Degree of Separation

I belong to a mystery book group on the Shelfari website. We just finished a discussion on Val McDermid’s book, The Mermaid’s Singing. One of the discussion points was around the difficulty of reading scenes of torture. My response has continued to nag me, so I’m going to broaden the response, here.

I read the book, and also watched the television show based on it. For the discussion group, I said that reading a torture scene troubled me a lot more than watching it on TV. I felt it was because watching something allows a greater degree of separation than reading.

Reading allows no separation between the reader and the story. We’re up close, physically and mentally. Our imagination allows us to be more deeply involved because we picture everything the way we need or want it to look. We have the tactile experience of holding that story in our hands, either in print or within an e-reader. The outside world is held at bay because we are within our own mind, even though we are reading the words of another.

With television, we have the physical separation, nothing to touch but the remote, and distance between the couch and the box. We are also not so intimately involved because there are others around us in the form of the actors. We are observing only, not engaged because our imagination isn’t needed. The scene, setting, and characters are chosen for us. And the emotions conjured by the scene are only those emotions the actor shares with us. In contrast to the emotions a character is given by a writer, that I, as a reader, can project on to and picture the way I want that emotion to look.

So, watching a torture scene in a thriller on TV may be disturbing, but reading it, for me anyway, was so unsettling I considered not finishing the book. I love Val McDermid’s writing, and a testament to her strong skill is her ability to raise very strong reactions and emotions in me. This is one example of her skill. She pulls me into her story and eliminates all barriers between me and the characters.

Television just isn’t the same.

4 thoughts on “Degree of Separation

  1. This is very funny! When I first read over the post this morning, I thought, no way I think it is the other way around for me. But then over the day I was thinking about it and remembered that I could watch “IT” in TV but could not read it because it was so intense!! So then I also thought about all the movies I read as a book too and I realized that the books always are way more detailed and I felt much more drawn into them then the movies. Although I do love both, books and movies a lot as you know, I can say now that I think the same. When I watch TV, I can always close my eyes and still hear the sound, so I can distance myself for a second or longer. And as you said the film is more distant to us then a book, because in order to get on with the story in the book, we do have to read. And by reading our own mind makes up the pictures. Now, we could tell our mind, that it is not as bad a scene, but then it depends on us and the author how well or bad we picture the scene I guess.

    Very different…hmmm…how fascinating! I still don’t want to miss either movies or books. A story is still a story.


  2. I agree. When my own imagination is actively involved, it becomes my story. Lolita is one of my favorite books, all-time, but it really brought this subject up for me and I had to keep reminding myself that going somewhere in my mind is different, and that I really want to allow my mind to go places I wouldn’t so I can understand.


  3. I never thought about it before, but you’re right. When my imagination becomes engaged in the story, I am in the story. As compared to television where I am simply a bystander watching. I think you’ve nailed where the separation originates.


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