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Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Malice, Rape, and the Curry Rule

02.21.12
by Daniel Abraham

So, because of a few conversations and at least one dreadful and graceless shouting match I’ve been having and/or spectating one place and another online, I’ve been thinking more about my idiosyncratic attitude toward writing about sexual assault and its aftermath.  (And, yeah, poking along on the Dogs Project is part of that.) I tried to make my position clear way back when I posted about why I was consciously not including rape in my urban fantasy series, but I think I’ve found an example in the world that gives a good illustration of what I’m getting at.

No, not that Mali . . . No. Wait. Yes, exactly that Malice.

And so, a movie review.

Let me begin by saying how reassuring it is to me as a writer to see brilliant people stumble.  A cast filled not just with first class actors, but first class actors of whom I’m actually fond: Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman.  A script by Aaron Sorkin, one of my all-time favorite screenwriters, second only to Tom Stoppard.  Malice came out in 1993, and I have to say, it failed for me.  Badly.

The main plot involves a man figuring out that his wife and their friend the doctor are running an complex grift.  (Protip:  If your cunning criminal plan begins “Step One:  Go to medical school and become a top-flight surgeon” you may be overthinking it.)  There are machinations and reveals, and red herrings and complex subterfuge all written in Sorkin-esque brilliancies and delivered with a weird awkwardness (with the exception of one line by Baldwin, which was a perfect delivery, and so stood out like an emerald in gravel).  But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

This was also the first film appearance by Gwynneth Paltrow, who had a blink-and-you-miss-her role as an undergraduate who on a campus that was being used as hunting ground for a serial killer.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a serial killer in my plot synopsis.  That’s because the subplot was really just an aside.  The movie asked us to pay lots of attention to Bill Pullman’s betrayal by his wife, and the intricacies of medial malpractice while there’s a serial killer stalking the freaking campus.   My experience as a viewer was “Who gives a crap about medical malpractice?  You have a serial killer on campus!  Let’s take care of *that*.”

Which is to say, they put something in that overpowered the main story and then  tried to treat it as minor.

My curry rule is this (as I’ve stated it elsewhere), once you add some curry to your dish, you’re making a curry dish.  You can say it about really good fresh garlic too.  It’s almost impossible to add something that strong and compelling in and not have it be central to the experience.  Malice failed, in part, because it took something more compelling than its own story and tried to use it as background.  I think sexual assault is like that in prose fiction.  I think you can write about rape if you’re writing about rape (and even then, go with God, because it’s a terrible and complex subject) or if it’s not what you’re writing about, you can pass over the subject lightly, but including it as a side-note seems doomed to fail.

In the urban fantasy series, I’ve intentionally touched on things that I think relate to the problematic relationship between women and power in the culture, and while there’s a lot of overlap in subject matter, I’d like this to be a pleasant, somewhat escapist experience so I don’t want to go there with that story.  With Dogs, I’m specifically trying to take on one aspect of the aftermath of sexual assault.  It’s not that I don’t think rape should be written about or thought about or considered.  It’s very much that I think it defines the work in which it appears — it’s pretty much all anyone says about Thomas Covenant anymore — and so if that’s not central what I’m writing, it’s a mistake to include it.

Other folks, clearly, have different views.  But I think I’m right.

16 Responses »

  1. Daniel–great explanation for a concept that’s really tough to communicate in editing. I’ll be using this (with attribution, of course!).

      • Hello Daniel! Unfortunately, I failed to find your email on the website, so I decided to reply to one of your recent comments instead (hope it’s OK!) to contact you.
        Perhaps you’ll be pleased to know that a small part of ‘Leviathan Wakes’ (chapter 1) has been chosen as a really challenging task for a translators’ contest recently held by one of the Russia’s most respected translators’ school. Being one of the competitors, I must say this text requires much effort to convey some parts in Russian – which makes it more interesting of course.
        Over 140 amateur translators took part in the contest, and we’re still arguing about some specific parts that can be understood (and thus translated) in several different ways. So I thought maybe you would be so kind to help us understand what those parts exactly mean (of course if you agree to waste your time on this)? That would be really great! Now let me show you the specific parts:
        1) ‘Then Solomon Epstein had built his little modified fusion drive, popped it on the back of his three-man yacht, and turned it on. With a good scope, you could still see his ship going at a MARGINAL PERCENTAGE OF THE SPEED OF LIGHT’ – What did you mean exactly – almost as fast as the speed of light OR just a little percentage of the speed of light?
        2) “He turned back to the hangar deck. Chief Engineer Naomi Nagata towered over him…
        “Holden, are you listening, or just STARING OUT THE WINDOW?”
        – was he actually looking out of the window, or is it just an idiom which means he was day-dreaming?
        3) Paj, Ade Tukunbo – how do these names exactly SOUND?

        We’d all be really grateful if you could find a minute to help us with some explanation.

        Oh, I hope you understand that my questions do not show the lack of expertise in Russian translation school – they just represent the level of amateur translators like me (and also their interest in translating your book as good as they can!)

        I really hope to receive your reply. Thank you in advance!

        • Hello Pavel,

          I’ll try to answer as best I can.

          “MARGINAL PERCENTAGE OF THE SPEED OF LIGHT” means that the ship is moving fast enough to be an actual percentage of the speed of light, rather than a fraction of a percentage. Even 1% of the speed of light is incredibly fast. It’s also just idiom for “really really insanely fast.”

          “STARING OUT THE WINDOW?” Idiom for daydreaming. There are no actual windows in space ships.

          “Paj, Ade Tukunbo” I’m bad at phonetics. But Paj is pronounced roughly like Padge. Ade is pronounced Ah-day. Too-Koon-Bo is roughly the last name.

          • Hello Ty, thank you very much for the explanations! I hope I didn’t bother you too much. Please accept my congratulations on the brilliant book!
            In case you would like to know where the contest is held – it’s organized and judged by Vladimir Bakanov’s translation school (one of the most renowned Russia’s translators, http://www.bakanov.org). But of course my questions were from amateurs like me, not from the school’s actual translators :)
            Thank you and good luck with your next book!

  2. The test I use for my own stuff:

    1) Is this something that would actually happen in the society that I created? (these days, that answer is generally “no” because living in a society that supports forced sex as a means to control an entire category of people, I don’t have much interest in exploring one in fiction. I’d rather look at how things can be different – not better or worse, just different)
    2) Is it absolutely relevant to the primary plot and *absolutely vital* to events that happen after it?
    3) Am I just using it to define a particular character (“Oh, that must be the BAD GUY!”) or punish a particular character (“Oh, I feel so sorry for that person!”)? Is it just lazy writing?

    99% of the time, the answer is that it’s completely unnecessary. I generally discover that I’m considering putting it in because it’s a fast, easy, lazy way to achieve a story goal (character definition, or evocation of strong emotion/tension) that could be far more powerfully and creatively done in a less cliched way that doesn’t insult my characters.

  3. I’d have to say that Summer of Sam managed to pull off a rather big plot device that didn’t overshadow the main story or characters. But: 1) that may be an exception to the rule, which is understandable (since most rules aren’t immutable); 2) the manner in which the side story was integrated into the main characters’ narratives actually avoided the rule you describe.

    I’m okay with either, or even some third option I’d not thought of. I like your curry rule, though. Excellent association.

  4. The Curry Rule is true. That’s the way we’re wired. Hot buttons attract attention, despite our best efforts.

    I remember seeing Malice long ago, and I think you’re right. Its a poster child for the Curry Rule.

  5. I had a similar feeling about the film JEFFERSON IN PARIS. All these lesser nobles sitting around hobnobbing in the parlour with the American, and all I could think was YOU’LL ALL BE DEAD IN A YEAR! The Terror really overshadowed anything else Jhabvala and James Ivory were trying to do.

  6. Disquieting. Spot on. Desperately seeking third option and will damned well find one.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with The Curry Rule. Actually, I was just writing a short review about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and was trying to say the book’s not about rape, but about racism. Yet I think many readers will mostly remember that event being the major plot point. The Curry Rule sums up what I couldn’t satisfactorily put into my own words.

    Of course, there is an assumption that the writer doesn’t intend rape or sexual assault to be the big takeaway from a story, and for all I know, maybe that was what Morrison intended. But when I’ve got a book like The Bluest Eye with maybe 1/2 page of rape and 220 pages of racism, I have concluded that the story is about racism, not rape, even though it will be the first thing to come to my mind when I think about the book.

    (By the way, this isn’t a spoiler if you haven’t read The Bluest Eye, it is mentioned in the first paragraph.)

  8. I completely agree with The Curry Rule!! Described in a way that can be easily grasped. I have always viewed rape in a book that is not specifically about rape or is not integral to the character’s development in the same way as a sex scene in an action movie. It sticks with you but completely detracts from the purpose of the work.

  9. Completely agree with you here. Great analogy too. :)

  10. I came to visit your site because I’ve just discovered your writing (through your story in Logorrhea and now getting close to finishing Shadow in Summer. I do like this Curry Rule. I hope that I might employ it with props to you with my high school writing students.

    In Shadow in Summer I think you do a particularly good job in touching upon some of the troubling relationships between women and politics (particularly with reproductive rights.)

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