By Zachary Klein

I’m an outspoken pacifist. I cover my eyes while watching most violence I see on television or in the movies. And I continue to believe in humanity, despite the gruesome reality that surrounds us.

I also earn my living writing about murder, betrayal, greed, and as much of the dark underside in our society as I can possibly perceive and understand.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing. Writing is an art and I believe that every type of art gives all of us the space to experience the truly ugly strands of human nature without having to act them out. I’ll go even farther. It doesn’t have to be art. I believe the same about pornography, politically incorrect movies, and any “make believes.” I feel exactly the same about video games—though I haven’t played one since Tetris.

I know the argument that viewing/reading violence, sex, and the politically incorrect, actually encourages people to act out their inner uglies. I just don’t believe it. Worse, arguments like those have tightened control on what we can see, listen to, write and produce. We’ve lost a serious amount of creative space, not added. In fact, I think that throughout history, restriction and censorship has done more damage than what it tries to condemn.

A few nights ago Sue and I were flipping through mainstream channels, spotted the film Airplane, and stopped to watch—though we’d seen it a boatload of times. The movie had been released in 1980 and, at the same moment, we turned to each other and agreed that it would be impossible to make that movie now. “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” pilot Peter Graves asks a little boy. (Not allowed to crack wise about pederasty these days.) A stewardess blows a rubber doll. (Where besides a fetish flick can you watch that?) An airport manager sniffs glue. And much, much more that defies our current cultural zeitgeist. Nothing in the movie was sacred. Oh, Airplane was rated PG.

The politically incorrect parts were making fun of and lambasting racism, sexism, drug use etc, rather than promoting it. Know what? Our kids did not grow up traumatized from sexual innuendo. (Who do you know that became a racist after watching Blazing Saddles?) No matter how you slice it, there’s a loss here.

I’ll grant my belief that every type “make believe” as a space to allow the worst of ourselves to be harmlessly encountered is difficult to conceive. Especially since we live in a world with an amazing amount of violence and perversity that has always, and continues, to exist. It’s tough to see how crime writing has reduced crime when crime is rampant. That writing about murder has reduced killing. But I believe it’s tough to see because the gift of imaginary freedom has always been buried under reality. And reality isn’t particularly pretty.

We’ve been socialized to think entertainment is simply that. For fun. That art is something to read, watch, and sometimes feel. And it’s that socialization which has reduced the power of “make believe” and I believe added to real life’s crushing brutality.

So before we can get an honest answer to my proposition, we actually need to eradicate the social/political/poverty and race issues that cause the actual violence in which we live. Only please don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Even if we were magically able to staunch the blood flow, there will always be an underside in everyone and that’s not going anywhere. Except into imagination which I as a reader and writer hold most dear. For the “make believe” we read in crime fiction or see in violent movies or hear in some dark music is a space that allows us to visit, explore, and treat the worst parts of ourselves—harmlessly, and then come back to our normal lives and sit down at the dinner table.

I’m not saying I write detective fiction simply for the good of humanity. In past columns I’ve mentioned the wonderful similarities I see (and sometimes get to enjoy) between playing jazz and writing detective fiction. (To be honest, probably more traditional jazz than total free-form.) The excitement of taking a paradigm and pushing at its boundaries. The novelist’s pleasure of bringing their audience into unknown places and unexpectedly intense situations.

But more than the personal enjoyment, I believe that, without proof, our work as crime writers contribute to the hope of a better, less violent, more tolerant world. And whether or not we collectively, cognitively, acknowledge it, all the multiple forms I mentioned above give promise to that hope.

We need imaginary violence. We need a place for kinkiness, we need a space in which we can safely (for ourselves and others) try out anything we want to be—without actually being it and without fear of reprisal.

We need more Breaking Bads, Sopranos, Deadwoods, Big Sleeps, Red Harvests, and especially more movies like Airplane.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus ~ Mark Twain


    • Dennis–Thanks. I actually expect blow-back on this column so it’s nice that the first comment is supportive. I despise censorship in any form and really do believe “make believe” gives us real but harmless outlets for who we are as a species.

  1. When I taught high school art back in the 80’s one of our teachers assigned “The Bluest Eye” for the summer reading for her English class. Parents went ballistic. This was a very progressive school. When the BIG meeting was called to ‘discuss’ the issue quite a large group of teachers and parents attended. A fellow teacher said exactly what you wrote in the beginning of your article here, Zach. That literature is a SAFE place where we may experience the horrors that do exist in this world. I readily and vocally applauded her, knowing this to be exactly the truth.
    I don’t recall whether the book was pulled, or what resulted from that time, but I never forgot that beautiful truth.
    Your writing always makes sense to me and this post, no less so.
    I am so enjoying hearing from the authors. Thank you.

    • Kathleen–I didn’t hear the teacher say it. Promise! (Smile.) Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really do believe censorship causes much more harm than good. And I also believe detective fiction really does give people permission to be *everything* they are without worry, harm, or hurt.

  2. I agree but I think somehow this all has to do with the eye of the beholder.
    I love “Goodfellas,” and have seen it a dozen times if once. Every time I watch this movie I feel the pull of sympathy for Henry Hill, Tommy DeSimone and Jimmy Burke that the movie generates. But when the movie ends, I ALWAYS ponder what scumbag murderers, especially the last two were in real life.
    Somehow, somewhere along the line, many people, not just young, have lost the ability to see between the “make believe” and real life. Why this is, I’m not sure. I’m even less sure what can be done about it.

    • Jed–“Somehow, somewhere along the line, many people, not just young, have lost the ability to see between the “make believe” and real life. Why this is, I’m not sure. I’m even less sure what can be done about it.” My sense is that the loss comes from the insanity we live in. We refuse to treat the root causes of violence in our own country, (poverty, race, etc) and we contribute to violence around the entire world with our weaponry, military, and arms shipments. I think the only way to restore the distinction between make believe and real life is to change real life.

  3. Wonderful post, Zach. I’m grateful – every day – that we have books, movies, television, and music that “give[s] all of us the space to experience the truly ugly strands of human nature without having to act them out.”

    And you reminded me how much I love that movie Airplane. I’m going to look for it on Netflix.

  4. You know I prefer non-fiction. I wonder how much non-fiction murder, rape, torture, and child molestation you have read yourself. You’d have no guilt about writing the most horrific scenes you can imagine. Someone’s already done it.

    Someone is doing these things as you read this.

    In fiction there is entertainment as we follow the sleuth, hoping at every turn he’ll either capture (or better yet) gut-shoot the monster he’s been chasing. He represents the Good Us, the people we hope to be, the folks who will not tolerate this in our society. We’re all happy when he shoves the perv or mass-killer into an 18,000 volt fence at the last minute, even after the Good Guy has been disarmed and faces certain death.

    I’ve read others comment about “Airplane.” Nowadays they say pretty much the same as you do. Great, great movie. Hilariously funny. Couldn’t be made now…

    I wonder…

    Is it that it couldn’t be made now–or WOULDN’T be made now?

    We must never forget when dealing with anything connected to Hollywood that they do not make motion pictures to entertain or illuminate the masses. There is only one reason major studios will pick up a script, mangle it a few dozen times, and then make a movie of it. They are not concerned with opening our eyes to great injustice or heroism. They couldn’t care less about social injustice, or where the few vanquished the many because they have right on their side. They only care about one thing.

    How much money will this make our studio?

    Sequels, prequels, the same stories over and over. Barely disguised versions of past box office winners, none ever worth watching. My good friend, they are not into this for art. They’re in it for the money. Nothing more, nothing less.

    So I’d cast aside those doubts and worries. You’re not affecting society. You’re free to write the most hideous murder scene you can possibly imagine with no guilt whatsoever. Someone–somewhere–has already done it.

    In real life.

    • Kent–you’re mostly correct about films though you might be surprised at how many movies make little or no money but are tremendous experiences.

      As far as “So I’d cast aside those doubts and worries. You’re not affecting society. You’re free to write the most hideous murder scene you can possibly imagine with no guilt whatsoever. Someone–somewhere–has already done it.” I have no doubts about writing anything. You’ve actually turned my idea on its head. I believe art and other “make believe” can and should be an escape hatch instead of the horrific violence we live with. I have, and will continue to believe, much of that violence can be eradicated if we actually build a society that eradicates poverty/racial issues, hunger, and most of all poverty. At that point the uglier side of humans can be limited to “fantasy.”

  5. This is so true, Zach. TV is not the way it use to be nor is the movies. They are remaking films and turning into PG13 to make them more mainstream, the film The Crow for example, they are remaking it and turning it into PG13, now if your not familiar with The Crow its a film set in a dysptopian world overrun by crime, now any person with common sense would know that is not a world you politically correct up. People need to realize censorship is the first step to tyranny. Just to show you how censorship is effecting people in General I wrote a novel called Lilith Cohen: Merchants of Death and some people have claimed its too dark and depressing and tragic, they tell me I should write a happy story. This Censorship crap is really bleeding over into the world of writers now. Sadly most of film industry is all about money rather than the art.

    • Joey–Thanks for commenting. It’s always been for money but there wasn’t the same stranglehold on what’s ok to read, say, or view. Censorship has always been with us (see my exit from legacy publishers) but the degree these days is worse. The tragedy is we won’t deal with root causes of the issues in the real world in order to liberate the “make believe.”

  6. Hello Zach –
    Another very thought provoking column, which is excellent for expanding peoples’ accepted conventions, intellect and ideals.
    I do think, however, that some form of censorship is most certainly needed. The nub of my assertion would be your own phrase ” ……… visit, explore, and treat the worst parts of ourselves—harmlessly, and then come back to our normal lives and sit down at the dinner table.”
    This is truly a wonderful, altruistic concept to hold. A cursory glance through the world news available daily in the media, however, reveals that “normal lives” for a huge proportion of the population of our world does not afford them the opportunity, option or occasion to cherish such ideals. For millions life is a daily battle just to sustain themselves – let alone have a table at which to sit down and eat at.
    I think we can all agree that this is totally unjust.
    However, if the media presents violence, blackmail and bloodshed as a solution to a multitude of problematic situations; the greater population may absorb this as acceptable behaviour and not return “harmlessly” to their desperate lifestyle at all.
    Without some consideration being given to the information and data by which so many may make life changing decisions, I feel that we are in a continual vortex of escalating violence.
    If the whole world could afford the time and leisure to discuss and uphold such Utopian dreams it would indeed be paradise.
    Moderate censorship would be beneficial until better distribution of the world’s foodstuffs eases the plight of so many.
    Frank Bow

    • Frank–I actually agree with some of your thoughts–especially about the state of the world. But I don’t believe it’s utopian to imagine a world where food distribution (among other necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare) can actually occur. That it hasn’t happened is a distribution issue and not one of resources. That begins with understanding the *real* meaning of one country using or controlling about 1/5th of our global resources. These are political issues rather than media questions. In my column I suggest strongly that if we want to have “make believe” become the space where the underside of humanity can safely exist, we need to “fix” the underlying causes that produce the inequalities that plague our world. Of course this means a sea-change in the way we go about our political lives, but that change is not geared toward utopia but rather the realistic goal of butter not guns. Not only for our society but for the societies that you accurately describe as “desperate.”

      And thank you for taking the time to read and provide this thought provoking comment. Much appreciated!


      • Hello again Zach
        Many thanks for your reply to my email.
        I agree wholeheartedly with your reply, indeed that concept is what I was hoping I could put across in my brief letter.
        My mention of Utopia was not referring to the wishful dreamy situation of more equal distribution of all resources, but rather the state that would prevail once this has been actually attained. Whilst people are in a daily life and death struggle for basic nutrition, they will not have the time or inclination to dream of this Utopia.
        My concern is that until this political and distribution problem is overcome some moderate censorship may be needed to prevent violence being seen, by a huge proportion of the population, as a suitable response.
        So, I think we are singing from the same song sheet but just didn’t find harmony on the top notes.
        All the Best

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