So you’re going to be a writer? Awesome. You are never going to please everyone, so own it; the thin-skinned have no business being authors (or auteurs). Words have put the most popular and successful authors on the painful side of a controversy (Sometimes it’s intentional.) That said… keep an open mind to the opinions of critics and friends. If you are going to create fictional scenarios that skirt the edge of mass acceptance, know why you are writing those actions. When George R.R. Martin decided to have brother and sister lovers in Game of Thrones, he was setting up the premise of the entire series. The question of legitimate authority and unraveling of Westeros as a society came out of that relationship. Everything that happens in your story, no matter how taboo, should serve the narrative.
Three subjects will consistently get you into trouble: religion, politics, and sex — and, not coincidentally, they are the most fun to write about. Everything from gender issues to porn falls under them, and any mixing of those three will especially increase risk. Salman Rushdie learned about playing with someone’s religion when his book, Satanic Verses, caused an Iranian Ayatollah to put a Fatwa and bounty on his head for an unflattering depiction of Islam; Ayn Rand still remains despised (and loved) for her political vision’s cold, compassionless world view. Nabokov received grief for Lolita, a story about a love affair between a grown man and a teenaged girl. Whether a work was done for artistic reasons or commercial will have some part in how it’s received publicly. Controversial scenes in a primarily commercial work are viewed as crass, exploitive, and in poor taste, whereas similar behavior in an artistic work targeted for social commentary might be better tolerated. Serious critics will often defend such works from the morality-mob’s indignation. On the flip side, popularity of your story can defend your vision from a critic’s harsh rebuke. Write your work with a group in mind — in other words, know your fan base and create allies.
Time is also an important factor to the perception of art because something might be perfectly okay in one era but can fall out of favor as sensibilities change, such as in the case of schools banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it uses the N-word casually, portrays racism and racists unapologetically, and essentially shows ugly reminders of a past we still find uncomfortable to talk about. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was lauded in the 1950s for depicting a future where women had serious careers equal to men, but was criticized decades later for the manner of their depiction, in that, the female characters were all “attractive” and subservient to a rich, powerful man. The time factor is not limited to the shelf life of classic literature, either. Many of the current younger generation are critical of James T. Kirk, written as a womanizing, hot-blooded, and trigger happy adventurer in the original 1960s Star Trek series, though he wasn’t playing the role too differently from other male action heroes of that era. Some women consider James Bond a pig for sleeping with more than two women on a single day. If there’s a lesson here for writers: don’t name your male leads “James.”
Sliding Scales of Acceptance
What you can get away with in fiction depends on factors along several sliding scales, and this applies to multiple mediums.
Commercial versus artistic
Commercial enterprise versus artistic expression (which some argue is a measure of quality) is one way to gauge how far you can take a controversial scene in your story. You can have society’s critics defending artistic work against the offended layman, or the masses validating a work against the critics who tear it down, such as the case of Star Wars. (Critics hated it when it came out in 1977, and they didn’t like the first Matrix movie either.) As a writer, you want at least one group in your camp.
In 1995, Larry Clark’s film Kids survived its controversial premise about a group of unsupervised city tweens engaging is unprotected sex, drugs, and giving each other HIV. The misogyny in the film was blatant. It was also, however, commended for its honesty in bringing to light a real and problematic sub-culture at a time when AIDS was at the pinnacle of the societal zeitgeist. No commercial Hollywood movie could have gotten away with the same blunt portrayal and not been hopelessly skewered. But, because it was a small-budget artistic film and chronicled the actions with little exaggerated emotion, almost like a documentary, it survived its detractors, was hailed as honest and visionary, and was a financial success.
The sentimental or emotional impact of a scene can save the writer from a heap of controversy. Emotion is a crutch in commercial projects to help the consumer swallow the politically or morally questionable situation–the way sugar makes bitter medicine go down easier. Law & Order SVU has mastered this formula, tackling subjects that would have been banned from television just a decade earlier. Rape is the premise of the entire show. In one highly emotional episode, Olivia Benson is conflicted over a suspect who’d killed her rapist. As the child of rape herself she turns to her mother for advice over dinner. The end of the conversation, saturated with sentimentality, goes like this:
Olivia (regarding her biological father’s rape of her mother): “I hate what he did to you.”
Mom: “I know dear. But if he hadn’t done what he’d done, I wouldn’t have you.” Cue tears, as they look lovingly at each other over that poignant irony.
Cut away the saccharine emotion of the scene and you’re left with the message that the ends justified the means regarding that rape. It’s mind-blowing what they got away with on that series. There’s an element of the artistic in this show, though, because the series was scribed by some of the best writers in television. But in the end, SVU exists to sell Tide, Chevys, and iPads, and relies on its loyal fan base to protect it from its titillating storylines.
Politics, Religion, and Sex
Social politics have skewed left over the decades regardless of who’s in Congress. Homeland defense type stories such as Hunt for Red October or covert experts seeking justice from a flawed or corrupt government, like the Jack Reacher books, are kosher for the mass market. Right-wing social commentary gets banned to the back of the store near the basement door (unless its Atlas Shrugged). In the 1970s, you could demonize the Black Panthers in mainstream books and movies with little backlash. Depict them as heroes, and you had yourself a little counterculture niche, which films like Shaft and Dolomite filled nicely. Your gun-loving, government-hating protagonist today will not get very far, and you will never sell movie rights, if he/she goes after the head of a radical Black Lives Matter cell, or American Muslim community. The culture at the moment is on steroids for tolerance and diversity. Make your villain an old, straight, white dude and you’re in the safe zone. Try it with someone from a marginalized community or gender, and you are asking for trouble, even if your interpretation is based on empirical facts.
Religion’s a funny thing… the Bible is perhaps the most read book on Earth, filled with incest, genocide, sadism, torture, lust, rape, polygamy, sodomy, liars, thieves, madmen, wizards, witches, seven deadly sins, intimate poems… and yet, the most ridged followers of its teachings will boycott you if you put any of those things in your story. But what will really put a backlash in overdrive is if you criticize a belief system. (Remember Satanic Verses?) It’s hard to gauge whether things have gotten better or worse on that front. One of the wittiest satires on religion is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, made in the 1970s. In a strange twist of irony, as people have grown more tolerant over the years about gender issues, race, and religion, the tolerance for criticism in art seems to have shrunk. Of all the great religions, Christianity takes the biggest beating and seems to handle it civilly for the most part (not counting Westboro Baptist Church). I don’t think it’s possible to do a Life of Brian about Judaism or Islam. Monty Python as a troupe was a critics’ darling. Its members are all highly educated — some of them having gone to Cambridge University and Oxford–so their satire is defended as works with artistic merit. Commercial exploitation of religion today is outright verboten. A musical called Mohammed ibn `Abd Allāh Superstar would never survive. (Never.)
Sex will get you into more trouble than gore, or violence, in the English-speaking market. Americans have never really shaken off their Puritan origins. If you rated Americans for tolerance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 as most tolerant, it would be an 11 for violence and a 3 for sex. No one (to my knowledge) ever protested Tom Six’s Human Centipede, about a mad scientist who stitched people together from mouth to anus. (Everyone behind the first guy had to eat the shit of the person before him. This is a successful franchise.) However, Fifty Shades of Grey, despite its popularity, got a fair share of grief over the treatment of its main character by the book/movie’s so called protagonist. In a nation brimming with feminists and gender warriors (not that this as a bad thing), tread carefully on this subject matter because many view it solely through the spectrum of power dynamics. Fifty Shades was immensely popular, and that insulated it from its rebuke by the critic community. How did E.L. James do it? In Fifty Shades’s defense, when you peel away the story layers you find that Anastasia Steele has more control than what’s obvious. It’s her story, her journey of discovery and she allows everything that happens to her to happen. She’s not a victim, and she is, in fact, as unbreakable as steel. She may have been whipped, but she wasn’t beaten. This was written for women, by a woman. That does not make it controversy proof, but it is a prime example of how to get away with controversial material.
I guess the reason I picked this topic to write about is that I haven’t escaped scrutiny in my own books. In The Lost Prince, there’s a sex scene between two teenagers. It’s the only time in the book where that happens and both parties consented. Despite the fact that in Game of Thrones, Jon Snow was fourteen and Daenerys thirteen when they had their sex scenes, the consensual scene in my book made a few reviewers uncomfortable. However, it completely sets up the rest of Daniel’s narrative arc for the book. The Lost Prince is as much about Daniel’s coming of age as it is the story of the guardians who want to rescue him and the assassins who want to kill him. The first thing I asked myself was, is this scene realistic? Yes. I know men and women where something similar has happened to them, or who know of people who have had that experience. (Also, see movie Kids.) I could have said, “It’s a fantasy novel, so who cares if there’s little Forum action?”, but I would not be so flippant with such an important character. I literally beat the crap out of Daniel in book one of the series. He’s thirteen going on thirty.
Most people forget the uncomfortable details of puberty. It was awkward for both sexes, but it hits males very differently than girls. Men are not emotionally or intellectually mature when they get hormonally supercharged in puberty. Women get an inkling as to what it’s like when they reach their thirties, but have the life experience of an adult at this point. I wanted to bring the kind of awkward depth you find in a literary story to this character, and I know I nailed it because many fans tell me so. He is by far most readers’ favorite character. But he’s also a hero, so the important aspect of my handling this scene to not make him an aggressor. The girl, who is older, pursues him for her own benefit. Daniel’s initial rejection of Luanne’s advances bruised her ego because, despite being attractive, she’s actually insecure, and so she doubled down on her efforts to seduce him. My whole approach was to not write a sanitized version of teens like most fantasy books are apt to have. Most of us stumbled and bumbled our way between thirteen and twenty — probably lucky we didn’t get arrested for one act of stupidity or another. I depicted my teenagers realistically — warts and all.
One reviewer, a Midwestern woman, never mentioned the scene in her write up, but did mention the page where she stopped reading, and it coincidentally was that chapter. I have to reign in my own feelings on that judgment because there’s no way to know what readers experienced in their life. Maybe this person had a traumatic experience. Maybe something similar happened to her child? Or maybe she’s deeply religious and is uncomfortable when it comes to sexuality. The thin-skinned have no business being authors. If you are going to write professionally, you have to give your readers space to disagree with you.
Don’t be afraid to write the story you want. There is always time in revisions to pull back or flesh out a scene. The writer must be aware of why he or she is weaving a particular scene into a tale regardless of whether it’s an artistic decision or a commercial one. Trust your instincts, but also trust the people close to you. Find a balance. There’s no other way to be a responsible writer.
Edward Lazellari was born in New York City while the Beatles were still a group. He began writing in the 1990s while working as an artist for Marvel Comics. After years as an illustrator, he earned a degree in English Literature and became a full-time writer. Edward won Playboy’s prestigious short fiction contest, and his story, “The Date” was published in the October 1999 issue. A few years later, he completed his first fantasy novel, Awakenings, followed by The Lost Prince. The last book of the Guardians of Aandor trilogy, Blood of Ten Kings, is due out in 2017. Edward works as a financial editor in New York City.
Also on CR: Interview with Edward Lazellari