When I was a teenager some films had an ‘X’ rating. This meant that under eighteens could not go and see them. They contained explicit sex or violence.
Every teenage girl I knew was desperate to see an ‘X’ rated film and many tried dressing up, wore high heels and loads of make up and tried to pass for 18. I did and once I managed it and saw what I thought of as a very rude film!
When writing crime fiction there is always the question of how explicit to be. Not about sex because I truly believe that less is more when it comes to describing sex in words. No, I mean how explicit should we be when describing violence and death.
Many adult crime writers have gone down the bloody road of explicit violence. Mo Hayder’s books are great but can be stomach turning, likewise many of the serial killer sub genre. This may be OK for adults (or not). When you’re writing for young people it’s a different matter.
How explicit should a young adult novel be?
In the 1990s I wrote a crime book in which I described a girl who had a scar on her face. I said that she’d got this from an attack with a Stanley knife. The editor said this had to come out. It wasn’t the scar that was the problem but the image of a Stanley knife, an everyday tool. This was too plausible. I felt this gave the image an unpleasant reality. The idea of a knife attack can bring about any number of visuals, a penknife to an ornate machete. The term ‘knife’ was too general, too vague, it didn’t touch the reader. A Stanley knife could make the reader wince.
Ten years later I wrote a book which showed football violence STORY OF MY LIFE. The editor was unhappy with the fight scenes because they were too graphic. My argument then was that if one is to show violence then it should be horrible, disgusting. It should make the reader flinch. If we sanitize it, make it palatable, then we lose the shock value about how it can hurt lives.
I’ve been watching some of the 9/11 footage and still cannot get out of my head the image of a fireman guiding people from the building. There is the sound of thumps. One after the other. These sounds were people falling from the towers onto the ground behind where he was. They seemed to fall continuously making the fireman flinch. In ten years I've never forgotten this and I don't think I ever will.
Explicit violence? Maybe sometimes it has to be.