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True Confessions: I’m Intimidated by Brutal Fiction

true confessions

Last week over at Book Riot, Andi (Estella’s Revenge) wrote about her current genre kryptonite — “novels built on brutality and personal struggle.” I was struck by her post because, as I think about it, I am nearly the exact opposite. I don’t look for happy fiction, but I seem to have a really hard time getting myself to pick up books that I know will be brutally hard to read.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with nonfiction. After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I picked up Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a nonfiction account of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, as a way to process something as inexplicable as a shooting at an elementary school. And I’ve read other nonfiction that I’d consider brutal, either for the content (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote) or the social ills it addresses (The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward).

But I am not nearly this brave when it comes to my fiction. Brutal fiction intimidates me.

I want to follow the buzz (and genuine love) towards the books that I know are challenging but worthwhile reads. I have a copy of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara sitting on desk right now, but knowing how raw the story is makes me too nervous to grab it. I’ve purchased copies of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay and Ruby by Cynthia Bond, but they are sitting on my shelves too. I’ve returned countless other emotionally challenging but well-regarded books to my local library after valiantly checking them out then avoiding them like the the plague.

On the one hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to avoid some of the truly heart-wrenching, gut turning things that writers can explore in their fiction. The world is hard, and even people like me with truly good, blessed lives have times that are filled with sorrow and personal challenge. In those moments, fiction (and nonfiction) can be an escape from those realities into worlds that are kinder and simpler that the world we actually inhabit.

What bothers me about my avoidance of books like these is that I feel like I’m deliberately cutting myself off… from trying to understand another experience, from feeling a story from a book deeply, from allowing myself to be bowled over by our human capacity to survive and endure. I don’t want to limit my reading life in that way, but I also don’t know what kind of prodding I need to actually go there and just pick up the darn book.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

What makes you pick up or avoid books on difficult subjects? What do you look for in books that you know will be brutal reads? How do you get yourself to pick up books you know will be hard but also entirely worth it?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kris March 19, 2015, 6:27 am

    I am put off as well and I think it’s a natural reaction. The events in An Untamed State are repugnant. For me not to want to put them into my head is pretty natural I think. And I’m wary of the new Yanagihara even though I liked The People in the Trees. I have almost all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, but haven’t cracked a one (they were free). I know there’s unspeakable violence and trauma in the world. I’ve lived with the news my whole life. But my fiction is my time. It’s my resource and I choose what goes into my head. And I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 2:54 pm

      “It’s my resource and I choose what goes into my head.”

      I think that’s a lot of where this comes down for me too. It’s hard to bring myself to voluntarily fill my brain with stories that I know are going to be so difficult.

  • Sarah's Book Shelves March 19, 2015, 6:57 am

    I think a lot of people probably feel the same way (I know most of my IRL friends do). Thought I loved A Little Life (and An Untamed State), I didn’t recommend them much to people outside of the blogging world. Weird, I know.

    I think, for me, I can handle books like that if there is some other factor that makes the brutality worth it. Like gorgeous writing, great characters or at least characters you’re rooting for. I hated Cry, Father because I hated the characters, the writing was forgettable, and it just seemed like it was brutality for brutality’s sake…it wasn’t actually anyone trying to get past brutality or overcome anything. Does that make sense?

    But, ultimately, I say read what you’re drawn to!

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 2:56 pm

      Yeah, that does make sense. If you’re going to put yourself into a brutal story, there has to be a reason why. It can be lots of things, characters, writing, whatever, but it has to be there. And it’s hard to know if it will be before you pick the book up.

  • TJ @ MyBookStrings March 19, 2015, 8:32 am

    I find myself in a similar situation. I have no problem reading gut-wrenching war-related fiction (and non-fiction). And I enjoy challenging books. But I am extremely picky when it comes to brutal fiction. There’s enough brutality in real life, so I need a very compelling reason (great writing/great characters) to expose myself to it when I am reading for pleasure. I usually just start reading, but if I don’t like it, I have learned to put the book aside. There’s no need to force myself to read something I don’t enjoy or to feel guilty about avoiding certain books. There’s too much else out there that I want to read and that will overall make me a well-rounded reader. (I want to read An Untamed State, but will most likely never read A Little Life or We Need to Talk About Kevin.)

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 2:57 pm

      We Need to Talk About Kevin is another good example. I’m not sure that one I can pick up either. Maybe one way for me to get into it is what you suggested — start, but give myself permission to stop if it’s not working.

  • Kay March 19, 2015, 8:52 am

    I think, for me, the opposite is true. I can take reading graphic violence books in fiction, but I am not drawn to the non-fiction. Nor do I particularly like watching the news or reading about the news. I do keep up to a certain extent, but I no longer feel that I must know every little thing. Although I have been tempted to read Columbine or at least listen to it on audio.

    I read mostly mystery/crime novels and many have asked me how I can stand the violence and why I want to put those images in my head. My answer is that I guess I seek out the ones the come right in the end – where justice is served in some manner – good triumphs over evil. It’s how I would love for the world to be. I know it’s not in many cases, but that’s the sort of story that I prefer.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 2:59 pm

      I definitely agree — knowing that good will triumph in some way is one reason I think mysteries and that sort of genre are so popular. I do think there needs something redeeming in fiction to give the brutality purpose.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) March 19, 2015, 9:09 am

    Truthfully, brutal non-fiction is harder for me, simply because it is true. With fiction I can at least pretend that nothing so brutal happens in the real world. I like my little happy bubble.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 19, 2015, 10:42 am

    For some reason, I can read brutal fiction and non-fiction – somehow it seems life affirming that things continue after horrific events. I can’t watch brutal things at all.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 2:59 pm

      I definitely avoid brutal movies. I just can’t go there.

  • Anita March 19, 2015, 1:20 pm

    Some brutal fiction is difficult for me if it just hits too close to home, children etc. I loved Where All Light Tends to Go and it is difficult, but so well written. I’m reading Finding Jake, a book about a school shooting and the son of the protagonist is the presumed shooter at this point…I can’t imagine.
    I can’t imagine really enjoying comics or graphic novels, I’ve not tried one, and with all the books I want to read I just don’t feel compelled to try. Am I missing out? I don’t know.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:00 pm

      I like a lot of comics and graphic novels, but I don’t like them when they’re excessively violent. Drawn blood and gore is harder for me than fiction or nonfiction!

  • Sheila (Book Journey) March 19, 2015, 4:51 pm

    I too read Columbine (non ficton) , but I also read Nineteen Minutes(fiction) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (fiction). I think I personally draw the line at gory or brutal just to be brutal with no reason behind it.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:01 pm

      I think that’s a sensible point, but it’s also hard to know whether there is going to be a point when you start the book… how much do you invest into a story without knowing whether the brutality will feel justified or explained by the ending? I don’t know about that one 🙂

  • Teresa March 19, 2015, 5:04 pm

    I’ve said in the past that I don’t think there’s a novel that’s too dark for me. There are some dark novels I don’t like because they’re just not very good or the violence seems gratuitous or pointless, but I’m not usually put off merely because it’s a brutal story. However, I am finding those kinds of stories tougher to take these days because of stuff that’s been happening in my life. Whether that feeling is permanent or not, I don’t know yet.

    And with that said, I did find A Little Life to be too much. I found the darkness ham-fisted and over-the-top, and I had a hard time engaging with the better parts of the book because of it (a minority view, I know!). I liked but didn’t love An Untamed State, but I didn’t find the violence to be too much. It was brutal but necessarily so for the story.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:02 pm

      Your reaction and Jenny’s reaction to A Little Life is one of the things making me skeptical of it at this point. Lots of other people have loved it… but over-the-top brutality is a deal breaker for me…

  • Jenny @ Reading the End March 19, 2015, 8:00 pm

    I’m with you. I can read quite upsetting nonfiction, but with fiction it’s harder, I think because fiction makes you enter into the mind of the brutal person or the person being brutalized, and I don’t want to be in the minds of either one. Nonfiction tends to give a little more distance — the authors are telling a particular story about something that DID happen, not a story about a thing that MIGHT happen, and for me that’s the difference.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:04 pm

      That’s a really astute point — I hadn’t made that distinction between the two. Nonfiction can be scary because it’s true, but one of the things that makes it different is that it can be tied to particular people in a particular place.

  • Jancee @ Jancee Reads March 20, 2015, 7:53 am

    I think whenever I read something difficult, I do so out of a need to process and understand why that thing happened or what can be done to prevent more tragedy, and so forth. I think as humans, we also have a tendency toward the dramatic, sensational, and brutal. Which could explain why we slow down why passing an accident or follow the news closely after a disaster. So I think part of it is hard-wired into it, and part of it is a need to understand.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:05 pm

      Trying to make sense of tragedy is absolutely why I picked up Columbine when I did. I needed to process some of my feelings and get a sense that, eventually, there might be answers.

  • Anne Simonot March 20, 2015, 10:31 am

    Life has enough of its own struggles without purposefully immersing ourselves in it, I think. Especially in our precious & limited free, personal time. I don’t flinch at dark, grim, or violent subject matter…. but there’s a limit. One novel I read last year (ok, it was “Save Yourself”) was so unremittingly grim, and the characters so seemingly unable to make a smart decision or a change in their life, that its redeeming qualities did not make up for its… bleakness? Just way too depressing for me.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:06 pm

      Bleak fiction is another thing I have a hard time with. I’m not someone who always needs happy endings, but I always feel better after reading something with at least a touch of optimism in the ending.

  • Belle Wong March 20, 2015, 11:41 pm

    I don’t like brutal reads, but I can take it better in fiction than I can in non-fiction. I think the fact that it’s a true story just makes it all the worse for me.

    • Kim Ukura March 21, 2015, 3:07 pm

      It’s interesting how we all have different reactions to fiction/nonfiction when it comes to brutality.

  • Shaina March 22, 2015, 6:41 pm

    I have the opposite problem. I often avoid lighter, “happier” reads in favor of more brutal ones. It can be a real problem when I want to escape into a book, because my reading can sometimes make me even more upset or anxious!

    When I read tough stories, it somehow feels like I’m bearing witness and letting those who suffer down if I turn away. I’m trying to get better at it (and did a great job this week, with The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry), but I can’t help but be drawn to the harder stories.

    • Kim Ukura March 25, 2015, 8:41 pm

      I love the idea of bearing witness, that’s a compelling way of thinking about why brutal fiction is important to read once in awhile.

  • Jennine G. March 22, 2015, 11:17 pm

    Something would have to be descriptive in its brutality to bother me. The only book I’ve ever read that took me out was A Stolen Life, the memoir of Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped at age 11, had two kids, kept for decades, etc. my daughters were at that age at the time and I couldn’t handle it. Otherwise books don’t bother me as much – it’s like my brain reigns in my imagination. But some of those books as movies I can’t handle. The visual effects are too much for me.

    • Kim Ukura March 25, 2015, 8:41 pm

      I can’t do really brutal movies, at all. The gore is just too much.

  • Christy March 24, 2015, 8:45 pm

    Though I don’t think actively avoid brutal fiction, I am more likely to read about tough subjects in a nonfiction book. I feel like I can’t turn away from something that really happened to others, from people’s sufferings. I can overdo it, however. There was one year I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You…, Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, and Eggers’ Zeitoun. Zeitoun was the final straw, and I swore off distressing nonfiction for the rest of the year.

    • Kim Ukura March 25, 2015, 8:42 pm

      It’s really easy to go too far with brutal books, of any kind. At some point they stop sticking and it’s just sort of reading to upset yourself.

  • Amanda March 25, 2015, 12:06 pm

    Thanks for being brave to say this! I totally agree. I also haven’t read An Untamed State – another is A Thousand Splendid Suns- I just don’t want to have a painful reading experience.

    I forced myself to read All the Rage and was so glad I did. It wasn’t brutal in the way I expected though (not graphic). Sometimes all i want from a book is a happy reality that’s not my own-and that is ok!

    • Kim Ukura March 25, 2015, 8:43 pm

      Kelly at Book Riot has been talking about All the Rage for awhile now — it sounds very good, but also difficult. I’m glad you read it and thought it was worth it!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey March 27, 2015, 9:32 am

    I’m the same way, about both fiction and nonfiction. I have a very hard time making myself pick something up if I know it’s going to describe violence or other difficult experiences in detail. I used to be the same way even about books I knew were going to make me cry, but having accidentally picked some of these up and bravely tried some others, I’ve realized that books that are this emotionally moving can be some of my favorite reads. For that reason, I share your fear that I’m limiting my reading life, doing myself a disservice by avoiding tough reads. I’m not sure yet that I’m willing to do something about it though.

    • Kim Ukura March 29, 2015, 8:16 pm

      That’s my problem too — I feel like I should fix it, but I’m not sure I have the motivation to work on it. Someday, I hope 🙂

  • Kathleen March 27, 2015, 12:44 pm

    Oh man I’m the same way! I’ve become so much more sensitive as I get older, especially since having kids. I know that I am missing out on some things, but it’s not like I’m reading bad stuff instead. I’m still reading good books! Just not all of them, and I can’t read them all anyway so I feel okay about it.

    • Kim Ukura March 29, 2015, 8:18 pm

      That’s a good point — there are tons of books to read, and there are many, many good ones that aren’t about brutal subjects that are so hard to read.