Books · The Writing Process · Writers

A Potentially Controversial Post…

It’s time to don my flak jacket and helmet and try to look brave, because I’m going to talk about the potentially controversial topic of controversy. This is something of a pertinent issue for me. My novella Loving Imogen has a somewhat controversial theme, and though nobody’s complained yet, someone might. Indeed, given enough time, someone almost certainly will.

Loving Imogen EBook Cover

Authors are of course no strangers to controversy. James Joyce got into trouble for his extensive descriptions of bodily functions in Ulysses. The Catcher in the Rye (ironically, for a book lamenting the loss of childhood innocence) came under fire for its adult themes. Lolita got people’s backs up for obvious reasons. American Psycho? Genuinely disturbing, and I don’t shock easily.

Admittedly, just about anything could be construed as being controversial. Controversy is in the eye of the beholder; it’s all a matter of perspective. Don’t believe me? Why, even the dictionary has been banned from certain libraries. But should authors shy away from controversy, or should they embrace it? How controversial is controversial? It’s an important question for all authors; it’s hideously complicated, I imagine, if you’re writing for children or young adults. Words, once spoken, can’t be unspoken. They can be explained and put into context, but never entirely withdrawn.

So how to handle controversy?

Controversy dictionary
Image credit: Stuartkey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that you shouldn’t run a mile at the thought of potentially controversial subject matter. Nor, for that matter, do I think you should be inflammatory for the sake of it. Author Jennifer Weiner gives what I think is very good advice here: “Characters first, issues second.” I don’t object to controversial storylines when they grow organically out of the characters’ personalities, beliefs and actions, but I do wince when I get the feeling that characters have been deliberately constructed as puppets, whose foremost purpose is to illustrate the author’s point. Good characters are rounded, three-dimensional people, not ventriloquists’ dolls. I really hate it when “Evil Character x” is portrayed as the epitome of wickedness or idiocy due to his holding, or not holding, a particular opinion. Apart from anything, this just displays a failure of imagination. I once heard someone say that every villain is the hero of his own story, and I think that is often true. Trying to see things from your villain’s perspective is an enlightening exercise.

Inevitably, of course, an author’s feelings and beliefs will colour their fiction. However, I’d hate for a reader to put my book down feeling like he or she had just spent several hours being bashed over the head with my opinions. Speaking purely as a reader, I hate feeling like I’m being preached to. I doubt any reader picks up any book because he’s desperate to know the author’s opinions about a given topic.

This ties in with that vexed question of how present and visible the author is in a story. There are different opinions on this, and different ways of writing. My own preference is for Mari Biella the author to largely disappear from the finished work. I want to be largely irrelevant to the reader. Of course, I’m there, lurking in the background; I just don’t want to be noticed. I’m not the important one. The characters are. I’ve written about characters who are entirely different to me, and have completely different opinions. I disagreed with them, but I didn’t dislike them. It’s hard to dislike someone you understand so thoroughly.

Locking horns... Image credit: Carolyne Pehora | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Locking horns… Image credit: Carolyne Pehora | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What is important, I think, is to craft a good story, to tease out your characters’ beliefs and emotions, to make it real. A touch of controversy can add depth and realism to a character, since nobody’s a saint. Indeed, handled well, controversy might even disappear from the finished text to a large extent. After all, your story is not a debate about a given topic; it’s a visit to another person’s world, outlook, and experience.

If something happens, then it’s part of our world whether we like it or not, and as valid a subject for fiction as any. Fiction can actually provide a safe environment in which to explore controversy – safe because it is fiction, these people are characters, and these specific events have never actually occurred. But at the same time I don’t think fiction is ever really about a controversial topic. It’s about characters who happen to become involved in something that might be construed as controversial.

Is anything game in fiction, or should we leave some stones unturned? Any comments welcome.

Reblogged from Authors Electric.

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9 thoughts on “A Potentially Controversial Post…

  1. Fascinating, Mari, and put as lucidly as ever. There are so many issues here; one thing is, I think, that it can be very difficult to combine a lack of authorial intrusion and make it evident that you, as the author, don’t condone a character’s reprehensible views and actions in a controversial subject matter. The problem here can be that readers misunderstand the difference between authorial detachment and condoning actions frankly indefensible. For instance, in Mary Renault’s ‘Theseus’ novels Theseus does many brutal things, including finally slowly throttling his unfortunate wife Phaedra. I’m sure the author in no way condoned such actions for a moment, but her having him recount his own tale with bravado has regrettably led some undiscerning readers to assume she actually portrayed him uncritically as admirable – one man on Amazon even recommended him as a role model, I’m sorry to say. Then there’s Heathcliff – I’m sure, as you said, Emily Bronte in no way intended him to be seen as either romantic or a hero – but that is how he is taken by foolish romantics amongst the readers, as she overestimated the discernment of the reading public. Some authors – DH Lawrence and the far less impressive Gaslworthy, do intrude too much their moral disapproval – but it can create a false impression of callous indifference, even a passive condoning of injustices if an author remains too detached. It’s a difficult balancing act. In ‘Loving Imogen’ I thought you handled a controversial subject very well. I wonder, though – on the issue of an author doing tub thumping – surely the characters and the situation in some way develop out of each other as often as not, so there’s perhaps not so much danger of lifeless, one dimensional puppets as we might fear? Richardson’s Lovelacae was created purely as the villain of the piece – but except when Richardson forgets himself and puts incongruous puritanical notions in this libertine’s mouth – he’s a masterly achievement, nevertheless – entertaining, lively, beguiling, vain and callous and finally, showing his innate hostility to women as a rapist.

    1. Hello Lucinda, and thanks for commenting. I agree that there’s a risk that lack of authorial intrusion might lead readers to draw certain (false) conclusions about your opinions. However, I think the very fact that it’s fiction also reduces that risk. Speaking personally, when I’m writing fiction the very last thing I’m interested in doing is making a certain point or trying to argue in favour of a certain conclusion. I’d be worried if I found myself doing that.

      There have been a few occasions when I’ve read or – more frequently – watched something where I felt that the writer was absolutely desperate to make a certain point, and had as a result made his or her characters say and do some frankly pretty unbelievable things. It felt very false to me, and it jarred. So I think there is a risk of this happening, though ideally – as you say – the characters and the situation develop out of each other.

  2. This is an interesting subject. I have certainly felt I needed to be brave when feeling impelled to write in a way that could, potentially, offend a third (reading) party. So far, I have managed to override that fear if I felt that what my character was saying – was authentic and necessary. But it is a worry. I just have to go with my gut; if I need to say it, then it needs to be said!
    Evangeline

    1. Hi Evangeline, and thanks for the comment. Authenticity is one of my major concerns, too. Is it believable that this character should say this, or do that? If so, then I’m all for including it. And I think that maybe going with your gut is as good a way as any to work out what you need to do. Speaking from my own personal experience, I usually know on an instinctive level whether I’m truly letting my characters express themselves, or whether I’m trying to put words into their mouths.

  3. The only fear I have is that I may not give Mari Biella’s novellas and stories their due and how to review Loving Imogen without spoiling the story for others. I read her Song of The Sea, The Quickening, Loving Imogen and Summer in rapid succession and the writing in all is superb. Having read The Romance of Certain Old Clothes by Henry James recently, I am still marveling about how wonderful it is that a 21st century author can channel Henry James so well!

    1. Thank you so much, Aine! I’m so glad you enjoyed the books; it’s always wonderful to hear somebody say that. And to be compared to Henry James is immensely flattering, though in truth I’m not sure that anyone compares to Henry James…

      Thank you again!

  4. Mari, if you haven’t read Write Publish Repeat, I’ll urge you to do it (I can send you a mobi or epub file – your choice). In the book the authors discuss the characters and they state that an author can change the circumstances of a character but not the character themselves. Related to your post, a character must be true to is or her own nature. I am curious though, what is the controversy of your novella? You teased us in the opening act and left us hungry 🙂 Isn’t that controversy in itself?
    By the way, I don’t get shocked but while I was skipping though the pages of The Paying Guests by Sara Waters (the publisher markets the book heavily), I was genuinely shocked. The protagonist killed her own baby! Gosh! To top it all, she killed afterwards her husband. I don’t know which of the two is worse. American Psycho is no doubt a terrible book given the fact it’s more terrible than the movie. And let’s not forget The Fight Club too. Practically all of Chuck Palahniuk’s books are very controversial. I think I read how a reader was feeling very awful ater reading something from Palahniuk.

    1. Hello Antara, and thanks for commenting. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Write, Publish, Repeat, but you’re not the first person to recommend it, so I think I’ll have to look into it. I’ll admit to a fondness for Fight Club, and indeed for American Psycho, though I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading the latter. Whatever the sensation I experienced was, it certainly wasn’t enjoyment…

      Ah-ha, withholding the nature of the controversy in my novella is all part of my cunning plan! If anyone wants to know what it is, they’ll just have to read it! 🙂

      1. Pana pytanie jest od czapy. Tusk mówiÄ…c sÅ‚owa: “Nie sposób uÅ‚ożyć sobie życia w jednym paÅ„stwie z osobami takimi jak JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„ski” wysÅ‚aÅ‚ sygnaÅ‚. Jaki i do kogo strach poÄ›eylÅm‡.Taka wypowiedź w ustach premiera jest SKANDALICZNA.

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