The New Six-Figure Torture Porn Industry?

While many books these days aren’t benefiting from pre-publication reviews because review copies aren’t being produced or sent to reviewers and no money is available for even basic promotion, Chevy Stevens’ debut novel, STILL MISSING has the benefit of splashy ARCs and the author is currently on a pre-publication tour, promoting the book. The Globe and Mail has already declared it the big summer read. Sarah Weinman has dubbed it a “very good and… creepy thriller with one hell of a late-act twist” and the advanced review copies boast effusive blurbs from best-selling female authors such as Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs, Chelsea Cain and Gillian Flynn.

Yes, you’re going to be hearing about this book. And if the publisher has anything to say about it, you’ll be hearing about this book a lot.

Keep reading after the jump.

I read the book weeks ago and I’m still wrestling with my feelings about it. As news of the author’s anointing as a “publishing phenomenon” started to spread, I came to the ultimate conclusion that as an indicator of what’s happening within publishing these days, thinking of this book has left me more fearful of the future of publishing than anything else I’ve read or heard in the recent years.

What I mainly have to say about this book, however, is for readers. One might wonder why I don’t do that with a review, but this is a book that we’re almost being forced to review within the context of marketing, and as such I have some serious concerns.

This is a push book. Major money is being invested with a scheduled first print run of 150,000 copies and the author will be plastered over every medium possible in the months to come. I feel confident predicting this book will be incredibly divisive. Those who love it will trip over themselves to offer accolades to the author, and those who don’t love it will not simply be indifferent; they will loathe the book. The conflict between the two sides that I think this book will generate will cause many who wouldn’t otherwise pick it up to want to find out what all the fuss is about – thus ensuring the publisher gets a good return on their investment – but whether or not you should read this book shouldn’t be determined by the hype, the controversy or the level of promotion; you need to carefully consider what kind of reader you are before you decide to crack the cover of STILL MISSING.

STILL MISSING is voyeuristic. It may not have been written with the intent to shock, but shock it does. I have read other incredibly dark books – AFRICAN PSYCHO, SAVAGE NIGHT, SHARP OBJECTS to name but a few – but been able to come away from those works feeling the content on the pages was justified within the context of the story. With STILL MISSING I was ultimately forced to conclude I’d read things that were unnecessary. Less is often more. My imagination could have filled in the blanks and projected more horror into the story of Annie O’Sullivan’s abduction and captivity than the graphic details of the book left me with.

The book has also been written as a psychological thriller, with the requisite twist ending at the 11th hour that it was possible to see coming from early on. In fact, if there was an inconsistency within the character, it connected directly to this point, but elaboration would require more nuanced spoilers and a thorough assessment of the protagonist’s psyche. There was a major procedural mistake (Miranda rights are part of the US constitution, and last I checked, Vancouver Island was part of Canada, which does not have the same rights) but those things are obscured by the books gratuitous nature and shock value, which is extremely high.

To properly explain why requires me to reveal some information about the content of the book that could be considered a spoiler. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph, but bear this in mind: if you are a sensitive reader who can be offended by certain types of content, you need to think carefully before reading this book.

I have been told that people don’t want to read books about rape, or the murders of children. Over the course of STILL MISSING the rapes of the victim are detailed. Reading the book, you will live through those experiences with the protagonist, and you won’t be spared the benefit of a miscarriage when the rapes leave her pregnant. You’ll get the full sense of the loss when the baby is killed. The violence is incredibly personal, but there’s nothing I feel I got from the details that enhanced the story.

The Globe and Mail reported that Stevens has already sold the rights to a dozen foreign publishers and been contracted for two sequels. The foreign deals aren’t surprising; as indicated, this book will have more than enough shock value and controversy to generate the publicity needed to sell well. The sequels are far more curious. The author will have to truly prove herself the newly anointed savior of the publishing industry to pull off sequels that are the intense psychological thrillers with twist endings that the first book is billed to be. At the conclusion of the book I was absolutely convinced it was a standalone because I saw no mechanisms in place to maintain its genre type within the context of a series. I certainly hope the reference to sequels was a journalistic error.

Under my grading scale of a B being from 70-79%, STILL MISSING is probably a B. The writing is straightforward and uncomplicated, which will enable it to reach a wider audience. Titillating fiction will always have an audience but the content is such that while many people will check out the debut, it’s much harder to predict how many will come back for seconds.

STILL MISSING is the proof that it’s still possible to be an overnight success in publishing, with significant amounts of money thrown at you before you’ve actually proven your ability to sell. Why does this happen? I read this book mainly because of my curiosity about what it took, in the present publishing climate, to get a six-figure check. After taking several weeks to process my impressions from the book, I’ve been left nauseous. More and more money is put behind fewer books, and if we ever reach the point that only the “blockbusters” are finding their way into print, we risk running down a path where we go as far as we have to in the hopes of shocking the reader to get that visceral reaction, the one that either loves the book or prompts us to throw it at the wall. If you’re considering putting this one on your To Be Read pile, don’t do it because of the hype. If you’re going to read this book, read it because you want to read a dark, shocking book and have an appreciation for reading through rape scenes and physical and emotional abuse.

The buzz around this book isn’t about great writing, and this isn’t about a compelling story; it is about reader manipulation designed to provoke a strong response. This is the very definition of torture porn: intensely personal, detailed violence that has the potential to sexually gratify. This book will undoubtedly be popular amongst rapists both in and out of jail, and anyone harboring secret rape fantasies. The fact that the book’s being touted as the summer read months before its release and has even generated this level of response from me is proof of that. I’ve written about rapes, and I’ve written about the murder of infants, but I’ve never put the details on the page, the infants were nameless. That’s not the case in STILL MISSING and I believe doing so is exploitation of the victim as a tool, and of the emotions of the readers. If we get duplicate review copies we often give one away, but this is one time I don’t need to keep the original. I am one of those readers who will go back and re-read something, but this is a book I have no intention of reading again. If you want to read about the effects of rape on a woman and how to move on afterwards, read LUCKY by Alice Sebold, and if you prefer it in the context of a compelling thriller read Val McDermid’s THE TORMENT OF OTHERS. Dark as McDermid’s books are, she handles the rape of a beloved series character and effectively showed the impact of crime on the victim with a delicacy and sensitivity that’s lacking in STILL MISSING and ultimately rendered the subject matter unpalatable for this reader.

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Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

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About Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

12 Replies to “The New Six-Figure Torture Porn Industry?”

  1. I’m a pretty shallow bloke but all of this torture porn stuff makes me depressed. Okay, the thought of it makes me depressed. I doubt I could read it.

    I’ve nothing against populist books; I enjoyed the Vinci Code for all it’s faults and have just finished an Alex Kava book which was great fun. But this seems more than a little ‘icky’.

    So it goes, I suppose.

  2. Yeah, Paul. There’s a fine line here somewhere, and it’s always difficult to assess when something’s crossed it. I had several rather disturbing thoughts over the course of reading the book, and if a man had written this book, women’s groups would be in an outrage and call for the banning of the book, accuse the author of having rape fantasies, etc. In fact, on some level, I can see a lot of guys reading this and thinking the author might harbor some secret rfs herself, and that’s an absolutely sick thing to be left with in your mind. There have definitely been times I’ve felt the torture porn label wasn’t warranted, but this is a book that should have a warning label on the front of it.

  3. Sandra, do you think this type of manuscript is the publishing industry attempting to appeal to the same individuals who flock to “Films” such as Saw and those awful movies Eli Roth made? Or is it their vain attempt to draw readers in with a book that has the same feel as a graphic episode of Law and Order, with the story line being ripped straight from the headlines?

    And I’ll agree with Paul, I have no issue with reading commercial novels, but lately this kind of misogynistic violence has been really turning me off.

  4. Thanks for this, Sandra – a brave analysis. I wonder how this book compares to the violence in the Millennium Trilogy? The abuse of Salander is more testimony than titillating, though I thought the plot twist in the first book was kind of Hollywood/pornish.

    The mystery I have coming out in May is about rape. I was determined not to allow anything about it to be titillating, and not to waste any of my imagination on the rapist’s perspective. It’s a crime that is both too common and too devastating to make it the source of entertainment. (Of course, murder is, too – but I don’t think people fantasize as much about committing murder as they do about sexual assault, which is very often twined within the murder scenario in popular thrillers.) It was an interesting issue to wrestle with.

    “Misogynistic violence” is a very good tag, Keith. I think what Sandra describes – being manipulated into a fictional situation where violence is meant to arouse sexual feelings is kind of maddening. It’s one thing to be disturbing, another to use a tired porn storyboard to do induce a response. (I’ll add that I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read books that have scenes that are right out of the Porn Filmmaking for Dummies handbook.)

  5. While I stand by what I said, when I finished reading STILL MISSING several months ago the first thing I thought was that it’s going to be accused of being misogynistic, torture porn, all of those things. And those charges are valid, but from my standpoint the book just stayed on the line – possibly because I found the graphic nature to be more psychological than on the surface, and because the story elements Sandra described, while certainly repugnant, felt necessary to the story. By comparison, I find Chelsea Cain’s work to be akin to torture porn, because her work lacks any sense of empathy, and that bothers me a great deal.

    There’s also the element of timeliness, alas, what with the Jaycee Dugard, Natasha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart and Elizabeth Fritzl cases, to name a few examples of situations that mimic what the fictional Annie went through. But I do also wonder how STILL MISSING will fare compared to books coming out this summer from Laura Lippman (I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE) and Emma Donoghue (ROOM), which all tackle similar subject matter in very, very different ways.

  6. Keith, I don’t know. I really don’t. On a purely simplistic level, something that’s controversial, in particular something that people will feel passionate about, is going to garner itself a lot of attention. And the very nature of the controversy will provide a certain level of publicity.

    Barbara, I should clarify I don’t think the way this book was written was with the intent to elicit a sexual response, but it’s going to be there for people. Some are going to throw the book at the wall the first time it comes up and be done with it. Others, like myself, will press on and be relieved to feel like its at an end, only to endure therapeutic sex later on.

    I definitely think there are ways to handle this content without it being gratuitous.

    Sarah, I was thinking about those cases when I read the book. And that’s part of the voyeuristic aspect of the book – some people are going to read the book thinking they might be getting a glimpse into what those experiences were like for those victims. (Of course, then I find myself wondering why we’d really want to know all the details.) I read a great interview with Elizabeth Smart once that was a real statement, that she was more than a victim – she seems to be a very strong person. With this book, it took me a while to sort out my feelings about it all, and the crossing of lines was a big question mark that hung over my head for a while. I ultimately fell on the side of feeling that the extent of the details didn’t add value to the story. And, while I’ll concede there will always be some content it’s easier for women to write about, this is so far over the gender line that if a man wrote it, it would provoke quite a different reaction.

    I must admit I haven’t read Chelsea Cain. I’m starting to wonder if I’m going soft in my middle age or something, but my tolerance for extreme violence has lessened. It’s a funny thing, because while the detailing of violence was nowhere near as extreme in a book like 50/50 Killer, I find 50/50 to be a darker, more disturbing book in the sense that it stays with me and poses a question that lingers on the brain, even years after reading it. I didn’t have that same feeling with Still Missing. I definitely felt like I’d read things I wished I hadn’t.

    I think knowing Laura’s reputation, she’ll handle the content with a sensitivity that will make the subject matter worth tackling as a reader. Like you, I’ll be curious to see how the book does by comparison.

  7. I’ll just stick my oar in with a couple of points, the first of which is that I always think the phrase ‘torture porn’ is an unfair one. In the case of film, it implies the viewer might be watching violence for sexual gratification, which is – obviously – incredibly negative. But these are horror films, and the gross-out is a legitimate intention, even an end in itself: can you sit through this? (“Keep repeating – it’s only a movie…”). Most of the initial so-called torture porn seemed to be a backlash against the ‘PG-13’ style of horror that had swept the market (the slew of J-horror remakes being an obvious example), and I think a lot of horror fans were just happy to swing back the other way.

    Horror is, at least in part, about transgression and unsettling: blood-soaked nihilism is one way to do that. I, for one, watched Wolf Creek and thought “Holy shit – that’s actually got some teeth and balls”. Whatever – there were some good films in the sub-genre, largely as a result of a spontaneous, original talent, and then a whole lot of bandwagon-jumping that knocked the wheels off as the film industry spied a nice, easy cash-cow.

    I’ve not read Still Missing. Maybe it has something to say and maybe it doesn’t. (In film terms, is it Irreverisble or I Spit On Your Grave? Maybe it doesn’t matter). To be honest, from the Globe and Mail article, what depressed me most was how it seemed to have been tailor-made for success: honed and sheened; written and re-written almost by committee. Nothing wrong with calculated entertainment, obviously, especially in such stark financial times, but – leaving all mention of art behind – it still seems misguided: these huge amounts that are gambled on the roll of a dice, time and time again, without any sensible basis whatsoever. The fact that vast sums might be pushed behind a load of absolutely morally abhorrent shite – if that’s what it is – is nothing new.

    I would say, Sandra: RapeLay. There’s nothing worth mentioning there. It’s a personal bugbear, but the game is banned pretty much everywhere and there’s all but zero interest in it. Every so often, it gets brought up in UK feminist articles decrying misogyny in video games, but if it wasn’t for those, nobody here would ever have even heard of it. There’s no market.

  8. Steve, I disagree slightly on the last point – the game is reported as having gone viral online. The existence of certain types of porn certainly establish the fact that there’s a market for sexually gratifying material that includes violence towards women. Seems like we can’t go long without a report in the news of a child porn ring being taken exposed, either. Porn is profitable enough, but there’s probably an even bigger market for people who secretly harbor some fantasies but can’t cross the line and actually take certain steps, but reading a book that can be justified as a psychological insight into the trauma of abduction as a way to privately prompt the exploration of some of those fantasies… Yeah, there’s a potential gold mine out there someone just hasn’t tapped yet. Erotica is known to pay pretty well, too.

    I may not like the term torture porn either, but it’s the one that was coined by someone other than me. 🙂

    I take your point about the depressing nature of the book almost being written by committee. I didn’t want to sidetrack myself with thoughts about that.

    At the end of the day, my main issue comes down to feeling some sense of responsibility for what I recommend, and don’t recommend. And I know that sounds possibly corny, possibly arrogant, but I know better than to suggest my mother watch The Wire, but she’ll love watching Wire in the Blood. It doesn’t make her tastes wrong, just different. When I was a kid I was reading books about horses, dogs and Trixie Belden. Bry and Patrick are reading Goosebumps and Fear Street and absolutely love horror. In an era where we’ve started to move into warning labels on books (I’ve seen the odd one on UK books) we have to consider starting to label certain books with certain types of content, and this book is the reason why. There are going to be a lot of people who pick up this book because of the blurbs and endorsements and hype, and they will be deeply offended and outraged. There’s nothing to be gained by shocking readers in a way that deeply offends them. With most books I read, I can at least think of a certain type of reader who it’s written for. Brian’s aunt loves happy endings and thrillerish books that aren’t too dark. Plenty of books we get fit the bill for her, even if they aren’t going to make Brian’s top ten list for the year or mine… but this particular book is a book I can’t think of one person I’d recommend it to. I know there are some people who won’t be offended by it, but I think this book needs to recommended with caution.

  9. I have read the book and I believe you have somehow misunderstood the whole concept of the story! “Annie” is rebuilding her life in a Psychiatrist’s office and each chapter reflects that as she’s re-living the trauma!! As a woman, I have no idea how I would attempt to look at the layers of pain she experienced. Isn’t it brave of you to knock this, but have you ever experienced such horror and how would you handle it after wards? How many women endure horrific violence but we gloss over the events, but maybe if we understood the pain, then we could take steps to prevent them in the first place, ie; harsher sentences for the perpetrators. The horror is happening all around us, just talk to some of the abused women shall we and God forbid we should give out the details, lets pretend it’s not happening.
    I question why you focus on the marketing?? This is just your one opinion!!

  10. I think this book has definitely struck a cord deep inside you as you really have reacted strongly to it and this in itself tells us that the book will give us something to think about.

  11. Thank you for your thoughtful review. I read about this novel, and found this site by poking around on the internet to find out more, as the novel seemed disturbing in a new way, which you astutely map out (not only the book itself, but that it is so hugely promoted by the industry.) For myself, I was in no danger of reading it; I don’t read murder/crime novels (I just finished “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell.) However, my elderly parents like crime novels and I am always on the lookout for something they may enjoy.

    When people talk about violence in film, I often mention the contrast between Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “A Short Film About Killing” by Krzysztof Kieslowski. For me, the former is titillating, as @4 Barbara Fister discusses above. Similarly to @1 Paul Brazill, I get depressed when I see so much of our culture, from film to reality TV, promoting the torture of another human being as entertainment.

    It’s so difficult to have a nuanced discussion nowadays, especially on the internet, without people accusing you of wanting to ban free speech. I will give my friends this review when I want to show them it’s possible to do so.