look! ew. depiction versus promotion

This post has been simmering for a while, but it's inspired by things like this*:
  • People dismissing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy as a "rape fantasy".
  • The inside cover of a paperback edition of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Instead of the usual blurbs from glowing reviews of the hardcover edition, the publishers had chosen to use blurbs denouncing the novel as perverse, calling for its banning and for Banks' incarceration.
  • I don't know if his publisher ever thought to use them as blurbs, but what happened to Banks had already happened to JG Ballard.
  • An article giving an overview of Stephen King's writing career, noting that there was a period earlier on where he was accused of... ghoulishness, for lack of a better word.
What connects the dots? All of these authors write strong, graphic, disturbing stories. Sometimes, as with The Wasp Factory, most of the disturbing scenes feature the protagonist as the instigator of the horrors. In other stories like the Millennium trilogy, the protagonist doesn't start the conflict, but she finishes it — in kind.

Sir Philip Sidney argued that the purpose of fiction/poetry is to "teach and delight". I once had a story of mine criticised at a writer's group for failing to include a moment of moral redemption at the end. The critic insisted that a story wasn't complete until the reader got to see the protagonist learn from the error of their ways.

There's another way of doing it, of course. Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a great example: the writer doesn't break tone to overtly moralise within the work. Instead, they arrange things so the reader is the one made aware of the wrong. It's a somewhat trickier path to walk down, because one has to have faith that the reader will be thoughtful and reflective enough to come to the hoped-for realisation, but when successful it is often more effective than overt lecturing.

Larsson is on the record for using the "show-don't-lecture" approach in the Millennium trilogy (okay, yes, some characters get used as mouthpieces, especially in the last book. This is a blog post, not a thesis). He definitely didn't set out to promote the brutal rape of wards of the state by their appointed guardians.

As for the rest of my list: authors can and have defended themselves in three basic ways. They can say that they wished to evoke repulsion in their readers for the purposes of teaching — a negative example rather than a positive one. They can claim that their emphasis was on "delighting", rather than "teaching" their readers. Or they can claim that they believe the Sir Philip approach to be wrong, and that there is more to literature than the imparting of morals.

Their detractors — the people who call for the books to be banned, and for the authors to be incarcerated and/or committed to the insane asylum — argue that not only have the authors failed to not provide positive examples, but they are promoting the negative, immoral behaviour by writing about it in the first place. And because these promotions of immoral behaviour are also immensely popular, they are an influence. And not only must that influence be stopped, but its creators must be punished.

Not surprisingly, since I'm writing this post, I come down on the side of the authors. I've never seen any evidence that describing the world solely in terms of sunshine and lollipops ever made it a better place. On the other hand, "A Modest Proposal" is remembered today for its effectiveness as an argument as much for its audacity.

I'm also very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone who writes something ugly or disturbing "enjoys" it and wants to promote it. Sometimes ugly gets written about because if it isn't, it will be hidden. To write only of sunshine and lollipops while at the same time decrying anyone who chooses to write about anything else to is steep oneself in an awful lot of denial. If you want to write about sunshine and lollipops, go for it, but don't think that gives you the right to piss in the cornflakes of someone who chooses to go about depicting their truth differently.

* Funny thing about the list at the top of this post — I wanted to include some women authors to even things up... but I couldn't think of any. I even called the ever-resourceful J-A, since she reads a lot of horror (horror writers tend to get targeted for this kind of hate), and she couldn't think of any either. We ran search queries on every major woman horror, science fiction, fantasy, and "controversial topic" writer we could think of for the better part of an hour and came up absolutely empty.

That's not to say there wasn't any hate out there for women authors. There was loads of hate. The difference was that no-one seemed to be calling for these women to be put in jail or the insane asylum for writing strong, disturbing content. That included a couple of major women authors we thought of who have been accused of promoting Satanism.

If you have any ideas on what the difference is  — why men authors seem to get the "lock 'em up" response more please leave a comment about it!