Writing to offend

Writers have an almost unlimited opportunity to offend their readers: sex, violence, race, religion, politics, profanity, gender, class, and so on. Americans in particular live in a society that officially encourages freedom of speech, and at the same time says that people who are offended, in certain ways, have a right to demand an apology from you. And we condone certain types of censorship: explicitly sexual material is labeled “pornography” and sent off to its own little ghetto.

It can seem like a very attractive ghetto (photo: David Shankbone)

It can seem like a very attractive ghetto (photo: David Shankbone)

All this presents an author with problems. Including some of this material will alienate readers, and in the case of certain sexual or racial terms can easily get one’s work removed from the public eye and one’s own reputation destroyed. And yet this material, by its very controversial nature, can be a fruitful source of material for an author.

Although it’s less commonly recognized, this tendency to not want to discuss certain subjects in certain ways also causes problems for the readers. The problem is less apparent, and therefore more dangerous, when reading contemporary fiction. For example, we don’t want to deal with the contradictions of a culture that relentlessly exploits sexuality as “sexiness,” yet would prefer that actual sex not be presented, or be presented in forms artificial and stylistic, or banished to the “pornography” classification, where they will be read and seen frequently with a dollop of guilt.

When Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) can portray Shylock, what does that tell us about us?

When Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) can portray Shylock, what does that tell us about us?

The problem for readers becomes more obvious when dealing with the literature of the past. The tragic history of antisemitism, particularly in the 20th century, makes it almost impossible for contemporary readers to think about Shakespeare’s attitude toward the Jew Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. And our greater sexual openness (greater in imagination than reality, I am afraid) no doubt is responsible for the current mania in pop culture to extend the story of Pride and Prejudice. We know Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy have a happy marriage, yet inquiring just how Mr. Darcy went about boinking Lizzie Bennett on their wedding night somehow seems tawdry. Instead, we have stories about zombies and murder mysteries to somehow assure us that Lizzie and Darcy really are happily married. And this, somehow, is dignified and delightful.

There are literary traditions that insist that all literature be uplifting, convey a positive message, uphold the moral values of society. If you hold to these theories, then your treatment of potentially offensive subjects, as a writer or reader, will be simple and straightforward. Somethings must not be discussed, and others should always be treated in line with those principles. The Hays Code, Hollywood’s self-censorship system from the 1930s until it collapsed in the 1960s, should be your model. And it must be acknowledged that the Hays Code did provide a generation of film-goers with movies that could be seen by the whole family.

But defenders of such a system should also acknowledge that the Hays Code was often at variance with actual social norms. Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was a best-seller, which implies that readers accepted its plot as one worthy of public discussion, but it had to be altered to suit the Hays Code, because a person who committed a criminal act was depicted in positive terms in the novel. That was unacceptable under the Hays Code, so the criminal act had to be changed into an accident, thus robbing the story of its moral tensions. Then, too, Hollywood worked long and hard to circumvent the Hays Code by implying what could not be explicitly shown.

You mean you didn't realize that Bogie and Bergman had a past relationship in "Casablanca?"

You mean you didn’t realize that Bogie and Bergman had a past relationship in “Casablanca?”

I’m not a defender of the principle that literature must be uplifting. Indeed, I think an author should have and use license to portray any aspect of humanity to make the intended point in any given work. Yet at the same time, I have to deal with my readers, and with the structures of our society. There are some things I feel uncomfortable saying, and when I think of my readers, my problems grow greater. I will never forget the shock I had when a friend of mine told me that she had passed along a copy of one of my works to her parents. Said work describes a borderline-psychotic personality, bisexuality, promiscuity, dominance, psychological torture, alcoholism, and bad taste in decorating hotel rest rooms. I could easily imagine the trouble I was about to get into.

Well, fortunately I was wrong with my idiotic thinking. I ended up with two appreciate readers, instead of a legislative act banning me from the state. And that was a heartening result. It told me that if I had a solid purpose in writing as I did, if it was clear to my readers that I was writing to make a point, and not just to shock and offend, I could for the most part write as I felt necessary. I will lose some readers that way. But, hey, I’m writing sci-fi/fantasy. By writing in that ghetto, I’ve already accepted up front that there are a lot of people who won’t read what I write. I’m writing for the ones that will.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Reading fiction, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Writing to offend

  1. crimsonprose says:

    Incredible. I have just left a comment on MC that relates to this very same thing, yet I had no idea you had written this.
    I believe the problem could be more intense in the States than it is in England – or at least that is the general picture given by the media, especially in matters sexual. Yet oddly I found myself, I won’t say offended but not wanting to read more of an urban gothic book by an American female author. It was pure pornography, ok soft but extremely explicit, and that was not what I’d wanted from her book. I shan’t say more. Read my other comment.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      (I read both before I responded to your MC Ch. 6 comment, CP.)

      I wrote up this post because one of my good readers had found the violence in chapter 5 of “Martha’s Children” disturbing, and as a good reader wrote and told me so. It got me thinking more broadly about the issues. I should add I’ve found the same problem in teaching: I was using a clip from the movie “Braveheart” to discuss the medieval attitude toward torture, and one of my students requested I shut it down fairly quickly (which I did).

      What I’ve put on this blog has not involved much sexual content, but that’s not to say I haven’t written any. I do find it hard to write well and explicitly, because it’s hard to convey the experience while describing the physical, physiological, and psychological details. I find it best to go with mood, which has to be conveyed differently in books and movies.

      I can think of at least one author who fits your description whose work has become more sexual in terms of amount of content and explicitness. It’s cost her some readers, given her others.

      • crimsonprose says:

        As ever, a thorough reply. And yes, I too found those scenes in Braveheart hard to stomach, yet I read in more explicit terms the actual torture of medieval England. Not pleasant to read yet not as disturbing as the in-your-face visuals. I have a theory: everyday life being so hard in medieval times – no painkillers, no effective medicines, death all around you, maiming, raping, beatings, brutality everywhere with no law against it, thus penalties must be extreme to provide effective deterient. And it was for the most part reserved for traiters and heretics – though shalt not disagree with the Church, or the government.
        But my comment applied more to racism, which of course is supposed not to be with us anymore. 10 years ago, and as part of the reason I left the theatre to work in the communty, this town was host to asylum seekers and refugees from 28 different countries. It’s a small town; we took over 3000 adults, no one said how many children. And I am ashamed at the violence on our streets, by our own supposed pc-trained people, against those who had already suffered much. I knew what they’d suffered, for part of my job was to record their stories and publish them in sanitised form for distribution by the Racial Equality Council. Most, not all, had come from countries where living conditions could only be described as medieval, including every aspect of the brutality, the rapes by soldier gangs not only of young teenage girls but of old woman and children, blinding, thrashing, branding. And the folk of this town, with their comfortable lives, in their comfortable homes, turned against them individually and in mobs. Because they were different? Because they’d do work which our locals wouldn’t: too proud. Because they imagined these refugees were getting free handouts. It was sickening.
        And, sorry, this isn’t really the place to describe it. I shall understand if you moderate against this reply.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          We live in a very civilized world. Well, most of the readers of this blog do. The sort of problems that people faced in medieval times, or from countries that generate a lot of refugees, are hard to imagine, let alone affect our behavior. There’s evidence that people lose sympathy for the downtrodden the further removed in circumstances they are from them. That’s one of the problems both Bronzeville and your town’s refugees both faced in getting acceptance by the majority of the community. (Which is why it’s worth keeping your post as is.)

          One reason my blog post for chapter 6 went on about Bronzeville is that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the racism of the period justice in my story. It’s one of the things I do like about writing on a blog: it gives me the space to expand on subjects my stories skim over.

          Nevertheless, racism and its xenophobic cousins will crop up again in “Martha’s Children,” especially once we get to part 2, in a form closer to the core of the story.

          • crimsonprose says:

            Dratted Notifications not working again. I find your reply by visiting your blog. I agree of the lack of sympathy the further removed. And we are so secure in our lives. Ironically, I am currently watching the LWT series of Upstairs Downstairs, televised in the 70s, (now on YouTube), but set 1904 through WWI, a period of great social change. It certainly does show the chasm that exists between then and now

  2. E. J. Barnes says:

    “Always try to be lucky enough to work in a despised medium.” — Fredric Brown, to a young Will Greathouse (a.k.a. Blaster Al Ackerman)

  3. Judy says:

    I think yout title tells it all really. If a writer is writing TO offend, then that is one thing. Writing freely and without prejudice or numbing sanitizing of the human condition is not writing to offend. Unfortunately, anything MIGHT offend and for writing to hit a chord of any kind of truth then it will either fit the reader’s sense of life or it will not be something they want to read or hear and be deemed unnecessarily real or offensive. A writer probaby does need to know his or her audience but that can’t interfere with the story being true to itself or even the ones who are not offended will find it empty.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      A good distinction to make, between the intent to offend and the possibility of offending.

      There’s another calculation that has to be made. Do I need a possibly offensive element to make my story realistic? Do I need it for the story’s sake? And those two questions often overlap. Making decisions even more complicated, there are sometimes workarounds, which are more acceptable even if they come to the same thing. Laurence Sterne made fun of this at one point in “Tristram Shandy,” having a character utter the forbidden oath, “ZOUNDS!” and then having him repeat it as “Z_____!”

  4. Judy says:

    There will always be that debatable issue of whether something was necessary to uphold the story. I would say that if the intent is not to sensationalize or be gratuitous for the sake of creating buzz, then you just have to let personal style allow your story to unfold. I’ve read some criticism of ‘Water for Elephants”, which I have sitting around here unread so far, that it was too graphic and real and was that necessary. So maybe I’ll be uncomfortable, maybe not but I care most that the story is intellectually honest and tells us something about life. I was just thinking as typing that I do have an avoidance syndrome sometimes if I think a book will require an emotional investment but usually eventually tackle the thing. I was like this with the movie Forest Gump. No knowing exactly what it was about, my preconceived idea was that it would be depressing…too real maybe. Thank goodness I got around to seeing that delightful story. Maybe I should just say, write and let the audience find you?

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