Saturday, August 21, 2010

Novels Beyond Good Taste

Novels beyond Good Taste: Sex, Profanity, and Violence—Where do you draw the line?
Our culture seems to encourage graphic sex, profanity and violence in novels, television, movies, and music. These floodgates continue to swing wider and wider: blatant sexual scenes leaving nothing to the imagination, crude profanity even used by children, and violence to such extremes that our mind becomes numbed to sadist, ritualistic horrors.

Where do you draw the line?

These issues came to mind as I started to read two recent novels. I opened each novel with great expectation based upon recommendations from several authors. But within a few pages I stopped reading. With great disappointment, I set aside these novels and moved on to other writers. I just could not  recommend these writers to readers visiting this blog. I did not want to walk through the gutter with these writers, even though both are very gifted and promising novelists. 

I was disappointed on several levels. First, I bought these books based upon recommendation from other writers whose opinions I trusted. However, I quickly realized that my expectations—explicit sex and profanity in this case—were vastly different from those who gave these recommendations. Secondly, I was disappointed that these two young writers felt it necessary to use their talents in such a way that—in my opinion—cheapened their craft of writing. And lastly, I was disappointed because I thought these would be great novels to experience. Unfortunately, my expectations were dashed by writing that I consider to be in bad taste.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude waiting to censor everything that surfaces in print. As a former law enforcement officer I’ve probably been exposed to the dark side of human depravity more than the average citizen. I worked undercover details targeting drugs, vice, and gang crimes. I had the dubious honor of graduating from LAPD’s Vice School to learn firsthand about how the sex trade is plied on the streets of that city. I’ve traveled to most of the Level 4 security prisons in California, interviewing many inmates whose language and lifestyle would disgust the most hardened detective in one of Michael Connelly’s novels. I’ve witnessed some of the most horrendous crimes one human can inflict on another, images still haunting me today

So this is not an article about censorship. It is, however, an article about good taste and ulterior motives in writing. About giving readers the best possible product writers are capable of creating.  I read widely in order to learn from a variety of authors who’ve learned the craft of writing. As a reader, I believe we have an expectation that what we're about to read ought to entertain, enlighten, and captivate within the bounds of good taste. The trouble is defining good taste. And, here in is the difficulty we face. How do you define it?

For example, writers often cite the need to use profanity based upon a desire to create realisms in their art. This same argument is often used to justify the depiction of violence and sex. But might there be other underlining reasons? For example, might a writer create controversy through the use of titillating, prurient writing in order to boost sales? To help them stand out in crowd to gain the attention from agents, editors and publisher in this competitive world of publishing? Or, are these authors being realistic by thinking the buying public wants this kind of story.

Maybe they are right. Maybe this is what the public wants to read. I hope this is not the case.

Let’s get back to the idea of good taste. As a reader, I don’t need all the ugliness and depravity of life thrown in my face when I sit down with a novel. As a reader, I want these authors to draw me into their world. I want to take this journey they’ve created, to live with the characters they’ve breathed life into. Don’t justify this bond between us as a literary license to drag me through the garbage of life. As a reader, I want all this created in good taste. I don’t think I am alone.

As a writer, we should respect our readers.

So what about violence and horror? Is graphic detail necessary? Do we, as writers, need to squeeze every ounce of terror from our victims to captivate readers' attention?

A writer strives to use the reader’s imagination as a canvas, painting an image with carefully chosen words to get a point across. We don’t need every gory detail spelled out to the very last drop of blood. A few chosen words will fill our reader’s imagination with vivid details of the event. Remember sitting in a dentist chair and imagining what’s about to happen? A quick glance at the tools laid out on a tray. Those pointy things you know will hurt. That goggled-eyed dentist staring back at you without blinking. The sound of the drill firing up. We get the picture. Flash to the next scene where the patient’s jaw feels like ground-up hamburger. Our minds will fill in the scene with more panoramic color than the highest definition screens on the market.

What about profanity?  Do we need profanity spewing out for us to get the point this character comes from the wrong side of the tracks? Does this somehow justify the need for realism in our character?

George Washington wrote: “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”  So you want to show that your character is low class? Do you want to convey to the reader that this character let loose with a string of expletives? There are many ways to get this message across. For example, Mark Twain wrote in Roughing, “I was … blaspheming my luck in a way that made my breath smell of brimstone.” Did we get the picture? Did he use profanity?

We have come a long way since those times. Other writers struggled with this same issue. Ernest Hemingway stated: “I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduce so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.”

In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he discussed this issue: “As it happens, I agree with my mother: profanity and vulgarity is the language of the ignorant and verbally challenged. Mostly, that is; there are exceptions, including profane aphorisms of great color and vitality.” He goes on to say that if he were writing “about toffs or smart college folks” he’d hardly ever use a dirty word. But, he writes, “I grew up as part of America’s lower middle class, and they’re the people I can write about with the most honesty and knowledge.” So, in King’s mind, profanity is justified at times in order to be artistically honest.

Is profanity acceptable under some circumstances? Maybe. Maybe not.

There may be instances when no other word will suffice. But a writer ought to challenge themselves to convey these feelings and emotions in such a way that the reader is keenly aware of the meaning without the author resorting to profanity. Using Mark Twain’s example above, he gets the point across using the words “blaspheming” and “brimstone.”  Granted, he’s not averse to a little swearing. In his biography, the famous writer states: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstance, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” As always, Twain uses humor—not profanity—to get his point across.

And then there is sex.

A sales adage puts this simply: “Sex sells.” They must know, because sexuality is used to sell everything from cars to toothpaste. I mean, how sexy do you have to be to brush your teeth? Sex has been used to sell cell phones, carpet cleaner and bug spray. Sexuality carries over into all forms of literature, movies and other entertainment. And very little is left to our imagination.

Is this necessary. Again, writers can paint vivid word pictures without the raunchiness that permeates our culture. Author James Scott Bell wrote about this subject in a Killzone article several months ago. The article dealt with key words that draws readers’ attention. He jokingly titled his article, “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air” in order to make his point. On the subject of sex, Jim suggested another way to approach this subject without undue explicitness:

You know what works better? The reader's imagination. If you "close the door" but engage the imagination, it's often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?

One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madame Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon (Part 3, Chapter 1 if you're interested). All the description is from the driver's POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.

Now, I do appreciate well written sexual tension. That's a major theme in great fiction, especially noir and crime. So were the great 40's novels and films any less potent for not showing us what we know went on in the bedroom? (Killzone, March 21, 2010, “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air”)

You’re right, Jim. We get the point.

And James Scott Bell practices what he preaches. In his second Buchannan novel—Try Darknessyou can feel sexual tension between his main character, Ty Buchanan, and Sister Mary, a nun. Yes, a nun. In this three-book series, these two characters work together in a series of criminal investigations in which basketball becomes their common denominator, a sport they both excel in. Early in Try Darkness, they’re battling for control of the basketball:

I had to admire her doggedness. She’s the type who’d go to the mat with the devil himself if she had to.

But I still wouldn’t let her get the ball.

Then I was on my back, holding the ball to my chest. Sister Mary was on top of me, refusing to let her hands slip off the ball.

Her body was firm and fit and I looked at her face thinking thoughts one should not think of a woman pledged to a life of chastity.

I stopped laughing and let her have the ball.

She took it and rolled off me.

Neither of us said anything.

Then a voice said, “Now, isn’t that a pretty picture?”

Father Bob stood at the other end of the court, hands on hips.

One displeased priest. 
(Try Darkness, by James Scott Bell, Center Street/Hachette Book Group, ©2008)

The reader clearly gets the picture. Bell paints these words into our minds with feeling, action and intent. A great example of sexual tension. And this tension between Ty and Sister Mary carries throughout all three novels without one scene approaching bad taste.

Q4U: Where do you draw the line?


  1. Novels should be just that -- "novel". My job as a storyteller is to provide minimal content. If crafted well, readers and characters will be free to engage and create unique contexts.

    I find most gratuitously graphic scenes add little to a story, and often present the author as self-indulgent. But, then again, I don't snowboard backward down Misty Mountain in a string bikini anymore either....

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. As a writer, we should stay out of the way of the reader's imagination. Just give them enough to work with. Now ... re: snowboarding. That must have hurt.

    Thanks for your input, Molly.

  3. This is a prevalent theme in the novels that professors assign to college students. It seems in this day and age a novel cannot be a great piece of modern literature if there is not sex, violence, depravity or substance abuse. I believe you enter the mind of the characters you read and after reading such books it just left me sad. It makes me worry about sending my children off to college. Give me a nice Jane Austen novel any day of the week!

    - Julia

  4. I empathize with Julia's point of view. Unless we are writing a detailed procedural crime story, readers shouldn't be asked to confront flying giblets or stray mandibles peeking out from the loam. We can convey a convincing nightmare with a single missing person and some disturbed earth if we've created an emotional investment among readers and a determined detective.

    To Mark: I lied. It was a burka .

  5. Julia: Fortuantely, not all professors teach this way. But I undertand your concern. I've sat through those literature classes and thought, "Man, these guys are depressing." When it is time, introduce your children to the literature that inspires and they will learn the difference.

    Molly: Authors like Dean Koontz, who can take readers into pretty dark places, still balances this with humor and the kindness of people and animals. (For example: The Brother Odd series or his recent novel, Frankenstein:Lost Souls. And regarding the burka ... Sometimes I am too literalistic, and thus fall easily prey to those are metaphorically gifted.

  6. I think I'm with Stephen King on language. You portray your characters as they would be in real life. Sex and violence can be graphic if the novel requires it to reveal character or to make a point, but not to sell more books.

  7. I.J: I respect your opinion, and as an associate professor of English and Foreign Language, you're well qualified to weigh in on this issue. I think it is important for authors to reveal character or to make a point in an honest, and forthright manner.

    However, to what extent are we willing to attain these goals while remaining within the bounds of good taste? At some point, writer need to recognize this precarious balance. Each of us, as writers, need to answer this for ourselves. And each of us will come up a different set of standards, based upon our experiences, background, and character. This becomes the interesting and troubling nature of writing.

  8. I agree. I simply don't like books filled to the brim with really foul language and graphic sex and violence.

    I, like you, Mark, worked in that kind of environment for so long that it's refreshing to find an escape from those sorts of things. And between the pages of a good book is where I like to hide.

  9. Thanks for your comments, Lee.

    Readers: Tomorrow you can find me on Lee Lofland's great blog, The Graveyard Shift, writing about "Predicting Future Crimes." Lee has visited us here on Hook'em and Book'em about his prior police experience and some of the exiting things he does to help mystery novelists write about crime fighting. Join us tomorrow at