Monday, December 08, 2014

Should authors be expected to bowdlerize their own work?

My favorite read of 2014 was K. J. Charles's Think of England. The same is true for a lot of people, which isn't surprising. It's an extraordinarily well-written and entertaining novella. But -- and I suppose this was inevitable -- a certain contingent of critics seems to think the author should have been more considerate of her readers' sensibilities. You see, the book is set in the early 20th century, in a superficially genteel society fouled by undercurrents of class consciousness and bigotry. The characters' Antisemitism, for example, is obvious.

The critics fear these elements could serve as "triggers" for certain readers.

Okay, let's go with that. Should Ms.Charles have minimized or offset the -isms of Edwardian England: racism, sexism, imperialism? Should she not have used ethnic slurs like dago? Should hero #1, Archie, have been more pure of heart and noble, and his social milieu more sanitized?

I say, Bullshit. And here's why (aside from the fact Archie redeems himself quite nicely, I feel). 

First, this is a work of historical fiction. Good writers of historical fiction make every effort to remain true to the tenor of the time, and realities of the place, about which they're writing. This means background verities aren't always pleasant and seldom reflect the degree of sociopolitical enlightenment for which residents of the 21st-century Western world strive. (Well, some of us, anyway. I have my doubts about millions of my fellow Americans.)

Second, one can't logically be an opponent of institutionalized censorship while being a proponent of rigorous and sweeping self-censorship. Censorship is censorship, whether it rests in the hands of a church or state or on the shoulders of individual authors. Decrying one while advocating the other skirts perilously close to hypocrisy, regardless of the hypocrite's good intentions.

Third, fussing over "triggers" in fiction is an absurd exercise in futility. How does one define the term? What constitutes a trigger? Dozens upon dozens of themes and situations are potentially far more disturbing than period-appropriate mores. Consider domestic violence, child sexual abuse, rape, addiction, abortion, crime, infidelity, terminal illness, terrorism, war -- the list goes on and on. Hell, even mentioning snakes or spiders or Donald Trump's hair can set off anxiety in some people. 

Does the possibility of upsetting or offending certain subsets of readers mean authors should never write about the issues I mentioned above? And countless others? I, for one, avoid BDSM content because it makes me intensely uncomfortable. I spent years in a physically abusive relationship. Although I realize, intellectually, there's a vast difference between consensual BDSM and the terror inflicted by a cruel partner, BDSM is one of my triggers. Do I expect authors to eliminate it from their work? Of course not. My point is, over-delicacy in treading around readers'  real or imagined sensitivities will leave writers with blank pages.

So I say, we need to worry less about the subject matter of fiction and more about the craft of fiction. That's the area that cries for improvement.


Helena said...

I completely agree with you, KZ. Well said!

K. Z. Snow said...

Thanks for stopping in, Helena!

Finn Marlowe said...

Well said, KZ! As I mentioned on your FB post, I like my historical stuff to have a good basis in fact, ugly warts and all. And on the other point, authors can't be, nor should it be suggested they be, responsible for everyone's triggers. Every book, every damned one, is Read At Your Own Risk.

K. Z. Snow said...

Exactly, Finn. It isn't the responsibility of writers to mollycoddle readers. We can safely presume they're all adults and capable of dealing with whatever upsets them in the books they read. I doubt major trauma is ever involved. Sheesh.

Susan said...

I like my fiction, especially historical fiction, with a strong dose of reality. I do not like the sugar-coating of the past that happens in a lot of romance. Isn't there the saying, "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." Well then?

K. Z. Snow said...

I suspect most readers feel the same way, Susan. Trying to insulate them from every kind of historical or contemporary unpleasantness is downright insulting. Our readers aren't children.

Helena said...

I was thinking about this some more overnight. I do understand that some people are genuinely upset by some things. But they should then take steps to avoid the things which upset them. If you know that you are upset by the reality of certain aspects of life in the past, then don't read historical novels set during the relevant time period. If you choose to do so, then don't complain when the books are accurate. There are enough other books to read.

K. Z. Snow said...

Exactly right, Helena. Readers have to, and I believe most of them do, assume responsibility for their own "triggers." (As I said, that's why I don't read BDSM.) I'll wager not a single review for Charles's book came from someone who was profoundly upset over its Edwardian attitudes.