Lesson 17: Rockstar Games, Violence, Justice: If It’s Violent, Do We Care If It’s Literature?

And if it’s literature, do we care if it’s violent? “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” wrote Justice Scalia, in his majority opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. In a footnote, the Justice points out “Reading Dante is unquestionably more culturally and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences at not constitutional ones.” True. (He doesn’t need to say Mortal Kombat provides something boys don’t get from Virgil.) And yet: if games and literature further merge, will the merger launch a new kind of literature? Rockstar released a series of short stories to accompany their latest game. We looked at one, and considered its Violence to Literature quotient.


Literature Has Always Included Violence

Scalia gives a great series of examples of this—The Odyssey, Lord of the Flies. All of them would rank higher on Lit than on Violence, but as Violence goes, Homer was gifted. As is Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is a great writer for our imaginary graph, and one of the Rockstar contributors. Her story, “Black Dahlia and White Rose,” is a series of trial depositions, including one from the murder victim delivered post-mortem. Like most noir, the story’s classical bones remain, playing on tropes of which too much has never been enough: Hollywood’s ugly underbelly; the marriage of sex and death and cinema; an idea that the apotheosis of a starlet is her demise. Here is the “Black Dahlia” herself, Betty Short, talking: 

Port mortem you would not guess that I had had dignity and poise in life as well as milky-skinned brunette beauty though it is true that I had not (yet) a film career—even a “starlet” contract like many girls of our acquaintance at the Hollywood Canteen. (Norma Jeane Baker had not a real contract yet, either—though she led people to think she did.) Post mortem seeing me naked & white-skinned (for my body had totally bled out) & covered in stab wounds & lacerations—my legs spread open in the most ugly & cruel way in mockery—& my torso separated from my lower body & twisted slightly from it as if in revulsion for the horror perpetrated upon me—post mortem you would not guess that I had been a vivacious young woman whom many men admired in Hollywood & L.A. & a favorite at parties & very popular with well-to-do older men & Hollywood producers & Mr. Mark Hansen who owned the Top Hat Club & Mesa Grande movie house & invited me to live in his “mansion” on Buena Vista Blvd. with other girls—(some were “starlets” & others aspiring to that status)—to “entertain” guests.

Dr. M. was not one of these. Dr. M. was known by no one except K.K.—& Betty Short.

It was such cruelty—to ask if he might kiss me & when I shut my eyes, to press the chloroform cloth against my nose & mouth! 

Leaving the Court’s decision for scholars to parse, what is it about this language makes it literature? You know it when you read it. It is Oates’s inimitable channeling of a character. It is her juxtaposition of light tone with lethal topic. It is the selection of the Archetypal American Story, and the trick of making it new by adding the ICBM of Hollywood sex-and-death heroines, Marilyn Monroe. Literature: High. Violence: High Enough. This may be the inverse of what most games give us. 

Grand Theft Auto Is Longer Than Proust

Noir is stock. It’s more fun to seen than to read. This is why it makes the perfect landscape for gamers. Will Rockstar start hiring novelists to write dialogue? Grand Theft Auto has twice as many pages as Proust; contracts might be complicated. 

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