Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Oops, What Have I Said Now? Gillian Philip

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.)


catdownunder said...

Hmmm...surely it is a writer's duty to challenge (but not destroy) the reader's comfort zone sometimes?

Michael Malone said...

Fascinating post as usual, Mrs Philip. Bad things happen to people and writers give us access and valuable insight to such events. The vast majority of readers are more mature and understanding because of these insights. I suggest that it works when the event comes from an organic development of the character. BUT if it is used as a plot device and is simply there to shock then that is A Bad Thing. There's probably more I should say, but it's early and I have to get ready for work.

Candy Gourlay said...

Richard Peck, the Newbery Prize winner, when recently asked the one word that described his craft as a children's writer said: "Responsibility."

If that is so, I guess our role as writers for young people is to ask - is this responsible?

And the answer can swing both ways because one of our greatest responsibilities as children's authors is to deliver truth.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant and necessary blog, Gillian. As an author writing for adults I'm up against this all the time - the inability of some editors and readers to distinguish between an author depicting something and condoning it. Candy is spot-on about responsibility & truth when the readers are young. When they're adult I think my literary litmus test for something dodgy or disturbing is, is this being used to evoke compassion and/or understanding? If it isn't, then it's being used to entertain (the author or the reader)and we all have our own comfort zones for that.

karen ball said...

What a thought-provoking post! I haven't been able to stop thinking about this one. We naturally filter our depictions of violence, according to age range - sword fighting in a 7+ title will have lunges and parries but little real sense of the pain and bloodshed of violence. I think that level of self-editing happens fairly instinctively. Crucially in your post, Gillian, you put a book down when the author's personality wormed to the surface in his depictions. Is this why some violence feels wrong on the page? When there's a sense of enjoyment over descriptive authenticity?

Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Gillian.
Yes, particularly as writers for children, but also when writing for adults the same applies. We do need to have some kind of weathervane about what is acceptable and what is not responsible writing and I agree, Candy, truth should be the basis of what we write.

The dilemma is where does truth clash with responsibility, and who is the judge?
It is a difficult line at times but I think we need to be honest about our motives and always be prepared to fight for what we believe is right for the book we are writing.

Andrew Strong said...

Excellent post. I agree with Linda S, and with Michael, that we must be honest about our motives, and true to our characters. What can offend me more than any particular issue is anxious, paranoid conservatism. The UK is a far more liberal country than just ten years ago, and this is largely because many once difficult issues are part of the public conversation.

thesmu said...

I'm not easily offended I'll grant you but for me it's always about the authorial tone. For me any good book looses you in the characters be they amoral or otherwise - the ones I personally find offesnsive are those where you get an overbearing sense that author is revelling in or thinks they are cool because of the introduction of 'offensive' material. It's a hard thing to pin down but it's all in the subtelties..

I hope that makes sense!

Becky said...

Wow, what an interesting post. I have never thought that a writer could get a kick out of mistreating a character. Hmmm.... I am going to have to go into think mode now.

vh said...

This is a really interesting post and something I am consideringin depth for my PhD. I have some issues with Melvin Burgess's book Nicholas Dane. There is an incidence of male on male child abuse. The authorial voice steps in and states that details are not necessary. I have two problems with this a) if it was male on female abuse would it be written about? and b) but stepping in as the author it is immediately impled that child abuse is something that shouldn't be spoken about and hidden away. Leaving any child looking for a source to help them understand what they might be going through feeling dirty. It could have been implied with a door closing. Nothing need to be described if that was the issue. The book then goes on to have one of the most violent and graphic murders I have read for a long time. I think we all do have responsibilities as writers to offer them a place teenagers in particular can escape and experiment vicariously but this has to be done in a sensitive way. And we need to be aware of what we are writing.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Gillian, full of the questions we should all keep asking ourselves. I've blogged about it myself in the past but, like you, I'm not sure I can resolve it properly. Gratuitous sex and violence are out for me, both as reader and writer, and rape is still so badly handled in society (by press, police and many 'ordinary' folk) that it really needs serious attention. I had a rape in my second book but it was necessary for the plot (which, thank God, the Telegraph's reviewer acknowledged). I didn't enjoy writing it and, in fact, my wife suggested various changes which would never have occurred to me. I wonder what distance there would be between male and female respondents to a questionnaire on rape in fiction.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Great post, Gillian - and I think Candy pretty much hits the nail on the head with her question. It's always a fine line though.

Gillian Philip said...

Thanks for all the fascinating comments everybody - amazing how this helps clarify things in one's own mind. Yes, I think as several people said, Candy hit the mark when she said we have responsibilities, but those responsibilities include telling the truth (I've never been keen on the dies-by-wave-of-magic-wand thing, but of course for younger readers - if someone has to die - there's no other way one can really address it).

I think catdownunder also nails it with the comment we should 'challenge but not destroy' readers' comfort zones.

vh, I haven't read Nicholas Dane, but will do.

And Bill, yes - it's good that we stay constantly aware. That's an interesting question about male reactions v female, by the way...

Lucy Coats said...

Catching up and coming to this late, Gillian. I too think it's a brilliant post, and has given me much food for thought. Adults (but never children) ask me continually how I 'get round' the rape, incest, bestiality and violence in the Greek myths. I answer that I go to the heart of the story and draw out the kernel, and that as the 7-9's do not know the 'tricky bits' are there in the first place, they don't notice if I skirt round them as long as the story is exciting and engaging. They can investigate further when they're older. I do think it's about recognising when things are appropriate and, as Candy said and so many have agreed with, being responsible. Like you, I've only ever been disturbed by books when I felt that the author was somehow just too enmeshed with his (and for me it's always been male writers except for once) killer or whatever. I recognise it by the queasy feeling of 'not-rightness'. But that's my own personal reaction--others may love what I choose to stop reading. Rape is such an emotive subject--but how can we bring it out of the shadows and make it less shameful to be a victim unless we take a deep breath and write about it honestly? Not just for the sake of plot or some idea that it's trendy to put a bit of that in a YA novel--but because we care about telling the truth as best we can.

Katherine Roberts said...

Late too, Gillian... because I am hard at work on the final draft of a YA book at the moment that has a rape at its heart. It's taken me 5 years to get this far, and your post makes me wonder if maybe this is because I am struggling with some sense of responsibility. All my previous books have been published for the 9-11 market (even Alexander the Great's atrocities in I am the Great Horse!), but if I took the rape out of this one the story would simply not be true to itself and the entire book would fall apart. And so I am working very hard on making the characters human, but also using a fantasy layer in an effort to avoid the "sick" stuff that I think some people are talking about here. Of course this book is not contracted yet, so it might still prove a bit too challenging for the YA market... time will tell!