World We Live In, Miranda doesn't merely observe death. She causes it.

Blood Wounds has two separate reenactments of violent death. The victims include young children.

Finally, in The Shade Of The Moon, Jon witnesses slaughter, including one particularly horrific death outside of a school.

A very quick count of the number of named characters I've killed in those 5 books is 16. I couldn't begin to estimate how many unnamed ones, extras, if you will, die. Kill kill. The end.

Again, I can't speak for anyone else. But my truth is I like writing violent scenes. I find them much easier to write than romantic ones. They solve all the need for conflict in a story, because violence is by definition, conflict. And they make it easy for me to portray my main character's emotions. Terror, heartbreak, guilt, shock, rage, they're all right there.

I'm not saying books intended for young teenagers shouldn't have violence in them. Kids nowadays have grown up in world of violent entertainment. They would never sit still for the books I read at their age. And the important thing is for kids to read.

As Mayor Jimmy Walker said, back in 1932, no girl was ever seduced by a book. Clarence Darrow's defense of Leopold and Loeb notwithstanding, no boy ever killed because of one either.

But I think it's naive to believe that the pervasive use of violence in entertainment has no effect on young people. And I'm not happy thinking about how my books are part of that culture of violence.


Anonymous said...

Miranda didn't experience much death in Book 1 (mostly secondhand, like Megan's death and Megan's mother's subsequent suicide) because she and her family became so increasingly isolated as time went by. Alex lived in NYC, which was hit by both flood and panic. Book 3 had Miranda discovering corpses and actually witnessing somebody dying. It sounds like Book 4 will ratchet it up with the added viciousness you're describing, perhaps reflecting the escalating viciousness of this particular post-meteor community?

Anonymous said...

That's a lot of spoilers in one paragraph, Anonymous.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you for your comments, Anonymous and Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Somehow reading about violence is a tad different than watching hour upon hour of violent television programs or movies; playing hours of violent video games often leaves the player numbed to human suffering. Yes, the ancient Greeks spoke of violence, but violent acts were committed off-stage. Oedipus' bleeding eyes were disgusting, but the act of gouging out his eyes is not seen by the audience. The Old West was a pretty nasty place, but the media did not pick up the Gunfight at the OK Corral seconds after it occurred! Let's ban assault weapons; let's make purchasing guns a bit more difficult. Let's curb audiovideo violence, but I think books might get a pass on this issue.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...
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Sriharsha Jayanthi said...

Violence is not something new to us humans, it is deeply imprinted in ourselves. Only now, in the modern age the expression of it has become freer.

The real change is not the violence, but the change of emotions...for me, this is indeed a serious concern. There is a trade off for the freeing of our thoughts, that is, we are less prone to think and act wisely (I've read the Austen and Bronte novels - there's a strak contrast in the reactions of the characters to crises, compared to more recent books)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Sriharsha Jayanthi for a very thoughtful comment.