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Author Topic: "Atrocity Fatigue"  (Read 1566 times)
Maplesugar
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« on: October 19, 2010, 12:33:09 AM »

I'd like to discuss the idea of "Atrocity Fatigue" that blueeyeddevil brought up in the "Papa Was a Gypsy" thread.

I too have experienced this phenomenon while reading George R. R. Martin, and Terry Goodkind (Sword of Truth) got to me as well.
Currently I'm reading African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou for a French literature class, and am having the same problem.
There comes a point when the amount and intensity of violence ceases to have an effect, and it leaves me wondering if there is something wrong with me. I get tired of the repeated acts of atrocity- I just want to get on with the story. It's like "I get it, such and such character is evil through and through...enough already".  Sure the point of some works is specifically to explore the human psyche, to highlight what we should not be, so that humanity can grow to be less bestial in the future. But putting up one's mental shields can get wearisome.

Anyone else have this problem? How can one deal with atrocity fatigue and still successfully appreciate such literature?
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Scattercat
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« Reply #1 on: October 19, 2010, 01:16:22 AM »

I don't think it's really something you can "deal with."  It's the result of the complex interactions between the reader/viewer's sensibilities and the author's deftness of touch, with a whole host of contributing factors like mood, environment, surrounding reader/viewer responses, etc.  You may find that something you found enjoyable ends up giving you fatigue when you reread it, just as you may find something that seemed unbearable has become enjoyable when you come back to it.  There's not really a solution, I don't think.
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kibitzer
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« Reply #2 on: October 19, 2010, 03:05:05 AM »

Actually, this is an interesting thought. I don't recall Game Of Thrones being "too much" in the hack-and-slay stakes but I know there IS a lot of carnage. OTOH when I was younger, I used to LOVE to read ghost stories but the scared the living sh... err... daylights out of me! I slept in a room out the back of our house and I was terrified that things would come get me.

I never used to watch horror movies either because they were too confronting. In fact I could give you a very long list of things that were too much, such as when a missionary came to our church and showed pics of a bombed-out tank, including the occupants. The first time I read "Salem's Lot" I had nightmares and slept badly for a week.

Now... well, I'm not into torture pr0n-type horror but I do like a good horror film. And as I say, George R R didn't seem too much. I suppose I've become numb to the horror? Used to it? My sensibilities have warped? Not sure.
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Scattercat
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« Reply #3 on: October 19, 2010, 03:52:39 AM »

With Martin, it's not so much the gruesomeness as just the sheer unrelenting grimness.  Ditto Abercrombie, actually; sure, the blood'n'guts is gross, but what really gets you tired is just the darkness of everything.  You start to wonder why the characters even bother making plans anymore, since nothing ever happens the way it is supposed to, victory is always fleeting, Pyrrhic, or part of a Xanatos Gambit, and anything that looks good will either be destroyed or perverted within a Plot Unit (chapters for Abercrombie, books for Martin).
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jrderego
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« Reply #4 on: October 19, 2010, 07:28:05 AM »

I never had it happen to me with fiction reading, but when I read the book "Zodiac" by Robert Graysmith back in 1990 or so that one got to me, but it wasn't the gruesomeness of the killings that got me, it was the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that all of San Francisco seemed to have as this one lunatic darted through the streets and parks and taunting the police and citizens with crazy cyphers and notes.

As for desensitized to violence - I wrote a novel following a 17 year old Japanese foot soldier from enlistment to  1937 The Rape of Nanking. It completely mangled my repulsion compass, which also mangled my happiness compass, so for a year I went through life with almost no discernible emotion. Part of that was the two years of casual then obsessive research that led to the book in the first place, the other part was being inside a character for a year of writing who slowly goes cuckoo-for-killingpops.

I knew something was wrong when I downloaded the beheading video of Daniel Berg, watched it, and had no reaction at all. Figured I must've missed something, looked for more horrible war photos from Iraq, Rwanda, WW2, etc... and none of them had any impact on me.

I purposely made the book less lurid and awful than it could have been because I knew the audience wouldn't stick with a visceral exploitation book, which is probably why I couldn't generate any interest in it from editors. The end result was it took a couple of years of not touching that book and trying to revel in things that weren't war atrocities to get my bearings again and write more short stories.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #5 on: October 19, 2010, 08:31:53 AM »

The thing about "dealing with" atrocity fatigue is that it's not your fault. It's a flaw in the work in question. Asking "how do I deal with atrocity fatigue and still enjoy the work of literature in question" is like saying "how can I deal with this book's poor characterization?" The answer: call a spade a spade and admit that the book is flawed, the either read through it anyway or decide that it's not the book for you and put it down. I've read books with flawed characterization, or flawed pacing, or hackneyed plots, or whatever, and still enjoyed them. I just didn't con myself into thinking that it was my fault. Trust me, I'd enjoy The Dresden Files a lot less if I was sitting there thinking that somehow the fact that the characterization is often a little simplistic was somehow my fault.

Ultimately, atrocity fatigue is the result of a flaw in a work's pacing. Too much bad, too quickly, all the time, can cause the reader to disengage (as you've described above). Breaks from the horror - slowing the pace, adding less intense content to break the story's progress into manageable chunks - keep the reader engaged, which is basically a good thing.
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eytanz
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« Reply #6 on: October 19, 2010, 08:40:42 AM »

The thing about "dealing with" atrocity fatigue is that it's not your fault. It's a flaw in the work in question.

To some extent, yes, but I think what at least some of the posters above describe is a more insidious problem, where exposure to violence/gore in one work affects your enjoyment of another work. If a piece is oversaturated with violence and that dilutes the effect by the end, you're right that it's entirely the fault of the writing. If a piece means to create an emotional impact in the reader for a violent act, but it fails because that reader has just finished reading something else which is full of extreme violence, that's worth thinking about.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #7 on: October 19, 2010, 09:05:37 AM »

The thing about "dealing with" atrocity fatigue is that it's not your fault. It's a flaw in the work in question.

To some extent, yes, but I think what at least some of the posters above describe is a more insidious problem, where exposure to violence/gore in one work affects your enjoyment of another work. If a piece is oversaturated with violence and that dilutes the effect by the end, you're right that it's entirely the fault of the writing. If a piece means to create an emotional impact in the reader for a violent act, but it fails because that reader has just finished reading something else which is full of extreme violence, that's worth thinking about.


I didn't read that as the OP's question, and the answer seems fairly obvious to me: read something cuddlier to give your brain a break. Some YA fantasy is good for that. The themes are often quite interesting and complex, for all that the stories are "for kids."
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Maplesugar
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« Reply #8 on: October 19, 2010, 03:50:46 PM »

Wonderful replies- thanks, all!  I give myself a little bit of a break by listening to the podcast stories in the car, but as a university student there is very little time for "losing oneself" in a good book.  With African Psycho I don't have the choice of giving it up, either. The point is to actually study the archeology of violence in the main character (psycho-killer rapist with mother issues).

But it's good to know that I shouldn't worry about my reactions to these books.
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Ben Phillips
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« Reply #9 on: October 21, 2010, 04:38:53 AM »

The thing about "dealing with" atrocity fatigue is that it's not your fault. It's a flaw in the work in question. Asking "how do I deal with atrocity fatigue and still enjoy the work of literature in question" is like saying "how can I deal with this book's poor characterization?"

I have to say I disagree with this as a broad generalization.  When I evaluate any media artifact I ask two different questions: 1. What is it supposed to be?   2. Is it a well executed example of what it's supposed to be?

Consumers generally confuse the two above questions with a third:  Do I personally prefer whatever this is supposed to be?  (A question I certainly also tangle with -- I would just try not to include it in an analysis without ensconcing it in language that makes clear my awareness of its even-more-subjective nature.)  For a movie to be too shocking for your taste for too long is not a flaw per se -- another member of its audience may not have the same problem.  You, in another mood, or in another stage of your life, may not have the same problem.  All of this is assuming, of course, that the problem really is that it's too shocking, as opposed to another problem entirely having to do with execution, such as poor characterization sapping your suspension of disbelief.

Of course this all gets complicated when you realize that the homicidal maniac who seems over the top to me may not seem so to someone who is a recovering victim of an actual homicidal maniac, so even agreeing on what constitutes poor characterization gets dicey when it comes right down to it.  Just not as often.
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