Sunday, December 30, 2012
Line in the Sand: Taboos in Fiction
By OFW Member: Renee Miller
Published: November 25, 2012


Fiction writing holds great potential for controversy. Have a look at any banned books list, read the arguments 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 are familiar with my writing, 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 site in the search for something meaningful and important, I'll elaborate.
I once read a manuscript for a friend. This story was very...disturbing on many levels. The writer was brave, forthright, and pulled no punches. It was the first story I'd read in a long while that had me asking, "Oh dear, why would he write this?" After finishing, I reflected on the story and thought, "Damn! It’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 consider most 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. Those are the marks 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 wrote a novel that is a very uncomfortable read on many levels. One, it's dark. Some folks 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 at least 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 as fiction writers is not only to entertain, but to enlighten and educate where possible. There are several scenes in my 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 she has her 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 or disgust my reader. I wanted to enlighten. I wanted the reader to feel what the characters felt in each scene, but I didn't want to ruin the reading experience either. The scenes are crucial to choices the characters make later. Without them, the motivation for certain actions are lost. So you see, they are scenes I couldn't ignore. The problem was in determining how much detail was enough and how much would be crossing the line? In the end, I decided making it clear that the child endured something horrible was sufficient. The gory details didn’t need to be told.
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?
All of this leads to the question: 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. There are certain responsibilities that we have as writers in regards to respecting the people who have experienced what we write about. No, we don’t coddle them or kiss their ass. But glamorizing rape, incest, child abuse or domestic violence just to sell a few books 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 perspective. But I will not make it seem like it is okay or cool. Not ever.
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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