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I don't know if it's coincidence or part of a larger trend, but lately I have read a lot of books that feature pretty graphic scenes of violence toward animals. I hesitate to call them "animal cruelty" since none of these scenes involved torture or neglect, but the scenes did disturb me almost as much. Recently Small Review sparked a little conversation about this very topic, and it got me thinking. What is it with animal violence in books?
At first I thought it was a genre thing. Take, for instance, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. It's a book about werewolves, so you kind of expect some wolfish violence. Still, I was quite surprised when the dog fight scene appeared. Sam "trains" on how to kill the neighbor's guard dogs by watching dog fights and ripping apart fryer chickens. Then later, he gets into a fight with the dogs while trying to protect one of his pack. It was pretty brutal, but then again, violence is a common theme throughout the entire book.
Today I finished Huntress by Malinda Lo, and wolves were the brunt of violence in this one as well. Here, a traveling party is attacked by the wolves before retaliating in kind. Though it's easier to justify in this scene, the violence was still pretty gruesome. I just kept thinking, "Really? Do we need to read about jaws snapping through flesh and arrows slicing through eyeballs?"
Then there's scenes like the one Small Review reminded me about in Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I can guarantee you that the reason I couldn't remember this scene from the book is that I had blocked it from my memory. Lena hears a guard next door beat a dog, and later she finds the bludgeoned and dying animal lying in the street next to the garbage. She ends up watching the dog die while trying to decide what to do. It's horrifying.
I think what disturbs me the most about scenes of animal violence is that they tend to include so much more detail than your average human fight scene. Perhaps it's natural in that animals have teeth and claws to fight with, which can get a bit messier than swords or guns. That was my thinking with Shiver anyway. I mean, it's wolves versus dogs, so things are bound to get ugly and ferocious.
I know that the scene in Delirium was telling us about Lena. It was a moment of clarity for her, when she had to come to terms with the underlying brutality of her society that had been out of sight/out of mind. She was forced to recognize that things were not as great as everyone pretended they were, and no one cared enough to help a defenseless animal, because that empathy was taken away when they were denied the ability to feel love. I'm not saying that difficult scenes shouldn't be written, particularly when they serve a purpose.
As a huge animal softie, however, these types of scenes really pull me out of the world of the book. They make me disengage with the material, however briefly, and the author really has to work hard to win me back. Scenes like these are a real challenge. How do we, as writers, address difficult scenarios without losing our readers? Many readers will check out of the scene entirely, skim it, or worse yet, put the book down and never pick it back up.
You can never please everyone, and we don't all have the same comfort level with violence. I just wonder if this same level of violence would be tolerated with human characters. Sometimes it seems like writers can "get away" with heightened violence if it's happening to animals, and that's not something that sits well with me. I don't want to get into a whole animal rights argument here, but suffice it to say that I don't find violence any less offensive when it's perpetrated against animals. This makes it hard for me as a writer to find appropriate levels of violence, particularly if what is expected is something outside of my personal comfort zone.
How do you feel about animal violence in books? Does it bother you more or less than human violence? Am I seeing a pattern where there is none? Do you writers find it hard to write scenes that make you uncomfortable? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.