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Are You Controversial?

11

February 20, 2011 by Renee

Controversy:

An arguement, debate or dispute between sides holding opposing views. The act of engaging in such disputes.

Fiction writing holds great potential for controversy. Have a look at any banned books list, read the arguements presented by each side, take a gander at reviews for writers who toe the line in terms of acceptable subject matter and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes the writer’s pen (or keyboard) is equal to holding a loaded gun. What we put on paper is there forever once published. People read, form opinions and thanks to the internet, can broadcast those opinions to millions. One ‘offensive’ remark becomes fodder for long, explosive debates nationwide. How lucky are we?
 
For those of you who visit the Edge often, and those that know me well, my views regarding taboo subjects are probably very clear. For the rest of you, the newbs, the lurkers, and the ones who accidentally stumbled across this blog in the search for something meaningful and important, I’ll elaborate.

I recently read a manuscript for a friend. This story is very…disturbing on many levels. The writer was brave, forthright, and pulled no punches. It’s the first story I’ve read in a long while that had me asking, “Oh, why would he write this?” After finishing, I reflected on the story and thought, “Damn! He’s brilliant, even if the idea of sitting down to coffee with such a twisted mind is rather unsettling. Kudos to him for daring to touch such murky waters.”

I don’t find many subjects to be taboo in fiction writing. I think that when a story needs to be told, the writer should have the balls to tell it the right way, not the popular way. By that I mean, glossing over events, or grotesquely describing them for shock value, is the mark of a lazy writer in my opinion. But wait, that’s contradictory. No, it isn’t. Skimming over events because either you’re uncomfortable writing them, or because you’re worried about offending someone reading them, is lazy. It’s cowardly in fact. Describing a scene that could be handled tactfully by relating every gory detail is also lazy. A good writer looks at the scene in terms of how it contributes to the entire story, not just as a “hmm, how can I shock the reader down to her boots?”

Let’s take child abuse as an example of what I mean here. I have a novel that is a very uncomfortable read on many levels. One, it’s dark. Some don’t like dark. Two, it looks at domestic violence from both victim and abuser’s perspective and at times, the abuser is portrayed sympathetically. Not a very popular angle to take. Three, child abuse plays a huge role. Sure way to lose half your readers right there. This issue is sensitive and delicate and must be treated as such. Does that mean we as writers avoid it? No. It doesn’t. Our job is not only to entertain, but to enlighten and educate where possible. There are several scenes in this book where sexual abuse occurs. Now, as I wrote each scene, the inner dialogue in my head warned against it. “Just say she was abused and move on.” It said. “But wait, how can we possibly expect the reader to understand the damage if we don’t show this?” the other voice said. “People will slam the book down in disgust. You’ll have nasty emails and no publisher will touch it.” The first voice argued. The first voice is a spoilsport, but often the first voice forces me to examine my motives before plunging forward, so he has his place in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, these scenes took the longest to write and endured many more rewrites than any other section of this novel. Why? I’m not lazy. I didn’t want to shock. I wanted to enlighten. I wanted the reader to feel what the characters felt in each, but I didn’t want to ruin the reading experience either. The scenes are crucial to choices the characters make later, and one in particular opens the entire book. So you see, they are scenes I couldn’t ignore.

But, Renee, honestly, you could have avoided all of that work by not writing about a subject that rubs so many people the wrong way. Yes, I could have. And the story would be weaker because of it. If I left them out to avoid upsetting people, then why am I writing? Why bother imagining, creating, and questioning everything the way I do? What would be the point if I played it safe?

Does controversy sell books? Once I believed it did. Now, after trying to publish two novels that explore controversial issues for months and months and receiving rejection after rejection, I wonder if this is true. I think given the chance, yes it would sell books. But how does a writer get a publisher or agent to see that? How does the writer convince the Powers That Be, that she will stand behind what she’s written, firmly plant her feet in place and not apologize for the content of that story? How does she convince them that she’s got the balls to sell it? Good question. When I figure that out, I’ll let you all know.

Now back to the subject of taboos. While I feel there isn’t anything too controversial to write about, I do feel that there are limitations to how we should portray taboo subjects. Glamorizing rape, incest, child abuse or domestic violence is not okay in my books. Some writers are okay with that. For me, this is a personal choice and I will not do that in my writing. I will write about it. I will show it for what it is and hopefully force the reader to think about it from a different perpective. But I will not make it seem like it is okay. Not ever. There’s a fine line there and some might feel that in I Do and Other Lies We Tell, I’ve crossed it in my portrayal of Ronny or even Garrett. But I disagree. We can debate that once it is published.

My question for you is, do you have boundaries, limitations that you’ve set for yourself in terms of what you will or will not write about? What about as a reader? Are there subjects that will cause you to leave that book on the shelf? If you’re comfortable elaborating, why won’t you touch these topics?

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11 thoughts on “Are You Controversial?

  1. I know a very fine writer who was labeled by a bunch of whackos a supporter of child molestation. One of his novels (historical fantasy) is, in part, about child prostitution, but because he didn't come out and specifically condemn it, they accused him of being a supporter of molesters. Any time you write about a subject that someone considers evil, you will be tarred with the "evil" brush, unless you make it clear that you believe it to be a very bad thing that should be punished.

  2. Renee Miller says:

    Good point Sylvie. The problem with taboo subjects is that you have to consider the very narrow minds out there. However, I think that 'covering one's ass' by stating clearly in the story we believe the act or event is criminal or evil is (in some cases) damaging to the story. I write about these subjects and show the impact on the victim. Do I come out and say "This is evil and I don't condone it"? Nope. But then, I've considered what might happen because of that and I'm willing to 'take one for the team' so to speak in order to tell the story the way it needs to be told, without my own morals and biases coloring what the reader feels. I suspect your friend did that as well and because he didn't clearly say "I'm against this." he endured nastiness. A question that pops into my mind though is, how did the controversy affect his sales? Sounds cold, but it's a question that many writers will ask if honest.

  3. Mike Keyton says:

    I have one reservation when touching on some topics and it is both pragmatic and mundane. It doesn't necessarily stop me, but it causes me to pause: and that is what would my children think. It's a consideration.Ref books that turn me off – anything with an agenda.

  4. JEFritz says:

    When I'm writing, my main focus is always the story. I tell it how it needs to be told, even when it's full of things that make me cringe. For any scene I ask myself if it is important to the book, but I give special detail to those cringing scenes. Because if they are going to be in my book, they can't be for shock value or entertainment. I agree that those subjects can't be glamorized or ignored. Either way, it diminishes their true horror and reading that would definitely make me put a book down. As for finding the balance in your own book–that's what writers do.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. As I revise my novel for the 4,673rd time (okay, that's a slight exaggeration,) I grapple with this very subject. I've made a decision though. I'm going for it. It's the truth and yes, it will probably make some angry, but it's the only way to make my story credible. Glossing over the topic to be politically correct would be a cop-out. The comment above was deleted due to a typo.

  7. If I haven't offended somebody somewhere, I probably didn't try hard enough. :)And while that may sound snarky and off the cuff, I'm quite serious. I know who my audience is. I write for them, not the 'chicken littles' or the conformists in society. Though if they want to buy my books, I'll take them too.If you're accomplished in any way, you should be able to stir deep feelings for or against any taboo or convention. It's when you can't inspire interest that you're in trouble. 🙂

  8. Renee, until recently, the author didn't have much for sale, and the whacko's campaign started while the book was only available as a freebie on his website. That was some time back, so it's hard to know whether it will have any financial impact. The group seems to be very small, and it's hard even to access their accusations now, so unless they come out of their slumber, there probably won't be any long-term effects. [fingers crossed] But it's something we all have to be aware of. Some of my stories take place in a nation where slavery is legal and children can be sold at the age of 12, for any use. I don't describe such scenes, and the context makes it clear that this is objectionable, but I can forsee cries of horror when I finish and publish the book (as an ebook).

  9. Renee Miller says:

    Mike: Yes, and I'm glad you mentioned that. I agree 100%. My children are still young so I also consider what might hurt them later. When I write they always stay in a corner of my mind. First, will what I'm writing be something I wouldn't want them reading as adults?(because I write adult fiction) and second, would it cause them pain (any kind of pain). I'm raising my kids to be their own person, so I also can't pussyfoot around things because one must practice what she preaches right? I tell them to think how they want and to speak out for things that they believe in. So I will do the same. In my writing and in life. JEFritz: I agree on all counts. Aimee: Good for you. Go with your gut, I always say. If your gut says this is the best way, then that is what you have to do. PS: I'm the typo queen, no worries on that. Maria; "If I haven't offended somebody somewhere, I probably didn't try hard enough." "I know who my audience is. I write for them, not the 'chicken littles' or the conformists in society. Though if they want to buy my books, I'll take them too."You know I've got quite a load of Maria-quotes piling up here. I love that. Good thing you're putting those wordsmith skills to use. 🙂 Sylvie: So it was a small group of whackos? They seem to travel in small, extremely annoying packs…like starving wolves or those moles in my garage. When your book is published, could you give me the link to where I can buy it? I'm intrigued. Reality is, these things go on (child slaver) and to not talk about them doesn't make it go away. That's what these knobs need to realize. As Maria says, write to your audience. The rest, well if they want to trash you because you make them uncomfortable you've done your job by making them feel something. Oh, and they had to buy the book to have something to rant about, so it's still a read and a sale.

  10. Sue Roebuck says:

    I agree with Maria. Your synopsis and blurb should be clear about what your book is about. If someone doesn't want to read it, then they should complain if they do.I personally would never write about gratuitous violence or torture. If I mention child abuse, it would have to be essential to the plot and then I'd only refer to it, not give details. I don't really see the point of it.

  11. Renee Miller says:

    But are those personal limitations, Sue? Or do you feel in general that those things don't belong in fiction? I'm not trying to stir the pot, (although I do that sometimes) I'm genuinely curious about how writers view taboos and controversy. I think it's important not to avoid these things simply because they bother people. This is how abuse continues. If you ignore the unpleasant things in life, they grow. They do not disappear.I agree if it's not essential to the plot, it doesn't belong. Details should only be the necessary details, particularly when dealing with something as delicate and disturbing as child abuse. In some of the scenes in I Do, there are details, vague though they are, that leave no doubt what is to occur. I feel they're necessary, but some may disagree. How do I feel about those people? They are not likely to be 'my readers' because I don't sugarcoat anything. Of course, the book's subject matter would be clearly stated in the blurb. However, should the blurb be so clear as to state "there are disturbing scenes in this novel" or would stating that the character is abused her whole life be enough? How much disclosure should the author give?I wonder at this because new authors wouldn't have the benefit of an established reader base. The masses wouldn't know what to expect. Everyone knows Stephen King is dark. Everyone knows that Dan Brown likes to mess around with religion and that Charlaine Harris writes about sex with dead people. (vampires, relax) New authors haven't established themselves like this yet, so odds are readers that won't like that writer's style of writing are going to pick up the book. What happens then? Personally, there are a few groups of people who I KNOW won't like my novels, but I hope they pick them up. That's the me that likes to stir the pot. And yes, I'm ready for the flaming bags of pooh on my front step. Wouldn't be the first time.

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Renee

Renee

I like to write stuff. Sometimes it's funny. I've published some novels and short fiction. I also battle an addiction to cake and potato chips, and I sometimes have inappropriate fantasies involving Kevin Spacey.

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