I dunno. As a writer, should I keep my sensitivities honed, always bear in mind the offence I might cause, and avoid it like the plague (or like a cliche)? Or should I accept that every reader will bring their own sensitivities to a book, their own issues, and make allowances for myself and my characters and my story, and, just possibly, my own hyper-sensitivities?
It's a live issue for me right now. Recently I read a blog about rape in novels. It was thoughtful, insightful, sensitive, and followed by comments from women who (I surmise from what they said) had had their own traumatic experiences of rape or near-rape. Some of the posts pulled me up short. Some readers threw a book aside immediately when a writer 'used' rape as a plot device. The simplistic or offensive treatment of such a subject made their blood boil, said others.
Too right. I've binned a book myself - just the once, when I got the clear sense that the author was getting a real kick out of what he - via his serial killer - was doing to a group of nameless girls.
I don't know myself where I drew that line. I have a fairly strong stomach and I like gritty crime fiction (up to a point). There are men who kill women, and get a kick out of it. Some writers should - must - write about those characters. So I'll never know what edged this particular writer beyond the pale for me. It was instinct, that's all.
But I'm sure I, too, cross lines in reader's minds. Should this character light a cigarette? Should that one thrill to cruelty? Should the other have conscience-free, unprotected sex, and love it?
The rape blog made me fret because one of my characters is raped, and her reactions might well be offensive. It's not the defining moment of the plot. It's not (in her perception) the worst thing that happens to her. She worries it was her own fault. She laments her lost virginity. (Heck, she's a sixteenth century peasant girl.) I can't overlay her reactions with my 21st century sensibilities, but I know she'll offend. That's not my intention, but I know it will happen.
I've had the same dilemma with violence. I'm not a pacifist; I believe in the concepts of just war and national self-defence. But my depictions of violence have offended and upset people. I wouldn't go out of my way to offend, but should I go out of my characters' way not to offend?
A friend of mine once came under huge pressure to change a moment in her novel when her pregnant heroine drank alcohol. This character was ambivalent about the baby, and the drinking reflected that, but editors worried that readers would be offended, indeed horrified; that they'd instantly lose all sympathy for the heroine. My writer friend stood firm. The heroine drank. And the characterisation works really, really well. I'm sure it offended a few people who have strong opinions on, or experience of, the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome. But for the novel, for the heroine, it was honest and true and it worked.
Sometimes I tone things down when my conscience is pricked. But truly, I'm not sure I should. I certainly wouldn't change the fundamental heart of the story.
It's like I said at the start: I dunno. But I'd love to hear how other writers handle their own conscience when it might conflict with someone else's - and no, I don't just mean the Daily Mail's.
As for politics in books? From all sides? Oh, don't get me started.
(The image is the cover of a book by war correspondent Anthony Loyd, just because I admire (and envy) his uncompromising honesty.)