This is a topic that’s been on my mind ever since I first began writing, really, and certainly ever since I was first published. With books out in the wild you get all sorts of people reading your work, and those people come from all walks of life, backgrounds, etc. Every reader brings their own experiences and world view to the table when they start reading, and I’ve always found it really interesting just how varied different people’s responses can be to the same work. One thing that always stood out to me, though, are those (relatively rare) occasions where something that occurs in a book – it doesn’t have to even be one of mine – that upsets the reader so much it causes them to stop viewing the work as a whole and start focusing almost exclusively on that one aspect.
By way of an example, say an author were to write a book about the deep south in the late 1800’s when lynchings were reaching a peak. If it were to be at all realistic then some of the characters, even main characters, therein would be horribly racist by today’s standards and would likely use a lot of inflammatory language and racial slurs. I can understand a reader who feels very strongly about racism in America feeling that the character in question is racist, but what I understand a lot less is when that same reader goes on to declare the book that contains the character is automatically racist, and maybe even extend that label to the author who wrote it as well. To me, that begins to smell a little like ‘books shouldn’t contain racism at all’ but, to go back to the post’s title, portrayal and endorsement really are two entirely different things. If you take the ugliness out of the world you’re attempting to portray then you end up with a story that isn’t fully honest. The film ‘The Help’ comes to mind and kind of relates to this example – there was a darkness in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s that it kind of glossed over. So, it wasn’t scary or violent and probably spared a lot of people from feeling bad or uncomfortable, but it also rang a little untrue.
This comes up a handful of times with every book I write, sometimes because of violence, sometimes because of smoking, sometimes because of drug or alcohol use, and sometimes it’s misogynistic language. I know at least a handful of people who read The Burn Zone didn’t care for the main character’s smoking and drug use, as if these were being portrayed as ‘good’ things because the protagonist did them, but the main character of that novel had experienced trauma on a level few of us ever will. I didn’t feel it was unrealistic that she might turn to something to help numb that, in fact I felt the opposite since time and time again that is exactly what people do in real life. I had her do those things because they felt real to me. It doesn’t mean I think young people should take up smoking and do a lot of drugs. Likewise, some have complained about the misogynistic slurs that appear in Alice in No-Man’s-Land, often voiced by one of the main characters (at least in the novel’s earlier chapters) but again, at that point she’s intentionally trying to be mean. Sometimes people are assholes. Even when they aren’t really assholes at heart, sometimes they’re just frustrated and angry and are reaching for the most hurtful thing they could say to someone – and sometimes they use the exact same language that has been hurtful to them in the past. That to me feels realistic. In fact I’ve seen it play out in real life, which is part of why I used it. It doesn’t mean I think people should say those things as a matter of course in the real world.
Something similar actually happened during the editing of my debut novel where I was essentially told ‘they will not print that word’. I changed it – in part because in that particular case I didn’t feel like it was central to the character or anything, and in part because it was my first novel and I didn’t want to get combative right out of the gate, but it always bugged me just a little. It felt to me like ‘there are limits to what art should portray, because some things are inappropriate in any context’ and I just can’t agree with that. It doesn’t mean I hate people who feel that way because I don’t, but I can’t agree with it.
On those occasions I’m afraid we must (I hope respectfully) agree to disagree.