Resisting Attack

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

The effects of violence in television, movies and music have been heavily debated for years, but Assoc. Prof. Laura Tanner (English) argues that violence in literature can also have damaging effects on society.

"Reading literature frames attitudes about what's happening in real life," she said, "and reading about acts of violence can perpetuate the violence being represented."

Tanner says readers should realize the attitudes and assumptions they bring to a book and recognize how books try to manipulate them. She explores these issues in her recent book, Intimate Violence.

"One of the biggest threats I saw in the world had to do with the threat of violence," she said of her motivation for writing the book, "and the notion that I found least explicable was the idea of rape and torture, acts of violence which project a certain kind of intimacy. We must be alert to the connection or it could impact us negatively."

Intimate Violence stresses the need for readers to be self-conscious about the experience of reading, Tanner said, and the importance of remaining analytical and critical.

"One of my arguments is that every representation of violence carries with it certain assumptions and certain attitudes that it can communicate to the reader," she said. "That doesn't mean that it can force the reader to accept those assumptions. However, some literary depictions of violence can perpetuate certain attitudes that, in a sense, perpetuate rape."

Tanner's book maintains that the reader can participate in, conspire with, and resist scenes of violence contained within a series of 20th-century American and British novels. In preparation, Tanner read and analyzed unsettling, provocative and powerful passages from more than 60 books, including 1984 , The Women of Brewster Place and Sanctuary , charting her own resistance to the acts of victimization these novels describe.

"I tried to find out how such violence could be possible while coming up with a way of making it less probable, or resisting it or offering people some way of imagining things that would allow them to have some sort of power against this potential violation," Tanner said.

The book that most disturbed her was American Psycho , a novel written from the point of view of a deranged killer. "When it was first published, it generated a huge debate about whether or not there should be censorship because the scenes of torture and mutilation of women were so horrible that people said it shouldn't be read," she said. "I wanted to see what it is about the experience of reading that is so horrifying that it made people say they don't want this book accessed by anyone.

"What is it that gives the book so much power that people want to abolish it? And is there a way that we can read even a book like American Psycho critically and take away some kind of knowledge or capacity for resistance rather than being swept up by the horror?"

In literary representation, there has to be a way to construct the victim's experience, according to Tanner: positioning the reader inside the victim's head, questioning what the violator is trying to do, or questioning the perspective from which the act is described.

"I aim not to designate one form of response to representations of violence," said Tanner, "but to open up avenues of imaginative opposition that allow the reader to resist the forceful imposition of any narrative, including my own."

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