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Monday, January 29, 2007


Take your pick

Here's the question: serial killers, or brutal dictators?

When I was working as an editor, I handled a series of small non-fiction books about various dramatic subjects, most of them worked on by some old-hand authors who could be trusted to do a competent job. One of them, who normally handled true crime, covering killers like Richard Ramirez, Elizabeth Bathory, Jack the Ripper, and other such gruesome individuals, got commissioned to write a chapter on Stalin.

He hated it.

He did a perfectly good job, of course, as we knew he would, and I enjoyed his readable prose. But writing about the 'murderous old goat', as he accurately described J. Stalin, really got him down. When he finished, he said wryly that he was looking forward to getting back to true crime.

Would you feel that way? Dictators kill lots more people, but on the other hand, their motives are usually writ-large versions of stuff everyone feels - the desire for safety, power and lots of money - and they usually don't tear their victims up themselves. Serial killers murder fewer people, but they do it with their own hands, and they actively enjoy killing for its own sake. (Of course, if we're going to draw a distinction, we'd better leave out Idi Amin, because he did both. Has anyone seen The Last King of Scotland? I keep hearing it's good.)

Higher body count, or killing for fun? Which would you rather read about?

Can I read about the adventures of a group of talking woodland animals instead, please?

I've never understood why State-sanctioned killing is seen as more acceptable by some than 'freelance' killing - which is what it boils down to.

Your average dictator is generally also the head of State; your average serial killer is not. Soldiers and executioners are employees of States - and for this reason their killing is very often placed on a different moral footing than freelance killing.

The question is 'do States have the right to kill?'. Further questions include 'why?', 'under what circumstances?' and 'how do we determine the legitimacy or otherwise of State authority?'.

Bunny rabbits, please.
Here you go:

Much better, thanks.
Maybe people feel like they can...um...relate to serial killers because it's more...personal? Maybe a dictator is just too bigger than life, with motives that must be beyond comprehension, because how else could they have done so much to so many? Whereas, well, a single person in an alley...meh, that might just be conceivable. Maybe that's why there are so many handlings of these dictators and such out there...it's an attempt to get inside the head of these people who do things on such a monstrous scale that it's hard to relate to them. We can't see ourselves in their position, nor could we possibly conceive of doing what they did.

I'd say there's also a strong link with the traditional crime story: some people are murdered and we want to know who did it and why, we want a complicated story about greed, revenge, unrequited love, etc. With a dictator, what you see is what you get: the nadir of human nature supported by thousands of murdering human vacuums who we hope didn't exist. A murdering dictator is just too depressing for a story because it strikes too close to the "Oh, what's the point in living" feeling.

And speaking about the "Oh, what's the point in living" feeling, I just got my very first publisher rejection today - how about that! After collecting more than 40 agent rejections last year, I thought nothing could be worse, but you know what? There is! :-(
Oh, sorry to hear that! But never mind. I got plenty of rejections before I got lucky; it doesn't mean anything except that this wasn't the editor for you. I'll be crossing my fingers for you. In the meantime, here are some animals expressing their view of the publisher:

Thanks for the pics - the language in my house is a little more colourful this evening! :-)

Anyway, didn't mean to hijack the thread, but despots are an awful lot more depressing-and-too-close-to-real-life. I think Agatha Christie understood the reader's desires perfectly when it came to murder!
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