Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Inappropriate Subject Matter

As I get farther along in the first draft of my work-in-progress, I begin to suffer some sort of vague but growing doubts about the subject matter and the characters I have chosen. I'm not second-guessing my choices so much as I'm starting to feel a bit ill at ease over the reception this book will get from my agent, possible future publishers, Mighty Reader, et alia.

Mighty Reader and I were talking just last night (over dinner of chicken Provencal, if you must know) about books we won't read even if we admire the authors who've written them. There are subjects that I'll simply steer clear of: modern warfare, terrorism, pedophilia, serial killers, anything with explicit sex scenes, cyberpunk stuff, clown romances (kidding; I love clown romances), white collar crime; there are also subjects that aren't so nice that I will read: adultery, occult stuff, slavery, poverty, murder, imprisonment, death of all sorts. And the book I'm currently writing might, maybe, be one that I wouldn't necessarily pick up off the shelf and buy were I in a bookstore. Which is what I find most interesting here, that I'm writing a book about things and characters that I usually don't read about.

And, really, mosty my issue is that I'm writing about characters for whom I don't feel I necessarily have adequate standing. I am not an escaped female slave, nor am I a priest, nor am I a widow, nor am I a gay man, nor am I an American Indian. All of these characters appear in my book, as do (I attempt) all of the worst things about their lives when viewed through the above-mentioned societal identifiers. Who am I to presume to speak for any of them? Also, there is a violent act in each chapter. Is this the sort of book I normally buy? Not in the least. But it's the sort of book I am writing. Imagine my embarrassment at the library as I ask for books about how African slaves were tortured during the colonial era, or what the symptoms of syphillis are. Really, thank god for the internets sometimes.

Anyway, Davin's already written a post about "dark subjects" so I won't get into the question of avoiding possibly-inappropriate subjects, but I will wonder if any of you have awakened to the reality that you're writing a book about things you would normally never even consider reading about?


  1. I'll answer the question you posed first: No. Simply because there's nothing out there that a writer could portray on page that would make me think less of them. I only think less of a writer when they can't do it artistically, tactfully, and beautifully. I read Nabokov's LOLITA in one of my english classes in college, and I was sure that it would appall my finer sensibilities, but I found myself viewing Humbert as a protagonist! It was startling at first, but soon I realized that it was because of the beauty of the writing, and if this same story had been taken on by a lesser writer, my doubts would have been realized. Novels are, if nothing else, an ability to live vicariously through someone completely different from yourself. This is what makes novels so enlightening.

    But with that being said, I'll read anything... but I do have a problem writing anything! Even a sex scene (not overly graphic... I do not write pulp) makes me think twice, and check myself three times. Is it really necessary? Will the story be dramatically altered if I don't put more detail in this scene? The answer is usually that it will be different, and usually for the worst. I see my job as being a passionate archivist that takes meticulous notes on his subjects... so skipping the details is intellectually dishonest.

  2. The villain in my current WIP (which is steampunk, a spinoff of but different from cyberpunk) is kind of a blend between Hitler and Torquemada, with his two sets of cronies taking their roots from the SS and the Spanish Inquisition respectively.

    Because of this, I've done a lot of research into torture, Nazi atrocities, psychology, and other basic evil acts I can have these underlings perform. This includes a wide swath of actions and topics that I wouldn't normally read about if given the choice.

    Some of those medieval torture tools were downright nasty. You'd think people today have it bad when they're tortured. Ay yi yi -- the Inquisition would make the most seasoned torturer of today lose their cookies.

  3. Hmm. You post an interesting question. I admit, I really like to read fast-paced, suspense novels set in WW2 that have lots of twists and turns. But I can't write them. I don't know if this is on the same level as your question or not, but it intrigues me that the prevailing logic is always, "Write the book you want to read, but can't find." Well, I'm not writing that type of book. I would probably pick the aforementioned novel over my novel were they placed side by side in a bookstore.

    Sheesh. Am I totally off-topic here? Probably.

    I once wrote a short story about a dead dog. I hate reading stories about dead dogs. But that piece got published and I honestly don't know why I even wrote it. Yet I hate watching "Old Yeller" and "Turner and Hooch" and hate reading anything that has to do with animals suffering and dying. So why did I write something that I would avoid reading?

    I'm not sure. But I can see a blog post on this in my future because it is rather interesting...

    I know I probably didn't answer your question at all, and probably further confused everyone. ;-)

  4. Whoa, Scott! Crossing your comfort borders in a lot of ways! I've done the same thing, mostly in Monarch. To answer your question, yes, I've discovered many things in Monarch that I never thought I'd write about, and I'm sure that in future books I'll do the same. I think it can be scary to delve into dark territory - especially when it just happens on accident. It's not like I started the book thinking, "I'm going to write stuff that makes me uncomfortable."

    I like what Ken said about how something is written. I've read many things that if written a certain way would make me throw the book across the room, but since they are written beautifully, as he says, I'm often okay with it. Not sure why. Presentation I guess. That could open up a whole set of debates within myself!

  5. I would never not read books because of any subject/issue they might contain. The only criteria I have when picking up a book is if the story appeals to me as a whole. If it does, I am willing to give it a chance. For example, I don't read erotica, simply because I find that stories do not give me the satisfaction; they just aren't as full rounded as I like them. But I have no problem reading a sex scene in another genre, say in fantasy or literary novel. Same goes for violence, slavery, torture. While the subject in itself might not fascinate me, in the context of the story, if it enhances my reading experience, I would read it.

  6. I don't feel like I even have control over what I write about. Many things inspire me, but when I sit down to write about them, some initial sources of inspiration don't persist, and some do. That's how I've "decided" to write about the subject matters that I write about. But, for me, the idea of writing what I want to read about comes in the telling of the story. There are certain subjects, certain topics that I think are perfectly valid things to write about, but I don't prefer to read them myself. So, even if they could come up in the story I was writing, I'd probably avoid them. In that sense, I've never written anything I don't want to read. But, the initial inspiration has been on topics I don't necessarily want to read about. A cannibal, for instance, is probably someone I wouldn't want to read about. If I saw that book on the shelf, I'd probably decide that it would be too gimmicky or too dark. Yet, I find myself writing about a cannibal. But, as I do, I'm trying to keep the story in the realm of topics I wouldn't mind reading about, which, so far, has included the actual killing. Research for this topic has also uncovered a lot of information that I don't need to share with the rest of the world.

  7. Well, I'm clearly an old prude. Aside from the subject matters of my WIP (haven't enough white men written about black slaves, etc?), one of the things that sparked this was that Mighty Reader is going to read the new Irvine Welsh book Crime, which is about a gang of child molesters in Florida, and is based on a true story. My response was, "Ick. I'm not touching that." Mr. Welsh is a fine writer, but I don't want to read his new book.

    Back to my WIP: even if the subjects and characters are not the types I normally read or write about, the book is going really well and I'm happy with all of it. So perhaps the lesson I should learn is that, as Ken says and Glam reinforces, it's in the writing, not the subject matter.

    MattDel: I specifically said "cyberpunk" and not "steampunk"! AI is boring, but AI powered by a coal-burning engine and programmed by Edwardian gentlemen who drink brandy with Jules Verne? That's cool.

  8. Davin: "Research for this topic has also uncovered a lot of information that I don't need to share with the rest of the world."

    Now, you know, we're all intrigued.

  9. I've definitely done some writing about things that a few years ago I hadn't imagined I'd be writing about. But to date, I haven't written anything too far from my own reading interests.

  10. I think you've uncovered one of the great juxtapositions in creative writing: once you have written what you want to write about and want to read, and then you want to write something new, you are forced into uncharted or undesired waters for the mere sake of novelty in your novel.

    (NOTE: there is a very good chance I minced many words in the preceding sentence, but I don't care because I think it sounds clever)

    Exploring uncomfortable or unfamiliar subjects can vary within the greater scope of a story. For example, I'm not good at writing romance in long form and could not complete a romance novel, but I can pull of an intimate encounter within a chapter.

  11. My NaNoWriMo project is the most vulgar stuff I've ever written. So I'm using a pen name.

    My manuscript has a lot of downloads on Smashwords (they are allowing people to do a NaNoWriMo tie-in). It's a little unsettling, but if I get a book deal, who cares? That's what pen names are for.

  12. In answer to your question - no, well, at least not yet. I have explored dark subjects - abusive relationships, well, the aftermath and recovery. No, I'm not, nor was I in, an abusive relationship. The situation just fit for the character, and hopefully I'm portraying the emotions correctly. I've also written about the aftermath of rape, but didn't show the actual act other than in very brief, very non explicit, snippets. I'm like you - don't want to read the explicit stuff, and I'm not going to write the explicit stuff.

    As for adequeate standing . . . do any of us truly, unless we're writing a semi-autobiographical book cloaked under the psuedonym of fiction, have adequate standing?

    I mean, I write about women . . . but I'm not a woman. I write about heterosexuals . . . but I'm not a heterosexual. I've written about people who have done horrible things . . . but I haven't done those things.

    I truly think we can only do the best we can, based on our experience and research. We can only write the best novel we are capable of writing, and perhaps still strive to write something better.

    Obviously, the characters and situations you are writing about were something, on some level, you wanted (maybe needed) to write about. I mean why, if there wasn't something you wanted (needed?) to explore, would the idea have come to you in the first place, and why would you have pursued the idea to Chapter 4? Was it maybe to understand the characters and situations a bit better? Pure curiosity? Instinct?

    Sorry about the long comment. The words just flow sometimes and I can't stop myself. The post definitely gave me plenty of thought material. My brain isn't happy about synapsing this late in the afternoon.


  13. Scott: "I mean why, if there wasn't something you wanted (needed?) to explore, would the idea have come to you in the first place, and why would you have pursued the idea to Chapter 4?"

    You know, it all comes down to story. The story doesn't work without the characters I'm gathering together. There isn't anything I'm trying to figure out or explore in my writing; there is only the story. Possibly I'm just having doubts about my ability to do these characters justice, more than doubts about the characters' "appropriateness". The writing is going well, but each subsequent chapter is forcing me to write in new ways. I have a gay protagonist and I very shamefully worry about the marketplace. And yes, there's a lot of violence in this book and, while I plan to show the inner strength of our species, I intend to do that by contrasting it against our baser brothers and sisters.

  14. Scott - gay men read, and avidly, almost as much as women. There is a sad lack of good fiction with gay protagonists. So, there is an audience. In addition, as my best friend will tell you, the majority of women will read gay fiction as well. Now, she might be a bit biased . . . no, she's not. She tells it like it is, no holds barred.

    I struggled with the same issue - gay protagonists - with the project I hope to query in the next few months. Was there a big enough audience? Would people want to read? Well, I hope so. I've poured a good part of myself into the project.

    You, it seems, are pouring a good part of yourself into your project.

    Personally, I admire you for daring to write such a book, with a gay protagonist. Best of luck!


  15. Scott: It's not just the gay protagonist; there are also a number of murders and, more to the point, some scenes of race hatred that unnerve me and I haven't even written them yet. I don't know. The writing is going well, I say. I love this book, but it makes me uncomfortable in any number of ways.

  16. Scott, you really don't want to know what the research has uncovered. Trust me.

  17. scott g.f. --

    Years before I met my wife, I dated a woman who worked at a rape crisis center.

    I tell you that because, even now, I still shy away from including a fictional rape with any sort of depth in any work of mine. I mention that they occur, but that's pretty much it. It also doesn't help that the whole concept of a fellow male doing such a thing disgusts me (I'm of the belief that the stronger are supposed to protect those weaker than themselves, not take advantage of them).

    And yet, rape figures prominently in one character's description about why the city in my current WiP has gone to hell in a handbasket.

    Stephen King once said he writes things that frighten him. I strive to do the same, despite my misgivings, because if it bothers me then I know there are readers out there who it will also bother. And I'm trying to write the most powerful story I can. Bar none.

  18. Davin: I know, nightmares. I won't ask you for any cannibal trivia.

    Matt: I just begin to wonder if the idea of "powerful story" is becoming, in America especially via people like Chuck Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthy, the same thing as "brutal." And if that's a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing. I find myself sort of pushing toward darkness in my current writing, and I think that push toward darkness is a particulary modern American way of writing. Finding this out about myself is sometimes alarming. Though if we read Kafka's "The Penal Colony" we'll see that this sort of darkness isn't particularly new or American in spirit. So I don't know. I have no declarations to make, only questions to ask.

  19. I believe people will always have a need to explore dark issues. Generally speaking, we tend to ask more questions when something devastating happens than when something good happens. It's human nature. How many "good" stories do you see on the news? How many people look to God for answers when they are content and their lives are going well? More often than not, people feel the need to search their souls when they are presented with difficulty. We write to explore our own hopes, fears, horrors, loves, etc. It is no wonder that these subjects come out in writing. It is no wonder that people will emerge from the shadows to read about the same issues they struggle with themselves but are unable to explore using their own words. Maybe, you should think of it as doing others a service. Many people want information they fear to request for themselves.

  20. Like Scott, I have a list of things I won’t read; I’m simply too impressionable. I have also found out that there are things I just can’t bring myself to write about.
    The initial concept of my WIP included a character, a captain of a ship, involved with the slave trade of the 1800’s, and his relationship with one of the slaves in transport. When I started researching that whole sordid part of history, particularly the treatment of slaves on their journey across the Atlantic, it made me ill—seriously ill. I realized I simply could not do it justice. I couldn’t bring myself to climb into their minds and hearts and convey that to a reader without freaking myself out. Nor could I simply gloss over the atrocities to fit the overall tone of the story. So… I changed that part of the story—writer’s prerogative, right? Even still, I feel like a great big chicken, that I sold out on my original idea. Maybe when I’m a grown-up writer I’ll be willing to challenge myself that way.

  21. Yes.

    Once I started writing the stories I didn't read, I realized I had to read them too- to be any good at it I need to know what the standard was.

    Then I realized my aversion to the subject matter was like my aversion to tomato juice.

  22. I am writing a book that I would pick up at the store. I think that is why I am having so much fun writing it.


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