Thursday, 5 March 2015

A difficult post.

I've just read this article on the BBC website about the rape and murder of a young woman in Dehli three years ago. I heard about the rape at the time, but this article focuses on interviews with the men that did it and their lawyers.

The most shocking parts of the piece are the reactions of the culprits and the implication that this mindset is commonplace in that part of Indian society.

I have no insights into Indian society (I touristed around on the train system back in the late 80s with my girlfriend (now wife) but only gained a wholly surface impression). The huge backlash against this event in India clearly indicates a great many people there were also horrified and outraged by the crime. So all I'm offering are the impressions of the journalist (Leslee Udwin). (Go read the article). I've included some extracts below - after which I consider the implications.

From the article

The horrifying details of the rape had led me to expect deranged monsters. Psychopaths. The truth was far more chilling. These were ordinary, apparently normal and certainly unremarkable men.


Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus, described to me every detail of what happened during and after the incident. While prosecutors say the men took turns to drive the bus, and all took part in the rape, Singh says he stayed at the wheel throughout.

Along with three of the other attackers, Singh is now appealing against his death sentence. In 16 hours of interviews, Singh showed no remorse and kept expressing bewilderment that such a fuss was being made about this rape, when everyone was at it.

"A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," he said.

"Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good."

People "had a right to teach them a lesson" he suggested - and he said the woman should have put up with it.

"When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after 'doing her', and only hit the boy," he said.

Chillingly, he went on: "The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won't leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, 'Leave her, she won't tell anyone.' Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death."

I had the long and shocking list of injuries the young woman had sustained, read out to him. I tried, really hard, to search for a glimmer of regret. There was none.


One of the men I interviewed, Gaurav, had raped a five-year-old girl. I spent three hours filming his interview as he recounted in explicit detail how he had muffled her screams with his big hand.

He was sitting throughout the interview and had a half-smile playing on his lips throughout - his nervousness in the presence of a camera, perhaps. At one point I asked him to tell me how tall she was. He stood up, and with his eerie half-smile indicated a height around his knees.

When I asked him how he could cross the line from imagining what he wanted to do, to actually doing it - given her height, her eyes, her screams - he looked at me as though I was crazy for even asking the question and said: "She was beggar girl. Her life was of no value."


(Still more astonishing and worrying are the comments of the lawyers for these men.)

So, if you read that without your jaw dropping or a tear in your eye you're more widely experienced and made of sterner stuff than I am.


I didn't write Prince of Thorns for publication. I wrote it because I enjoy writing. When, years after finishing it, I gave in and let myself be 'bullied' into sending it to a handful of agents nobody was more surprised than me to find it getting swiftly snapped up by publishers.

The inspiration for the main character, Jorg, came directly from Alex in Anthony Burgess' novel of 1962, A Clockwork Orange.

Like Alex, Jorg is young (13 when we meet him), charismatic, violent and amoral, running with a lawless crew. Like Alex, Jorg takes part in a rape (with the implication that this isn't the first). It's alluded to in a brief paragraph, shown below and whited out for those who don't want to see (though the article above makes it mild in comparison). Just highlight it to read.

The fat girl had a lot to say, just like her father. Screeched like a barn owl: hurt my ears with it. I liked the older one better. She was quiet enough. So quiet you'd give a twist here or there just to check she hadn't died of fright.

The story is told from the first person point of view and the act is not excused or forgiven but neither is it condemned - it's not unusual for the war-torn and primitive society described. Jorg is shown as a violent person who does many unforgivable things. He is the main character but he is also, by many definitions, 'evil'. The trilogy is in large part an exploration of such a person - what kind of man he grows into, how the years change him, how his past shapes him. The aim is a mature character study, showing a person who has many aspects the reader might like, a person who is interesting and involved in interesting things (or I would have few readers). 

Jorg's actions are never explicitly condemned because I assume(d) that the hypothetical reader is someone like me living in an environment where everybody knows that rape and murder are horrific crimes. When writing fiction in such a setting I'm not writing a guide to life - my default is the fantasy readership found in the UK and the US, intelligent, educated, raised in a society where the ideas 'murder is terrible', 'rape is terrible', 'torture is terrible' are on a par with '1+1=2', basic unassailable facts.

As I've said - I didn't write for publication, and when I was published it was initially into English, Dutch, German, and French. I had no problem with presenting Jorg to such an audience.

I'm now published in over 20 languages and many countries. I'm not published in India or in any Indian languages but my books are sold in India in English and I've had contact with a number of Indian readers - all of whom seemed to be much like a western audience in their reaction to the work.

My work on sale in a Starmark store in Chennai (Madras)

I do acknowledge though that if Prince of Thorns were read by people who share the cultural mindset of the men described in the article - it would at best be a book that did nothing to help and at worst be a book that might even reinforce such attitudes by being misinterpreted as a work that offered tacit approval of their view of these things as everyday, trivial, and unremarkable.

Typing away at a fantasy tale ten years ago for the entertainment of a handful of fellow unpublished writers on a critique forum, I never imagined my story would be read more widely. If I had nursed an ambition to be published then I would have thought in terms of making the shelves of my local bookshop. Even if I had dreamed big and imagined being sold in Paris, London, New York, Munich... I would not have had a problem with my content.

In the past two weeks though I've been sent photographs of my work on the shelves of a bookstore in New Dehli (the city where the rape happened) and at an airport in central Vietnam (just an example of a place that is very far, in various ways, from where I live). 

Having read this article - I can say that if I had had an inkling of quite how far afield this work would reach and of how vastly different the mindsets of some parts of some of those societies where it sells are ... I would have changed elements of the story.

[edit: it should be noted that I arrived at this point in-spite of attacks over the years by the highly tribal polarised and politicised elements on the internet, not because of them. Absolutely not because of them. If anything the ranting accusations, being told I'm mansplaining, or a neck-beard or a woman-hater or whatever, have been a significant obstacle to reaching this conclusion.]


  1. Fiction is fiction and fact is fact, Mark. Different cultures may respond differently to a scene or character, but those who would use fiction to justify their cruelties will find (or imagine) justification anywhere. Second guessing something like Jorg's rape scene says something about YOUR heart and conscience, but won't change THEIRS.

    Besides, if nothing else, that scene has opened up this very valuable dialogue - which is precisely what good fiction does.

  2. I'm been following this story, and it's truly horrific. Including such elements in a book - or film for that matter - can add depth to the world you're building and a society you're trying to portray, but it doesn't make the creator accountable for the actions of others in the real world.

  3. Agree with Bob. Fiction is fiction and people don't need fictional characters to hide behind. For example, I lived in Cambodia for over ten years and there are men there, both expat and Asian, you would not want to be associated with. Just look at the book, That book is not fictional and the characters in it were far more evil and the ideas presented in it that it's okay to visit brothels that provide underaged girls (most of whom are trafficked) far more subversive than a post-apocalyptic fantasy.

  4. Anna Smith-Spark6 March 2015 at 03:07

    I see the things you and others write (and I'm a feminist who has had an abusive relationship and I've written a rape scene myself, whatever anyone wants to read into that) as holding up a mirror to this kind of mindset, not re-enforcing it. This is the world, it's bleak and painful as fuck so maybe we ought to think about making it better. The Trojan Women is the most painful, bleak, horrifying thing I've ever read, and that's the point, it was written over two thousand years ago to try and teach us that war and misogyny are pointless and cruel. That that message still needs repeating is hardly literature's fault, or yours, or mine.

  5. I don't think you should have changed anything. As Bob stated, these fiction didn't have anything to do with these people's behaviour, it was a cultural thing. The excerpt you're talking about served to illustrate the sort of person Jorg was at that time - do you honestly think it would have served the story at all to sugar coat him? Please carry on writing the way you do

    As it happens, when I started reading your blog it reminded me of other posts I'd seen about the excerpts, where people were citing it as an example of misogyny. Surely this incident only goes to show that attitudes like this obviously do exist, and as such it is perfectly reasonable to portray them in a novel set in an environment where there is less of a value in life and the rights of people who can't defend themselves. I finally got round to reading Bad Seed yesterday - why would you consider censoring a rape scene whilst not censoring a scene in which a wife and two children are deliberately burnt to death in their house? And if you start censoring such stuff then where does it end?

    It's interesting to think that when people cite video games as a cause of teenagers going on killing sprees they neglect the fact that the vast majority of teenagers play violent video games. It's not really a surprise when we find the killer plays them as well - it would be more of an anomaly if he didn't!

  6. Jorg's actions are never explicitly condemned because I assume(d) that the hypothetical reader is someone like me living in an environment where everybody knows that rape and murder are horrific crimes.

    --And I know you've gotten crap for that, Mark. You didn't make an in-book value judgement on Jorg, and so have been seen to be implicitly giving Jorg a pass.

    Video game violence is a signifier of our society, not a causal agent. But does it casually reinforce the deep dark mindset? Yes. As you say, Jorg could be said to be a reinforcement, too.

    What needs to really change, however, is the underlying *culture*, so that violent video games, or Jorg, aren't embraced as models.

  7. Hi Mark,

    That whole incident was an ugly stain on humanity and the fact that it happened in our capital, makes it very hard for me to be proud of India. As an Indian who was born and brought up in Bombay (Mumbai), I've had the privilege of living in one of the most urban parts of India. My wife and sister grew up in Bombay and they have faced regular harassment (catcalls, stalking, etc), as have many, many women and Bombay is supposedly one of the safer cities in India.

    This however hasn't made it easy to see the misogynistic attitudes that are so prevalent in India. On one hand we as a nation pride ourselves on the multicultural attitudes but fail miserably in simply owning up to such events. Yes your book has quite a horrible event and people in it, but I don't think that can hold a candle to what these shitstains did.

    This happened because they simply wanted to and nothing was going to change that. Jyoti Singh lost her life and spent the last few days of her life in some of the worst horrible pain imaginable. All because these 5 men wanted something and didn't care what they did to get it.

    It's upon us (Indians) to change these mindsets by any means possible, education, enlightenment or even capital punishment. I doubt these people were influenced by any book, mainly it was a choice they made because they thought they could get away with it. That tells us something more about India and again as an Indian I don't know what must happen more before we learn to banish such ugliness from our society.


    1. Thanks Mihir - one difficulty in writing this post was in not wanting to seem to single India out. There are many nations where this kind of mindset exists in a sizeable minority, and perhaps none where it is wholly absent.

    2. I agree and no your post doesn't seem to suggest that. It's just enraging because this happened in my country and to know such attitudes still exist. You have been brave to post about this especially with how much crap you have gotten for your book's supposed "misogyny".

      Lastly I don't think you should change your book as this event occurred because of an evil mindset. To think of blaming you would be as to the point as banning this documentary.


  8. I agree there is no need to change your story, Mark, but I understand why you'd want to. You've always shown great integrity in standing by your work and your characters' choices, but I'm sure that same integrity rests upon a social conscience.

    The greater our influence, the greater the weight responsibility brings to bear upon us. There's something about the allegorical nature of fantasy that separates it from real life yet brings it closer to our hearts; we're able to see ourselves in the mirrors of fantasy characters sometimes more fully than we would in those of mainstream fiction.

    You have great influence, and that power should be wielded with care. Yet I agree with Bob wholly. There is great value in opening the discussion--lasting value, for readers for generations to come will find ways to explore Jorg's choices and evaluate their own decisions against his poignant metric.

  9. Mark, you are not unique in being criticized for writing violent sex acts in your book. I am sure you have seen other authors take the heat for doing the same. Speaking for myself, it is uncomfortable to read such scenes, even knowing it is fantasy. Unfortunately some people cannot, or refuse to, separate fantasy from reality.

  10. I guess we're never allowed to write about morally reprehensible or "bad" characters ever again because somebody will get the wrong idea. Ahem. Sarcasm.

    I mean, you could put a some folks do on TV shows, but I think the point is that nobody should blame one work of art for creating a bad person. We hope, of course, that the family, friends, and society of a person will make more of an impression than a work of fiction.

    Then again, the Harry Potter series has been credited for creating more empathetic children. Maybe if we're willing to grasp onto the good, we must also be conscious of the bad effects.

  11. The hardest thing for many survivours of rape, among them myself, is not the rape. It is the shame and the stigma attached to it, and the enforced silence: There is a certain denial about rape - people like to pretend the act is only ever committed by the criminally insane, that it can only happen to others, that the victims somehow deserved it or caused it - whatever it takes to maintain their own sense of security (or moral integrity).

    Talking about rape means bursting that happy bubble. Hence the heat. Hence the shaming of victims. Hence the desire to keep rape, and the raped, out of literature. That perfectly normal men (and women) are perfectly capable of the worst atrocities is the elephant in the collective room. That elephant needs to be exposed. We need more Jorgs in fiction, not less.

    Those who use the existence of Jorg as an excuse for their actions would use everything as an excuse. But the (I hope) great majority who condemns his actions receives a brutal reminder that the dark side of human nature exists and looks like everybody. And the next time they are on a bus, they might remember. And do something. Rape is something many people first think about when they have personally experienced it, and then it is too late. We need Jorg to change that.

  12. This is a tough issue, no doubt. I don't think one has to overtly state "omg this is horrible" in one's narrative for it to be clear that the author thinks a character's actions are wrong. Readers vary in their reactions to what they read. I don't know what the answer is to these issues. Even if this book were never sold in a country where misogyny was a relatively common value, there are at least a few people in the US, UK and Europe who have the same attitudes as those guys on the bus in India.

    Some of the people reading your book are rapists already, or will be someday. Not most by a long shot, but some. A few might even be murderers. But that goes for people who read Lord of the Rings or watch My Little Ponies too.

    Can already troubled people be encouraged to cross the line and become violent by something they read, play or watch that seems to validate the ideas they're already mulling over? I suspect so, but that's not reason not to write it. Maybe some people had an epiphany about why violence is wrong from reading your books also.

    I think it's a positive thing if people are at least willing to have these conversations and think about these issues.

  13. "The Broken Empire" is a masterpiece. As I've said before, read that other Lawrence guy's work before you start thinking about revising your own because of a description of sex that some find offensive. D. H. was a hierophantic genius, and so are you.

    I doubt very much that the rapists have read "Prince of Thorns." If they had, and they felt it justified their actions, it seems very likely they would have mentioned it, just as they mentioned their other rationalizations that are given in this post.

    I also don't think it is the author's job to condemn bad acts or extol good acts in a work of fiction, especially in those works narrated in the first person. And the best writing, I believe, comes from an author who finds a way to let his/her characters define their own behaviors. The story should tell itself. The characters are responsible for what they do, not the writer.

    By the way, I don't think "rape is bad" is as universally accepted an idea in American, English, Dutch, German, and French cultures as is implied in this article. The rape fantasy, unfortunately, I think is very much alive, and it's been around for quite some time. This thought most recently occurred to me while re-viewing "Belle de Jour" and "Last Tango In Paris." Rape is also vulnerable to semantics; it's a more flexible term than most think. Spanking is rape. But it's very acceptable on a wide scale. Rape of "The Other" is condoned in the Bible. I have personally met women who claim to fantasize about being raped, and I have met many males who think it's okay to have sex with a less-than-willing female. We read about these things regularly. And I think it is worth considering whether Christianity's greatest moment, the alleged conception of Christ, isn't a form of glorified rape. Mary, a young maiden, does not give permission to an all-powerful deity to enter her body and impregnate her. How different is this overpowering of a not-willing-participant from what is normally considered to be rape?