Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I got this email a few days ago:

Dear Sir:
I find your Book, Rusty Nail, despicable! You must be a very sick person to think up such garbage! Why would you think anyone would want to read such? The cover of your book, and the fly-leaf, give NO indication of such filth inside.
Your publisher should be ashamed to be that hard up for something to publish! He's as bad as O.J. Simpson's publisher!
Barnes and Noble should be ashamed to offer such a book for sale, and your publisher, and Barnes and Noble, should , at the VERY least, warn readers of the content!

With great regret! Carol A.


My first reaction was to laugh. While my books have bright, colorful, attractive covers, anyone reading the jacket flaps can easily find references to the filth--er--edgy stuff inside.

Coincidentally, a few days later people started bashing the violence in my books on a popular listserv, bemoaning the graphic violence.

I don't usually defend my writing. If a reader doesn't like something I wrote, the piece failed the reader. It's as simple as that. I'm not perched on their shoulder while they read, saying "This is why I wrote that scene and what I was trying to accomplish" so I see no reason to do it ex post facto.

But this made me curious, so I reread Rusty Nail (I hadn't read it since I turned it in, two years ago) and tried to see if I'd actually gone too far.

I hadn't. While bad things happen in Rusty Nail (snuff videos, torture, mutilation), they happen off-screen. There are no lingering depictions of violence, or even graphic descriptions of anything disturbing. When writing a violent scene, I adhere to 'less is more' and leave the gore up to the reader's imagination.

I am, however, confronted with a business dilemma. Do I want to alienate potential readers and risk sales?

There are two schools of thought here. The first says that safe, homogenous entertainment reaches a broader audience. The second says that unique visions and approaches might polarize an audience, leading to controversy, which leads to a slightly less broad but more passionate audience.

Let's get the integrity issue out of the way: I have very little. Writing is a job. It's a job I love, but I'm never so attached to any of my words that I'll refuse to change them, especially in the face of potential dollars.

So do I want to tone down the violence in my books? John Sandford did it in his Prey series. Ridley Pearson did it in his Lou Boldt series. Jeffrey Deaver did it. Spenser did it. Lots of authors mellow out.

But do they mellow out and then reach a larger audience? Or does the violence of the early books invite controversy, which leads to a larger audience? Does anyone besides me miss Lucas Davenport and Lou Boldt and Lincoln Rhyme chasing psychopaths? Did the serial killers make them bestsellers, or did they become bestsellers after they ditched the serial killers?

It's sort of a moot point. DIRTY MARTINI, coming out in 2007, has no serial killers and no blood. It still has (hopefully) scares, but not of the being stalked and sliced up kind.

What do you think? I know being talked about is always better than not being talked about, but would you rather be controversial re: Thomas Harris or Dan Brown, or universally loved re: Michael Connelly or Robert Crais?


Anonymous said...

I don't think any of the writers you mentioned set out to be talked about. I think they set out to realize a vision.

Julia said...

I don't like sanitized stories about serial killers.

They are brutal, and to write them any other way would be a diservice to the story.

If you want to write something less graphic, then do it. But do it because it serves the story.

JA Konrath said...

"Realizing a vision" and "serving the story" are artistic terms.

A story can be served in many different ways. Ditto visions. Believing that your words are golden and your story is perfect is a slipperly slope. Anything can be altered.

We admire people who don't compromise, but I question that admiration. Refusing to bend is not a symptom of an iconoclast or a rebel or a genius. It's a symptom of egomania.

My first goal, as a writer, is to entertain. My second goal is to make money. Once you start making money, the two goals become interchangable, ie: how can I entertain even more people, and in turn make more money?

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, man. Why's the torture have to be off-screen?

At least I got to read your story with the man and the chair. :-)

Do you have any deleted scenes that didn't make it into your books? I'd love to see them. *G*

JA Konrath said...

Actually, there was a line deleted in Rusty Nail that I reinserted into the paperback.

The line goes at the begining of chapter 24. It's: "Here comes the choo choo, open wide."

Not graphic at all, but in the context, it's pretty sick stuff. My editor made me cut it. I put it back in because I told hundreds of fans the line, and they believe it should have stayed. Majority rules.

Creekshine said...

If I recall, Thomas Harris had a similar problem with the reaction to the violence in his material. However every violent occurence in his books serves a purpose.

Like you say, he isn't sitting on my shoulder to explain it to me because to do so would be impossible. But even among these frightening aspects the hero detective trying to track down a serial killer only has the killer's work to go by. Right?

I'm not fan of gratuitous violence, say, at the supermarket, but less is more is scary; and too much can be a little cartoonish. This is fiction. I don't think that if your next book is about puppies with super powers then this reader will buy it (even though that would be very cool).

Crime stories and mysteries have violence and bad things that happen in them and I don't think you need to dilute your violence merely to appease certain fans. Not that we aren't important mind you:) But do you want the success that comes from bending to the convetional of do you want to make noise?

To use a sports analogy Tiger Woods changed his swing *after* he was successful, to improve his game. He didn't win the... I don't know golf tournaments, but the strategy wors the same.

I think violence should have a reason in the story, and if it does then it helps the story and the reader. But even then someone will dislike it. You can't please everyone but you can be honest with them at least.

Unknown said...

Well, I would give my left nut to be Michael Connelly. I love his books. But the amount or lack of controversy has nothing to do with it. I also like Robert Crais very much. Thomas Harris has turned weird, not because of the violence, but because his story-telling has gone down the tubes. And Dan Brown, to me, doesn't seem controversial, but I'm not a religious person so that's probably why. Connelly and Crais are both better writers than Brown, however; that is why I'd rather be either of them.

Anonymous said...

I think the letter writer was just stuck with all those extra exclamation points lying around, tripping the kids, falling into the soup and getting stuck in the cat's fur.

She had to do something to get rid of them and you won.

Joe, don't agonize over this reader. My father was a store manager for Montgomery Wards for 35 years. He was friendly, outgoing, a man who truly loved his job. But occassionally he would run into a customer who was so insistent on being unhappy that he would politely invite them to shop at Sears.

Life's too short.

Mary Stella said...

I think above all, I want to write books true (in their fiction way) to the characters and plot. Psychotic serial killers commit bloody, awful, torturous, painful acts on their victims.

That said, I suppose it's possible to have too many acts in one book, even "off screen", but you're the one who needs to assess your story arcs and pacing to see if everything comes together the right way.

Since I write romantic comedy, the closest comparison I can make is when I get slammed for the "trashy sex scenes" in my books. No matter which way someone defines trashy, the insult doesn't apply. My sex scenes are very well written -- and that's not just my opinion. *g* They're somewhat explicit, but nowhere near hard core, or even soft core.

Someone who doesn't want to read even a hint of sex shouldn't read my books. Someone who enjoys a little heat and sensuality should try them. I have readers of all ages -- although I would have suggested my cousin's 14 year old daughter not sneak the book into school so she and her friends could read it in the bathroom. However, the 60 and 70 year old fans enjoyed them very much.

Unknown said...

To add something: Your work, Joe, is more apt to "accidentally" offend someone because of the line you walk between humor and horror. Some little ol' lady might pick up your book thinking she's getting an Evanovich without realizing she's only half right. But it is also that mix that makes your work unique and draws the devoted audience you have.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe!
I got to know you through your blog, talking about writing, the writing process, the writing market...and I felt guilty for not having read your books.

I might not be as extreme as Carol, the letter writer, but my reading style is definitely not along the lines of thriller material. However, my boyfriend loves a good thriller - Loves Them, I say!

So I bought my boyfriend your books. The first one he read "Whiskey Sour," he would not - could not - put down. He loved your book and would read snippets to me. He laughed, he recoiled, and at the end he said, "Now THAT guy writes my kind of book!"

He was sad to be done reading "Whiskey Sour," hence I bought him the rest of your books.

Two Takeaways:
1. We aren't going to please all the people all the time, but that doesn't have anything to do with who you are personally! I'm writing a book that probably 70% of readers would find boring. I'm still interesting! My boyfriend loves your books while Ms. Carol does not. The main thing is that she really shouldn't have passed judgement on you, but, that's her cross to bear.

2. Audience. You have a strong appeal with a certain audience and that should matter greatly. My boyfriend loves crime shows, scary movies, and the grittier news stories. I don't want any of that stuff and can't be a member of that audience. That audience wouldn't read my book. So there you go.

It all works out in the wash. Don't worry, in case you were. You are well-admired by many readers. That's the bottom line. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

I write to tell the story that's in me to tell. I don't mean for that to sound mystical. All I mean is, sometimes the story might center around some decent people and the violence and graphic content might be non-existent. Sometimes the story might center around cops and some horrible crimes. I subscribe to 'less is more' but it invites the same criticisms you got Joe - it isn't about what I write but the idea that it puts in someone's head.

I think that for every reader that you gain, there's another you might lose. That's why you can't worry about it too much. The market is only so big for mainstream, for noir, for hardboiled. Some of the people who read one part of the genre only won't ever move beyond that subgenre.

Think about what Chelbel said to you on John R's forum - one reader bashed you. Another person just got that much more interested in reading your work.

More important to be happy with the books you're producing and work to draw the right audience to those books.

You made excellent points on the listserve and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, yes, yes! I just wrote that line into my hardcover. Made the hair raise on the back of my neck, but it made that little chapter do what you meant it to do. No question!

To your question, I'd rather be loved, but I bet my pocketbook would rather be contreversial. Besides, I'm contrary, and if someone tells me to hate a book, I have to go read it and tell them otherwise.

Stacey Cochran said...

Great post, Joe.

If I may be honest, I don't think you're mainstream enough. I've never told you this face-to-face, and I figured you'd either figure out a way to be more mainstream or not.

You know what you're doing better than anybody else does.

But it seems to me, the books that break out into bestsellerdom find a way to be mainstream. Whether it's Clarice Starling, Robert Langdon, Jack Torrance -- there's something very universally "everyman" about those characters, and that's why they appeal to such a broad audience.

The Jack Daniels books seem cultish, which is fine. There are plenty of examples of cult authors who eventually broke into bestsellerdom.

Ultimately, you can only write the book that you can write, and market the hell out of it.

And certainly the trend in horror movies, at least, in the past decade has been a movement towards more and more graphically violent films (Scream, Saw, etc.), so there's totally an audience for violent stuff. I just don't know if the reading public and the film public are on the exact same page.

This definitely got me thinking, and I have no doubt in mind whatsoever, that you are going to reach the NYT bestseller list. Just keep doing what you're doing, and it'll grow and grow until you bust the damn thing wide open.

I believe in you.


Lisa Hunter said...

It all depends on how the writer handles the violence, and what purpose it serves. If I Did It may be less graphically violent than The Lovely Bones, but it's reprehensible, while Lovely Bones is literature.

Stacey Cochran said...

One other thing. Thomas Harris is not funny.

You, Joe, are funny.

There's something about violence when there's a giddy undertone to it that really riles people up.

The violence in Silence of the Lambs or the Exorcist, is done utterly without humor.

Not that they weren't controversial, but there's a kind of sober depiction of violence in both those books, which seems somewhat more reverential.

Joe Konrath, Inc. is all about irreverence. And I bet that is part of what got under that reader's skin. Irreverence + Violence + Humor = Pissing Her Off.

However, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that your irreverence part of what I enjoy about you.


Anonymous said...

I tend toward the wimpy side, but while there have been some wince-y moments for me reading your books, I wouldn't say they were really graphic. Even on my wimpy shelf I have some more graphic folks, I have some that are less graphic too, sure. But I think there is a good balance in your books, so I would say keep on.

Ty said...

One thing ... a novelist doesn't have to write graphic gore scenes to be controversial. There are as many ways to tick off a human being as there are humans on the planet.

But, as JA says, his goals are to entertain AND to make money. In that case, I'd go for the controversy. Nothing sells books like a good ole book burning.

moonhart said...


I would rather be loved than controversial. A well-loved story sticks with a person long after the controversy of "today" has been plowed under by the controversy of "tomorrow."

I always recommend the stories I love and encourage people to read and maybe fall in love with them, too. Controversy is fine for discussions at the watercooler...but to write a book that is loved, read, and reread over and over...well, that is my definition of success.


anne frasier said...

i've been dealing with this issue since i started writing thrillers. my editor asked that my second book only contain accidental deaths. for another book it was requested that nobody get killed with a gun or knife.

here's an amazon review for my latest book:

"I felt it was a horrible, disgusting, and sick story line. I went as far as tearing the book up and throwing it in the trash so no one else could read it. I'm sorry, but I know she can write much better stories than this. However, I will read the back of the book to see its content before buying it."

the editorial response to the same book was that the last half was 200 pages of nothing but graphic violence.
i never saw it that way and still don't. i certainly never set out to write something that would make people sick. scare people? yes.

JA Konrath said...

I'm enjoying everyone's responses. Lots of smart things said.

Someone on DorothyL mentioned that she wished she never read Rusty Nail, because now those images will be in her head forever. Even though she hated it, I took that as a compliment.

If someone actually ripped up one of my books, I'd take that as a compliment too. I'd much rather make someone angry than have them put the book down midway through and never pick it up again due to boredom.

While it's possible to be scary without violence (or even the threat of violence), I believe the books that truly frighten have violence at their core.

Human beings are afraid of death and pain. As writers, we must manipulate emotion, and if we want to evoke fear, then death and pain are two ways to do so.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

Been lurking for a while, thought I would say hello and add my tuppence worth.

More violence/less violence? I don't think it matters either way although my personal taste goes along the "less is more" route.

What does matter is whether the storyline and the characters grip the reader.

Silence of the Lambs was incredibly graphic but this was offset by the fascinating interplay between some brilliant characters. In the follow-on Thomas lost it. The violence was still there but the magic wasn't and it just became another novel with gratuitous violence and a relatively poor storyline. The first book appealed to a wide audience, the second probably satisfied his cult following but may have lost him mainstream readers. The third comes out soon so it will be interesting to see what happens. His cult following will probably make a difference I just hope his writing does.

Change is necessary in all professions but it should be carefully planned, tested and proportional or it just has a negative effect on sales. Jump in and you could lose existing readers without replacements coming forward. You will never please everybody. The key is to consolidate your core audience and gradually broaden the boundaries to attract and retain a wider readership.

Which brings you back to your conundrum.

Thanks for a very helpful blog that inspires me to focus better on a number of areas in my life. :)

Anonymous said...

That Stacey Cochran has a beautiful (and analytical)mind, as well as a GREAT beard. What he said goes double for me. Graphic violence + belly-laugh chuckles = jarring, for some folks. When I first read Rusty Nail, I kept mentally trying to pigeon-hole the book. Then I realized that resistance was futile. IMHO almost anyone can write graphic violence. JAK has a rare gift for humor...

Jim said...

Readers span the entire spectrum from cozy to hard boiled, and probably fall in the bell curve between the extremes. So, whereever you place your book on the spectrum, you'll end up appealing to some readers and not others. I put intensity in my books, but it's mostly off screen. If that doesn't fall in the right place of the spectrum for some readers, I don't really care.

What I do think is important, however, is that the reader know what to expect so s/he is not surprised. My books tend to have dark covers. A quote on the front of my third one says "Edgy and Twisted." Also, at book signings, I ask people if they like thrillers (aot mysteries)and give them a good idea what to expect. I'd rather not make a sale than sell to someone who ends up not liking the book.

There's room for books throughout the spectrum. There's lots of readers out there who want an edgy book or something to the right side of the middle.

That said, I don't believe that profanity is necessary, and my books contain very little.

In the end, I think a writer should write where he/she feels comfortable. That's where the passion will be, and that will be the place that the best work comes from.

Stacey Cochran said...

That Ross Alexander from Maine is a genius.

And In the Bleak Midwinter is the best debut mystery novel written this decade.

I sleep with the damn book cradled next to me at night. Is that weird?

It's like I want the talent in it to osmotically transmit into my subconscious at night.

I'm serious.

ec said...

Most of the violence happened off-stage, but the aftermath was often far more creepy than the violent act itself.


The image of a warehouse rat eating a severed finger "like a cob of corn" while its anquished owner, who had hoped for surgical reunion, watches helplessly--that'll stick with me for a while. While I've got to admit that this touch was vivid and imaginative, very clever in a twisted sort of way (btw, I don't necessarily consider "twisted" a perjorative), I still squirm when I think about it. I wasn't offended by that scene, but I can see how people with weak stomachs and delicate sensibilities would want to erase it from their memory files.

On the plus side, I had no problem staying away from the Halloween candy this year.


Jude Hardin said...

Plot follows character, IMO. If your protag is a homicide detective, then--NEWS FLASH--the criminals he or she deals with are going to be violent. How could it be any other way? They're probably even going to say bad words and everything.

I'm writing a hardboiled PI novel, because that's what I write. I'm pretty sure I couldn't write a good cozy, erotica, historical romance, etc., no matter how much they offered to pay me, because my heart wouldn't be in it.

I don't think any of us need apologize for writing what we love. You can't please all the people all the time, and there's NO WAY to predict what's going to be popular next year when your book hits the shelves.

And I think you probably have more integrity than you would lead us to believe, Joe. If you were just in it for the money, you'd write The All Beer Diet or some such nonsense. :)

Aimlesswriter said...

OH MY GOD! A book about serial killers actually has violence??? Who da thunk it???
I must admit I read the last Konrath book when my husband was out of town on business and I was home alone. It scared the hell out of me and I couldn't sleep! (but that gave me time to finish the book)
Damn! that was good!
Any book that can evoke emotion; either fear, romance, compassion or whatever...is a great book.
Well done, Joe! You scared her...your job there is done.

Jude Hardin said...

BTW, I'd be happy to work as a research consultant if you ever decide to write that diet book.

Mark Terry said...

Well, interesting. I actually found Rusty Nail to be a bit much, although I liked the first two just fine. I think you skate a very fine line and as far as I can tell, probably haven't crossed over it.

What is the fine line? Well, there's an element to your fiction that strikes me as being similar to slasher movies, like Freddie Krueger, et al. Your writing is very visceral and you're willing to go pretty much right up to it. Although I found things disturbing in the first two, there were more (to me) disturbing elements in Rusty Nail, especially the self-mutilation by one of the bad guys. Images I probably could have lived without.

Of course, at least one reviewer has commented in my novel, The Devil's Pitchfork, on being grossed out or disturbed by the nature of the hemorrhagic virus--all the bleeding from orifices, etc. When I read "The Hot Zone" I was plenty disturbed by the internal bleeding and carried that in to my own books--if it horrifies the writer, hopefully it will horrify the reader.

Which brings up two points and I suspect they've already been made. One is, there is a wide variety of readers out there. I gave my wife's aunt a copy of Whiskey Sour because she liked the humor of Janet Evanovich so much and I suggested she try it, although I warned her it could get pretty dark. She read about 3 chapters and quit, apologized and said she wasn't up to it. I can understand that. It's not for everybody.

The second thing is what Stephen King has said: "First I try to terrify, then I try to horrify, and if that doesn't work, I'll go for the gross out. I'm not proud."

I think you, like the rest of us, are trying to write EFFECTIVE fiction. Where you point the reader's mental camera and when you choose to do cut-aways is going to vary a great deal on what you're trying to accomplish, but I do think there's something to be taken away from King's statement--that FIRST he tries to terrify, THEN he tries to horrify. The terror would suggest more suspense.

Or here's this example from your own book. What was terrifying in Whiskey Sour? Knowing that the damned razor blades and fish hooks were in the candy and Herb was going to distribute them to kids in a hospital.

What was horrifying? When Herb actually bit into them.

And was there an element of gross out there as well? Perhaps.

But I'll tell you what, my friend; that period in that book where we KNEW those razor blades and fish hooks were in the candy and nothing happened--yet--was a fine, fine bit of terror and suspense, very memorable, and if you can do more of that, the audience will take care of itself.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

You write about serial killers??? I must have read your books too quickly and missed that, somehow.

Actually, just when I thought I was sick of serial killer fiction, you had to go and make them palatable again.

I think you should start putting in more sex, which should give you a whole new batch of whiners to deal with. Heh.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion.

So, when you receive emails like this, Joe, do you ever respond? (i.e. "Thanks for writing, sorry you didn't enjoy it.")

JA Konrath said...

I try to respond to all of my emails. In the case of this woman, I wished her a happy thanksgiving, and then signed her up for me newsletter. :)

Ty said...

Just occurred to me! I've got to go out and buy Rusty Nail to find out what all the hubbub was about!

r2 said...

In the last couple of Spenser books, Robert M. Parker has written about drinking Johnny Walker Blue WITH SODA.

That's an image I can live without.

And, frankly, I find the debasement a little irresponsible and much too graphic.

I'll have nightmares for a long, long time.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

The images your writing creates in my head have a remarkable way of sticking with me for days...and nights...and many a nightmare, and a few daymares besides. It's truly masterful.

We write to entertain, and we write to communicate, and we write to make money. I agree there's a balance to be had between all of these objectives. But in your case? I hope you don't change a thing!

Bernita said...

Oh, shameshameshame.
How DARE you!
The only legitimate complaint I can see is about a warning on the cover about the contents.
Otherwise, I tend to rebel about generalizations regarding filth, etc. and people who want all stories to conform to their tidy world.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to be true to your vision first - no matter what you write someone will always be able to find fault with it.

And Joe, if you were serious, take that woman off your newsletter right away. One of the worst things a writer can do is torture readers by signing them up without asking first. Opt in is not the same as opt out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

My two cents: I'd rush right out and buy your books in hardcover as gifts for all of my friends if the books weren't so violent. For all of the help and advice you dole out to writers on this blog, I'd love to support your career in a concrete way. But I can't take that level of graphic violence. So, yes, there is a population of potential readers that you're missing.

You can have it both ways. It's not like you have to choose. You can write your current series as it is AND start another one that will appeal to the mainstream.

Anonymous said...

Some people may object to the violence in my novels. My lack of crude language and graphic sex may lure my readers into thinking they're reading a cozy mystery. Then they may get mad at me when they encounter the violence.

But I agree with Joe. How can you get your readers to be fearful for your hero if you don't have a truly scary villain or two?

Jude Hardin said...

I'm currently reading *Cross*, James Patterson's new one. It's an instruction manual on how to handle graphic violence in a popular novel, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Let me see . . .

Jack's a HOMOCIDE detective, right? That means MURDER. Sure, that includes the more passive killings where the wimp uses poison, but let's face facts: murder is violent. I've read your first two books, and I was not put off by them. Some would consider me a prude, and I LOVED them! I even made my MOM read them. She's a fan now, too. (The scenes with the cat in Bloody Mary are a HOOT!)

You've got a good thing going here. It's working, right? If sales start to plateau, maybe THEN tinker with the recipe. As long as you're selling more books, who cares who's offended?

Besides, the cat wasn't killed, and even turned out to be a hero. Maybe start selling at the Humane Society?


Tom Schreck said...

If something or at least the threat of something really bad isn't present in a book isn't present--where will the tension/conflict come from?

I've winced reading your stuff Joe--the razor blades in the chocolate was tough--but it woke me up and made realize how bad the villain was.

In my book somebody mistreats a dog...and I'm sure people will object--at least until the dog gets his revenge...

Anonymous said...

Do I want to alienate potential readers and risk sales?

Be careful...there's a fine line between creative expression and "formula trap" when you start asking yourself questions like that!

Mindy Tarquini said...

It doesn't much matter what you write in the future, Joe, your unhappy emailer is never going to read you again, anyway. You may as well write what you want and keep cashing your royalty checks.

Anonymous said...

Your book are funny and glib; you have a female protag; your covers are bright and sassy.

The gross-out violence just doesn't seem to go with the whole package. When I encounter it, it's like finding a roach swimming in my whiskey sour

JA Konrath said...

The gross-out violence just doesn't seem to go with the whole package. When I encounter it, it's like finding a roach swimming in my whiskey sour

Point taken. But I still don't believe my stuff is gross-out. It's not graphic or gratuitous. Awful stuff happens, but in the reader's head, not the book.

My "schtick" is being scary and being funny. No one else is really doing that. Some don't think it works, and I understand that and respect their opinions.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog from the interview you gave for the Absolute Write Newsletter. I thought you might like to know how some new readers to your blog have stumbled upon you.

I know that I'll be going back and reading some of your older posts, because just in this one post you have raised many interesting questions.

I'll be honest and say that I have not yet read any of your books, (and I had not heard of you either prior to the AW interview), so my response is predicated on my own thoughts as a writer and also my tastes as a reader of fiction.

I can tolerate a lot of explicit gore and violence if it is necessary for the plot. I dislike it if it is merely there to gross me out. If I want to be grossed out I'll watch an inane comedy with Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, et. al. Which I don't, because I don't like that stuff.

The most graphically violent novels that I have ever read were written by the late Gary Jennings. His novel Aztec had scenes where I literally had to stop reading because I was clutching my stomach.

Yet, the milieu was the Aztec culture prior to, during and after the Spanish conquistadors. Human sacrifice was inherent in the fabric of the Aztec religion.

I don't know what I was expecting when I bought a copy of that book as an impulse buy for Christmas for my mother. I knew she liked fat historical novels and I figured she might not have read anything about the history of Mexico, and I thought she had probably tired of reading novels about Ann Boleyn.

She loved the book! Because my mother loved the book so much, she shared it with numerous of her friends and I got it as a return Christmas present the next year. I was literally shocked at what I had given my mother. Many times as I read the book I thought, "I gave this to my mother?" But I loved it as well.

It is literally the most sex-filled and violent book I have ever read, with the notable exception of the Bible. The difference is that the Bible has a time span of many millenia and Aztec only spans one man's lifetime. That and Gary Jennings was much more graphic than saying "he knew his wife" or "every man, woman and child was slain in the village."

To this day I think of Aztec as the single best novel I have ever read, because there is nothing superfluous in it. Everything works together as a fine tapestry. Even if it has extreme graphic violence.

Because that is what was necessary for the story to work.

I am probably one of the few people that had the criticism about Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl as having a lame underlying premise where an ancient Aztec curse could be lifted by a drop of blood. I mean, after reading Gary Jennings's novel, I expected nothing less than the curse to require someone ripping the beating heart from someone's chest. Not a bloody paper cut doing the deed.

Now, onto the subject of writing graphic or implied violence regarding serial murders. That is your genre and it may not be anything you can change.

Stephen King once responded why he wrote horror and he said that is what came to his mind. When he thinks of a pond he doesn't think poetry and flowers, he sees something creepy rising from its depths.

I say to your own self be true. Write what you would like to read. Write with the goal of coming up with something that will put a fiendish smile on your face and make you rub your hands together.

Enjoy yourself first and foremost. Because that is your job.

Don't try to tailor your writing for someone else, because you will muzzle your creative muse. Remember your high school or college instructors that you could never please? Screw 'em!

Not everyone likes every genre. People have different tasts. You can't please everyone, so don't even try.

Please yourself. Write what you want. The rest will follow.

Otherwise, you'll soon lose the love you have for writing. And that would be a shame.


Anonymous said...

When you look at the younger (ie the gamer) generation, they have no problem with violence, be it the fake cartoonish kind or something very real, gritty, pants-crapping. Perhaps our readers are aging and mellowing out/getting more conservative?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Konrath,
To be honest, I've never read any of your books. Since Rusty Nail was said to be gross and disturbing, I'll be sure to pick up a couple of your titles this weekend!!:*) So, with that being said, graphic violence may attract or deflect some folks. Either way, controversy sells! Serials killers are just that! They are scary, evil people. Keep writing what you write! I've seen worse on the 6 o'clock news! It's amazing how people can live in this country, and sill have rose-colored glasses on! Keep on, Mr. Konrath. You're great!

Anonymous said...

I don’t think you should try and please everyone and give in to a minority but I do think it’s better to appeal to the largest part of the market. When you’re potential customers are already limited to one specific genre it does not make good business sense to appeal to a fraction of that fraction. I write in the sci-fi genre and am having a hard time getting published. I do not let any characters swear or have any sex scenes. I do this to open up the age group of the potential market. Agents see it differently and feel my characters should swear and have sex. Even though this is keeping from getting my books on a store shelf, I would rather continue pitching than appeal to a small market. So as far as integrity goes, it’s a business and you will not survive if you don’t sell. I say cut the violence and increase the sales. When your books are placed at the front of the bookstore, you can write however you want.

Mary Stella said...

On September 27th, I blogged about Rusty Nail. It's pretty clear when you visit my blog that I write romantic comedy which is about as opposite as one can get from serial killers, psycopaths and blood gore (oh my!). My readers must all have expansive reading taste because not one of them emailed to complain that I'd pointed them in the direction of graphic violence, torture and murder.

The lady who wrote you didn't like the subject matter, but clearly there are many who do.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has their tolerance threshold, for violence, romance, or anything else about a story. It's all about one's personal taste. You have to write the story that's in you (all writers do, whether they think of it that way or not), and readers should read only the stories they enjoy.

I like it when other readers warn me about things I might not like in a book, but if they exaggerate that doesn't help me.

There's no reason for anyone to continue reading a book they don't like, or even to buy it to begin with. I've never had a bookstore clerk slap my hands away when I pre-read part of a book in the store, and I've found that if I sift through reader reviews online I get a pretty good handle on whether I'll like the book.

As a kid I had this weird notion that once I started reading I had to finish, so I finished The Exorcist even though it gave me nightmares. Today, if I get too uncomfortable I put the book down. Life's too short to spend it reading anything I don't like.

I guess what I'm saying is, keep doing what you do. Let readers keep doing what they do. Trust that the two will somehow mesh as they should.

Anonymous said...

Don't like what you're reading? Close the book.
I did, reading Bloody Mary with lunch yesterday (and it was okay not to warn me)- but then took it up later with a drink ... and get the covers now.
Look forward to Rusty Nail.
Don't water down. Write to please yourself - well, that's what I want to read anyway. Cheers.

Patrick said...


First, I have not yet read Rusty Nail. But it's on my list, and I'll base my comments about your writing on what I have read of yours so far.

In any case, to answer your question, I would much rather be a universally-loved writer than a writer loved because of controversy, for two reasons.

The first is that I'm frankly tired of controversy. These days, everything is a controversy. Someone is upset or offended or outraged or flabbergasted by something every day of the week, and they automatically assume the worst. You don't really have to try to be controversial because as your "fan" letter shows, you'll offend someone no matter what you do.

Second, I'd hate to have to build my reputation on attempting to push the envelope to the point that it tears every single time. I'll take no shame in admitting that I'm too lazy to spend all of my time in such an endeavor. I'd rather produce an entertaining story that reads like an honest tale, with any "shocks" feeling like they belong there instead of feeling gratuitous. I don't wish to change how I tell the story to offend or not offend anyone: I'm telling my story in a way that won't offend me, and I will assume that my own sensibilities aren't so radical from anyone else's. If telling the story with scenes that I feel honestly belong there for the story's sake loses me a few readers, then I'll just have to work a little harder to find others. To attempt otherwise would mean that I'd either turn myself off from my own story by going intentionally over the top or that I'd never get a page written out of fear of making no word rub someone the wrong way.

What I've read of your work so far makes it clear to me that you don't do violence for violence's sake, and you then break up the dark facts of the crime and its investigation with humor. You have a gift for mixing the two without it reading unnaturally.

I have to believe that those authors who remain honest to their story and entertain will, in the long run, have a much more successful and satisfying career than those who try to shock the sensibilities at all costs.

Anonymous said...

Joe & all:

Do what the story demands, I say.

I switched publishers from a tiny publisher to a small publisher when the former objected to the material in the sequel to my first book.

His objection? Bad things happen to a six-year-old kidnapped girl.

He wanted me to change it.

I wouldn't. Not because I'm so incredibly high-minded, but because the events that occur drive other events within the series. This includes causing one character to quit the police force. Years later, he gets a shot at redemption in a novel I've already written. There've been references to these events that the publisher wanted me to change in published short stories, too.

I simply wasn't about to change it.

And, frankly, since you saw the word 'tiny' in front of publisher...it wasn't like there was any serious money to do battle with the art on this one.

What I found interesting was that, like Joe mentioned about Rusty Nail, almost ALL of the bad things happen to the victim off-stage.

Anyway, there's more to this whole author/publisher exchange, but probably best not to air it out in public. Suffice it to say that we chose to go our separate ways and I was lucky enough to find another publisher to take on the series at book two.

I think that the story needs what the story needs in terms of violence (or anything else for that matter). Sure, you can tone it down or ratchet it up, but the events themselves are still going to happen. And I'd rather make sure the story being told is the one I wanted to tell.

Striving for controversy is contrived and insincere and I think people can spot it a mile away. But I'd rather have fewer, passionate readers than be vanilla.

Lastly, I belong to the same list Joe mentioned and saw the posts. Like all lists, people can sometimes get a little high on themselves and a little snotty, too. Those same people probably would behave differently in a another setting.

I'd say "Just my two cents," but this is more like a nickel post, huh?