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.