Artistic Licence to Kill

'Life doesn't imitate art; art imitates life, rather pallidly in most instances'

I’ve been dreading this, since it was only a matter of time: some creep would go on a murder spree with a crossbow.

That’s the weapon of choice for the school killer in my seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. The 15-year-old spurns a gun, which he considers obvious, ordinary and less demanding of skill than a crossbow, so his selection of this lethal yet legal implement is carefully calculated to distinguish him from the run-of-the-mill. After all, high-school massacre is classic “attention-seeking behaviour”, just as the juvenile grotesquery of Stephen Griffiths’s alleged murder and dismemberment of three prostitutes was doubtless designed to grab headlines.

Lacking any declaration of literary allusion by the accused, it would entail a perverse sort of vanity on my part to assume that the self-styled “Crossbow Cannibal” got the idea of using a crossbow from my novel. Nevertheless, I scanned the books apparently mentioned on his websites with trepidation. Mercifully, Griffiths favoured nonfiction: Women and the Noose, Britain’s Bloodiest Serial Killers. Thus far, though the odd blog has speculated along these lines, no detective or investigative journalist has revealed that the gruesome killings with which Griffiths is charged were inspired even fractionally by the climax of Kevin.

Yet let’s hypothesise for a moment that Kevin did influence his weapon in this case. Would that make these deaths my fault?

After all, my former literary agent, who first refused to represent that novel, was not only repelled by its cold narrator and the woman’s unpleasant son, but also warned by email of this very advent. She was “extremely fearful of the idea that some kid might read this and get some copycat idea to use a crossbow. You think I’m kidding? Just imagine how that would feel.” Good question. If the 40-year-old adolescent Stephen Griffiths were to claim he’d imitated the fictional Kevin Katchadourian, how would I feel?

Queasy. Still, if we’re blaming popular culture for planting depraved notions in the minds of the pure-hearted, Griffiths has also paid internet homage to Ravenous, a film about vampire cannibals, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film in which a baby seems to have been crossed with a giant maggot, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. So there’s plenty of culpability to spread around.

People often demonise the influences of demons. America’s high-school shootings have resulted in (failed) lawsuits against everyone from poor Marilyn Manson, with that heavy hand with the mascara brush, to the video-game designers of Doom. Driven by a craving for meaning, for an order in which big, dumb, terrible things have a clear cause and, therefore, a clear remedy, this desperate finger-pointing is wrong-headed. Were artists held criminally responsible for everything that individual members of their audiences get up to, no one could ever afford the risk of recording a song, publishing a book or distributing a film.

Furthermore, should fictional narrative be obliged to represent only characters whose behaviour is worthy of emulation, we’d be stuck with pretty piss-poor entertainment. Scene after scene, numbingly virtuous paragons would visit the sick, recycle their yogurt pots and rescue cats from trees. Alas, most compelling plots involve some sort of badness. Had Dostoevsky taken my agent’s advice, Raskolnikov would have only taken that old hag a basket of fresh muffins, in terror that some unoriginal ne’er-do-well reader might do something untoward with an axe. We’d have no genre of crime fiction; benevolence fiction would be all the rage.

But then, Griffiths has been studying criminology at Bradford and most of the role models lauded on his website were biographical: Jack the Ripper or Fred and Rosemary West. With no Kevin, any “Crossbow Cannibal” could find inspiration aplenty in the real world.

For the biggest problem isn’t that we writers concoct all these dreadful plots in our twisted minds that corrupt our audiences with visions of wickedness when otherwise our kindly cultural consumers would have tip-toed through the tulips and picked bouquets for grandma. On the contrary, novelists and screenwriters have the damnedest time competing with the evening news, many of whose stories are vastly more horrible than anything our midget imaginations could make up. Where did I get the idea of a high-school massacre in the first place? From the newspaper. From a long line of self-pitying, pretentious boys who took their unhappiness out on unsuspecting classmates in a spectacular fashion. Life doesn’t imitate art; art imitates life — rather pallidly, in most instances. So if anyone should be suing anyone, I should be suing the estate of those Columbine kids, or even, in the event of his conviction, Stephen Griffiths — for infecting my plodding, placid, uninventive brain with unthinkable ideas. 

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