JAY RUSSELL on Violence,
Censorship and the influence of Popular Culture
From early on you've been interested in pop culture in all its forms. Where did this interest begin? What do you remember as major influences?
I can't recall not being enthralled by television and movies. Even as a little kid I remember spending entire weekends glued to the set, watching old movies. Being a youngest child, my parents were probably more indulgent than was good for me, letting me get away with murder. But my mother was a voracious reader and also instilled a love of books in me from early on. I still regard Warner Brothers cartoons (seen on television some years after they were made) as the single most important influence on my youth. I don't think I'd have the sense of humour or, indeed, the world view that I do were it not for Chuck Jones. I don't know if it remotely figures into my writing, but PEANUTS (the comic strip) was the other major influence on my early sensibilities.
It seems that you've had great fortune in being able to indulge your love for popular literature, films, TV etc. to the extent that you've acquired a PhD in the subject, and are now a writer. Do you find that this addiction drives your writing? Are you still experimenting or have you found that writing is what you've always wanted to do?
I liked aspects of being an academic, but the key thing I learned was that I much preferred writing fiction to writing *about* it. I don't think my affection for pop culture drives my writing as it does writers like Kim Newman and Howard Waldrop. It clearly figures into my style -- as well as the specific Hollywood-based content of Celestial Dogs -- but is not the raison d'etre for what I write. I hate writers who make writing sound like some inherently noble or religious thing, but there is a sense in which it is a calling. The process of getting published is so frustrating and outwardly unrewarding that, with few exceptions, it has to be something you've always wanted to do if you're going to succeed at it. The only sound reason for being a writer is that you can't resist the desire to do it.
Or you're incapable of holding down a real job.
Most people grow up surrounded by the popular literature, films, music, TV, comics of the day, and then develop more `serious' interests. What made you decide pop culture was a subject for serious study? How important do you believe is it's influence on attitudes and behaviour?
Media studies is now the fastest growing and most popular course of undergraduate study in the UK. I have no idea if that is a good thing. A similar explosion happened a little earlier in the US (where it's called "communications"). The reasons, I think, are obvious: media have become progressively more central to our lives in this century, especially post-television. There are snooty places -- Oxford, Cambridge, some Ivy League schools -- where the study of media is still seen as somehow unworthy, but these institutions risk their reputations and relevance by such myopia. "Information Age" may be a cliche, but it is also a neat shorthand for the massive economic and social changes which have not been *caused* by media, but of which the rise of mass media -- from cinema to the Net -- are part and parcel. In (post)modern economies, the production and distribution of sit-coms and web pages is as important to understand as the production of steel was to an earlier economic era.
Mass media, like all art, have considerable influence on what and how we think and act, but the notion that individual media artifacts can somehow be separated out of the broader socio-cultural mix and isolated as a causal mechanism for subsequent behavior is inherently flawed. The better educated we are about the workings and nature of media, the better equipped we are to deal with potential influence and affect.
Much has been said about the negative effects of showing graphic violence on Film or TV. Films have been banned as a result and the possibility of copy-cat violence is worrying. How do you feel about this? If censorship is to be discounted, how can any negative influences be counteracted?
There is simply no validity to the notion that media have direct and/or immediate influence on behaviour. The trouble is this stuff is *very* hard to explain to the lay person who has no background in social science. Anecdotal evidence of the sort emphasised by the slimy likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun -- "video nasty" stories -- is meaningless garbage. There is now roughly 65 years of social scientific research into media effects, mostly involving film and television and children. The research is complicated, contradictory and often just plain lousy, but the grand result of this vast body of literature runs something like: some media may have some effects on some people under some conditions.
An example: The most "damning" social science studies into effects of TV violence on children report that in certain circumstances about ten percent of "aggressive" behaviour in children may be attributable to viewing violence. Note: this does not mean that there would be ten percent less aggression in the world if there were no TV, merely that ten percent of the behavioural variable under study in the model defined and constructed by the researchers -- "aggression" -- can be statistically accounted for by the variable "TV viewing." That leaves 90 percent of aggressive behavior in the model attributable to other factors.
I believe that free speech/expression is the central pillar of modern liberal democracy. Restrict free speech and sooner or later the whole edifice *must* collapse. I think it is obscene to argue that we should risk something that important on the *off* chance -- and the kind of research I'm talking about is anything but definite -- that we *might* reduce by ten percent a contributory factor of violent behaviour. How about investing more in education first? Or reducing unemployment?
Oh, right, I forgot: those things are hard to do. And expensive. But it's easy (and cheap) to castigate and scapegoat writers and filmmakers. Enter David Alton.
Do the same arguments apply to representations of violence in books?
Books (thankfully) tend to escape the mindless vitriol reserved for horror films and cop shows, though recently there has been some fuss about R.L. Stine and the POINT HORROR stuff for teenagers. The fact that books aren't under fire is rooted in snobbery, of course, but I won't complain. Publishers and readers *are* targeted in the UK, though it's largely by HM Customs whose faceless and unaccountable minions presume to define what the public should be allowed to read. Customs has especially gone after comic books shops with a vengeance. Publisher Savoy Books has also been horrifically persecuted by various agencies, so vigilence remains essential.
In Celestial Dogs your descriptions of violence are quite graphic and very effective. Some would argue that violence should only be hinted at, that the reader's imagination should do the rest. At the others extreme, there's the argument that if violence is to be depicted at all it has to be shown as it is - horrific and degrading. What in your opinion, makes violence gratuitous? How and where do you draw the line in your writing?
I accept that some readers don't like graphic violence and I respect, if I don't share, their views. Unfortunately, some of these people are not satisfied to just ignore graphic work themselves, they do not want *anyone* to read it. I do *not* accept that I should restrict or censor what I write because someone somewhere *may* take offense at it. That can't be my problem. There is a mistaken belief that graphic writing somehow panders to the market, but the fact is that I am probably hurting sales by writing as I do -- there's more money to be made in writing "safe" than running on the edge. I do it because I write to express a particular point of view that is essentially dark and cynical.
I am currently doing a final edit of my next book, BLOOD! (coming from Raven on October 21st), and toning down some of the violence in it. I admit that I am doing this partly in consideration of the market, but more importantly because I can see that it is a book that *has* gone over the top. It was great fun to write, but reading over it I realized that the violence overwhelms the story and the characters -- *that* to me is the sole definition of gratuitous. The final version will still be rough, will offend many people and will no doubt be labelled exploitation by some, but the violence will be just one integrated -- and essential -- element in a greater whole.
There's a tendency for much crime fiction (films) to be voyeuristic in the depiction of violence, particularly in relation to sexual crimes. In Celestial Dogs, Marty himself becomes the voyeur and witness to a scene of horrific brutality. The scene works extremely well and the reader is left to consider not only the effects on the victim, but also on the observer - the position we are in as readers. Is this an important theme in your work?
I've never really thought about this in terms of my own work. I am, naturally, interested in seeing readers think about their responses to what they read (though not in the pseudo-Brechtian/postmodern way that ruins Dennis Potter's "crime" novels, for example). The detective *is* so typically a voyeur that the subject matter seems pretty hard to avoid if you write in genre. The effect is certainly emphasised in first person narratives like Celestial Dogs, but I can't say I made any conscious effort to foreground it.
Celestial Dogs could have worked equally well as a straight hard-boiled detective novel. How did the transition to horror/fantasy come about? What is it about the horror/fantasy genre that you find particularly appealing? In particular, the resolution in a straight detective novel typically involves catching the perpetrator and administering some form of justice (or failing to). Do you find the options available in the horror/fantasy genre less restrictive?
DOGS, in fact, started life as a straight hard-boiled detective story. It was going to be a "murder in Hollywood" tale, but somehow spun off at an oblique angle to the genre norm. Horror has always been my first love -- though crime runs a close second -- and I tend to think in horror terms when plotting or designing stories. I didn't *mean* for DOGS to take on a supernatural element, it just happened because it made thematic sense for the story I wanted to tell and is a part of how I think about narrative. In terms of the market it was pretty stupid, though.
I like the unlimited scope for imagination which horror/fantasy permits -- if you think it, you can write it. I do think horror is less restrictive than crime fiction, though that sometimes means that the writing is sloppier. Genre fiction is typically dismissed by elitists as formulaic and limiting, but like a classic jazz tune, the joy of it is in finding a new spin or improvisation on an old theme. I am especially fond of writers who straddle and mix genres, Jonathan Carroll being the best possible example. Mixing genres, though commercially risky, is a way to open the familiar up and examine it in a new way. I believe that readers are more adventurous than publishers give them credit for. The problem is that too few publishers are willing to take risks on good books which do not conform to very strict and familiar formulae. Most of the best US horror fiction in recent years has been published by small presses.
You have actually worked as an operative for a Los Angeles detective agency. Of course everyone has an idea of what PIs are supposed to get up to, but what exactly did your job involve? Did the experience influence your writing?
For most people who make their living at it, the life of a detective is nothing at all like it is depicted in genre works. It *is* a sleazy world, full of unsavoury characters and unpleasant clients -- the people I worked with/for included a born-again-Christian, semi-closeted (married) gay heroin addict; a pathological liar who was also the daughter of a mafiosi under investigation by the FBI; and a would-be rock-and-roller/screenwriter who was "a lesbian trapped in a man's body". These were the investigators, *not* the suspects -- but most of the work is very prosaic. I worked for an agency specializing in insurance investigations. We were hired by lawyers and insurance adjustors to check out injury claims believed to be false. There are 3 main components to such work: document research, witness interviews and surveillance. Example: a janitor claims to have hurt his back after slipping on a wet floor on the job. First, you check court records to see how many claims this guy has filed before (usually, the answer is several). Then you go talk to co-workers and neighbours to find out if the accident really happened, if the guy appears to be hurt, etc. When you find out that no one saw the accident and that a neighbour has observed the man lifting a 200 pound refrigerator, you begin surveillance so you can *video* the guy the next time he picks up a fridge.
Not very exciting is it?
But that's how you make enough money to keep a business running. Such claims are numerous and no matter how patently fake, they must be investigated before the case goes to court or a tribunal. Occasionally, we'd get something a little more interesting, but even then most of the work was the collection and assembly of information (sort of like writing!).
The scariest thing I learned, beyond how much tax-payer and insurance company money is wasted on this nonsense, was how easy it is to get information about people. At the most basic level, neighbours and co-workers will spill all they know about you with no reluctance whatsoever (it made me think just how easy it must be to run a totalitarian regime). More worrying, though, is how easy it is to obtain ostensibly confidential information from institutional sources. Any information held about you on a computer can be obtained with ease for minimal cost. There are people out there who specialize in obtaining such information and they sell cheap. Your phone records, banking records, credit history -- whatever -- is available to anyone with the right phone number and a few dollars to spend.
I'm glad I did the work because it exposed me to people and places I would not otherwise have seen, but there is very little I experienced that filters directly into my writing. In the end, the conventions and rules of the genre are more important than the real-life world of the detective. The great James Ellroy is fond of saying that the last time a real PI solved a murder was never. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun to write -- and read -- about.
I've already asked what influenced you in your early years, but what would you say were the major influences on your present writing? The sequel to Celestial Dogs is to be set in Britain where you now live. Can you say how this setting might influence the story? And finally, I have to ask it, how much of Marty is based on yourself?
Living in Los Angeles was obviously a major influence on Celestial Dogs. L.A. must be one of the goofiest places in the world and you can't help but be affected by the craziness of *everyone* who lives there. I wanted to set the sequel in England because now that I've been living here for a couple of years I have a few things to say about the place! The new book will provide Marty (and me) an opportunity to pass a number of observations about British life and culture. As perhaps befits the gentler setting, the new book will be less hard-boiled than DOGS and more fantasy-oriented. It *will* deal with very real-world issues -- the rise of ultra-right wing movements in the UK and the States, in particular -- but will be an even less traditional "crime" novel than DOGS.
I hope that my work is not unduly influenced by other writers -- I certainly make no effort to write like anyone other than me -- but the writers who I find most interesting these days are almost all crime writers. James Ellroy and James Lee Burke are at the top of my list along with James Crumley and Andrew Vachss. The death of Derek Raymond was a terrible loss. I fear we're in a depressingly fallow period for horror fiction, though I'm not sure why. The market for horror is very weak, especially in the States, which has driven some good writers -- Joe R. Lansdale, for instance -- out of the genre (and into crime fiction). Kim Newman is probably the most consistently brilliant horror writer in the UK.
Is Marty me? Of course. Up to a point. However tempting, though, never confuse the character with the writer. We all write based on what we know and who we are. But we all lie, too. A lot. That's what makes it so much fun.
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