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.
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 medical 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.