Pathologies of Mad Violence: The School Shooting Fiction Archive
The School Shooting Fiction Archive grew out of Hayley C. Stefan's dissertation research on the relationship between disability, race, and national belonging. While analyzing Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes (2007) and Stephen King's Rage (written under the pen name Richard Bachman, 1977), I came across several repeated tropes: 1) the novels played with temporality to give the reader a feeling of suspense as a "countdown" to the shooting; 2) the shooter was frequently described in reference to their "mental state" which worsened as the shooting approached; and 3) the reader was privy to many "clues" other characters missed that foreshadowed the shooting, suggesting that someone could have prevented the shooting from happening. This pattern ran with the stereotype that people with supposedly non-normative mental or emotional experiences—people who are "mad"—are ticking time bombs, inevitably leading to gun violence.
The Research Behind School Shootings
We tend to talk about school shooters as "crazy people."
But research from criminologists, lawyers, and sociologists all indicate that this stereotype isn't exactly accurate. In fact, "mad people" (or people who have used psychiatric or mental health services) are much more likely to be victims of gun violence than others, and being "crazy" is not an indicator that anyone will shoot a gun at school.
This stereotype about school shooters is different, too, from the way gun violence is talked about overall in the U.S.
Political rhetoric about guns has largely centered on “urban” or “inner-city” violence, thinly coded language that identifies shooters as predominantly people of color and of a lower socioeconomic status. In contrast, media reactions often include talking heads saying "no one ever thought it could happen here" in the suburban, predominantly white-passing areas where mass school shootings take place. How we talk about these not-so-different types of gun violence suggest that many of us subconsciously think disability and the causes of gun violence are tied to race and socioeconomic status.
The implication is a breakdown of a racial metonymy syllogism: all people of color are poor and violent; the only middle-class white-passing folx who are violent must be crazy.
Yet, despite these voluble stereotypes, time and again the majority of school (and mass) shooters are “non-disabled” white men with a history of interpersonal violence, while disabled people and people of color are much more likely to be victims or harmed for “acting crazy.”
Initial Project Questions
So grew my interest into why, if we know that "mental illness" and race are not actually tied to the likelihood of shootings, we keep saying they are. Why, when school shooting deaths are a minuscule percentage of all gun deaths for children, do adults keep talking, writing, and reading about school shootings?
The Books & Their Authors
Here's a quick glance at how these books are visually marketed. Below is a composite image of the covers of each of the books in this archive. You can see some similarities: bullet holes, close-ups of eyes or hands, or single figures looking away from the viewer.
Because both Jodi Picoult and Stephen King are popular writers, their books were often marketed alongside other thematically similar texts on sites like Goodreads or Amazon. I kept finding more and more books being compared to Nineteen Minutes and Rage. Some searching around found a few disparate lists of "books about school shootings," but these were often filled with books about real shootings, books like Dave Cullen's Columbine that tried to understand a historical event. Finally, using the Library of Congress catalog along with reader reviews and publisher summaries across multiple sites, in fall of 2017 I assembled a list of over 70 books of what I began to refer to as school shooting fiction. I was working on this list when the Las Vegas shooting happened. I added to it following Parkland and Santa Fé. As these real events keep happening, the list of school shooting fiction grows, too. Ranging from publication dates in 1977 with Rage up through new publications each year, the list has reached 75 in 2019.
While the dissertation has moved on to other questions of embodiment and what we think of as national tragedies, I have continued to ask questions about this developing subgenre. Who writes these books, and why? Where are they being published? Do new publications tend to appear after mass or highly mediated shootings? How do these writers describe shooters? How do they -- through the language they use to describe shooters, the access to weapons, the treatment of students by teachers and families, their writing style, and their "notes to readers" -- tell us what they see as the "reason" for these events and how we might stop them?
These books are important.
These books raise even more questions because of the publication history of the first, Rage. King's book was quoted during, adapted, or a supposed influence on at least three real school shootings through the late 1990s, leading King to pull the book from publication, an issue he discusses further in his 2013 essay Guns. While King walks the line between taking responsibility and advocating for authors' right to write, what's happened with Rage does leave lingering questions about the 74 school shooting fiction books that followed it.
As youth victims and survivors of school shootings gain more media coverage and take action, I am increasingly interested in the divide between the adults publishing these books and the "young adults" they're marketed at. While youth activists like those working with the March for Our Lives work to draw attention to the wider issue of gun violence and away from a sole focus on the spectacle of school shootings, more and more fiction re-stages school shootings for young adult audiences. If the young adult audience does not want to focus their gun violence activist efforts on school shootings, who are these books for?
This archive is my attempt to gather information to help understand, if not answer, these questions.
Notes about the Data & Process
Here I share the list of books I have identified as school shooting fiction, alongside some general information about their authors, gleaned from personal and professional websites, publishing information, and social media accounts. Because some of the information I am interested in (gender identity and race, for instance) is not something that many writers openly reflect on on Twitter, my information about them is observational; it therefore may not reflect the authors' personal identification or experience. Because of that, all references to race rely on visual cues that I admit are grounded in colorism; "white" refers in every instance to "white-passing." Despite the somewhat rigid classifications of writers' identities for the purposes of this research, I regard none of these categories as simple features, but rather as complex constellations of personal experience. I do not advocate using any of this identity information beyond as a means to consider the publication histories of these works.
I will also continue to share my analyses of this data as it grows. The shape these analyses take will differ as the questions I ask about my data change. While I began by asking, How many of these books are there, and who's writing them?, my focus now is growing toward the way these books write about shooters. In particular, I'm interested in what type of language is used to describe shooters racially, mentally, and emotionally, to what socioeconomic class they seem to belong, and what seems to "cause" the shooting. I have started tracking this train of thought through text mining via AntConc and Voyant Tools, looking for the frequency and collocation of coded language like "crazy," "mad," or "insane." I hope to do some additional comparative analysis of the structure of these books, especially when the shooting occurs in the narrative and how often it is replayed for the reader. These more recent research queries have proven slower to follow than the already tedious collection of cultural data about the books and their authors. Many of the books are self-published, several are out of print. Accessing them or adapting them into digital files can be costly or timely, sometimes both.
(Fictional) School Shootings Are Only a Small Part of the Conversation
A lot of information already exists about gun violence and school shootings. Many scholars, especially BIPoC scholars, have done exceptional labor tracking media reactions and discussions to gun violence, the demographics of shooters and victims, and the intricate, confusing collection practices surrounding gun violence. I catalog some of these works on this site, and I hope to keep adding to it. I forward their work in considering how this translates into fiction. My hope is that if you are researching gun violence in fiction then The School Shooting Fiction Archive should be only a node in a larger network of research by activists, scholars, survivors, and teachers.
For these many reasons, this site is very much a constant work-in-progress. Please use its data ethically and with the caveat that it has been collected by a human and therefore subject very much to error, misidentification, and change. I gather it all here in hopes that the ubiquity of the phrase "school shooting" is temporally-situated and that future generations will not refer to school names as metonyms for violent death and loss. It is with much hope in younger generations that "gun violence," too, drops out of the main topics of political debates.
If you have any suggestions for the site or questions about the data, please contact me, and I will do my best to answer.