I've been thinking a bit this week about the use of deliberately shocking scenes in novels - whether that's a depiction of murder, rape, torture or something else entirely - and when they become gratuitous. I'm especially interested in whether an author has more of a duty to write a scene like this well than any other scene in the novel - because often books that contain terrible depictions of such events are badly-written across the board. The series that brought these questions to the forefront of my mind was Cassandra Clare's appallingly-written but strangely addictive Mortal Instruments series, especially the most recent instalment, City of Lost Souls. There's been a lot of debate about Clare's depiction of an attempted rape in this volume, so I'm not going to go into detail about that here - instead, I'll link to Clare's own defence of the scene and a rebuttal that I largely agree with (although I'm strongly against the idea that novels should ever come with 'trigger warnings'). In short, the major problem with the scene (and with the earlier death of a child in City of Glass) is that Clare completely fails to deal with the aftermath, so it is like the event never happened. Indeed, she admits in both her defence of City of Lost Souls and a post on City of Glass that the two scenes are only included to show how 'evil' the villain is, despite the fact that said villain's other evil acts are already numerous enough. This indicates that the scenes were absolutely used for shock value, rather than for any other purpose.
While it's obvious that Clare should not have included these two incidents in her novels if she did not have the time, space or skill to deal with them appropriately, it's not obvious to me that her failure as a writer is any worse here than it is throughout the Mortal Instruments series (I haven't yet read book four, City of Fallen Angels, but I'm going to assume that it isn't a beacon of brilliance either). This feeds partly into the debate about 'trigger warnings', which I don't want to go into in detail, but seems to me to turn around the question of why certain isolated incidents are seen as worthy of trigger warnings when many other things presumably are not. The problem with City of Lost Souls isn't only that it includes a horribly-handled depiction of a rape attempt, but its depiction of women, gender roles, and relationships in general. I assume no-one feels we should warn for 'female character depicted as passive and idiotic' but why can't casual sexism, connected to a wider rape culture, be considered as problematic? Clary, the main female character in the Mortal Instruments series, is just awful: attracted to a deeply unpleasant boy, Jace, who is supposed to be empathetic but comes off as callous and selfish, she never really does anything throughout the series that isn't connected to her 'love' for Jace. A love triangle plotline in the first two books doesn't help matters. Clary is supposed to be torn between her quiet, sweet best friend Simon and Jace, but there's obviously no competition. This doesn't stop Jace behaving incredibly badly - under the impression that he is her brother (can't be bothered to explain) he acts as if he has the right to protect Clary, even if that means denying her agency in both the fight against the demons that's the central conflict in these novels and her own love life. (Shades of Edward Cullen...) Annoyingly, Jace is always right, as Clary makes a series of rash and foolish decisions when left to her own devices.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that child murder and rape in City of Glass and City of Lost Souls are not isolated 'bad' scenes, but are very much part of the way the novels are written as a whole, and the numerous problems they present. The solution wouldn't be simply to cut those scenes but to rethink the entire series, which would probably lead to its demise. It's a matter of bad writing, not just of bad thinking, and that's why, despite what Clare says, it is legitimate to ask 'How is Clary going to change as a result of this incident?', because, unlike real life, there ought to be a very good reason for including such a scene in a novel.