Should Writers Adapt to Changing Public Perceptions of What is Offensive? (Hint: It’s a Slippery Slope)

I recently came across a column in The New York Times by Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the excellent Vietnam War-era novel, “The Sympathizer,” which was published in 2016, and which I wrote about in an earlier book blog. In the column, Nguyen relates the story of a book he read in his younger years that deeply offended and enraged him because of its depiction of Vietnamese people.

The book was a 1974 novel by Larry Heinemann called “Close Quarters.” Here is Nguyen’s take:

“Mr. Heinemann, a combat veteran of the war in Vietnam, wrote about a nice, average American man who goes to war and becomes a remorseless killer. In the book’s climax, the protagonist and other nice, average American soldiers gang-rape a Vietnamese prostitute they call Claymore Face…As a Vietnamese American teenager, it was horrifying for me to realize that this was how some Americans saw Vietnamese people — and therefore me. I returned the book to the library, hating both it and Mr. Heinemann.”

If you want to read the whole column, here’s the link. The abbreviated version is that Nguyen eventually came to understand that Heinemann’s novel had more layers and subtlety than Nguyen’s young mind could sort out, and he eventually came to appreciate it. What he didn’t do was start a movement to have it pulled from library shelves or otherwise banned. As Nguyen wrote:

“Those who seek to ban books are wrong no matter how dangerous books can be. Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.”

This issue – restricting which books should be accessible to the public – has become the focus of heated debate recently, especially in the U.S. To wit:

  • Last year, the Dr. Suess Foundation voluntarily recalled six of the author’s early books because they contained offensive racial stereotypes.
  • A Tennessee school board voted to ban “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.
  • A mayor in Mississippi is withholding $110,000 in funding from his city’s library until it removes books depicting LGBTQ people.
  • An NBC News investigation found that during the first four months of this school year, parents and community members across 100 Texas school districts made 75 formal requests to ban books from libraries, up from just one request during the same period in 2020.

Many of the books being targeted are about race, gender and sexuality, including  Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

Politics plays a part in this – from both sides of the aisle. Voices on the left and right have launched campaigns to restrict, ban, or cancel books that are deemed offensive to certain demographic groups. This is not a new trend. Campaigns to ban books have been around for centuries. But it has gained considerable speed in the age of social media and digital communication, when everybody seems to have an ax to grind about something.

I’m not here to debate book banning, cancel culture or censorship. Do a Google search on any of those topics and you’ll get a few billion results. There are plenty of other places for that.

My main interest is how the dynamic affects the way authors should approach writing fiction (non-fiction is a different blog for another day). It’s become a tricky business, writing fiction in a way that doesn’t run afoul of the ever-changing rules governing cultural sensitivities and offensive content.

Sometimes the mere act of writing a novel can cause blowback, depending on who’s doing the writing. A whole movement has been built around the sin of cultural appropriation, the need to “stay in your lane” – e.g., only writing stories and characters that you have personal experience with. So that a middle-aged heterosexual Caucasian man should not write a novel about a young gay African woman, because he can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a young gay African woman.

The problem with that attitude is that it misses the whole point of fiction, which is that it’s a make-believe world that exists only in the writer’s head, even if much of it is based on real people and experiences. Without the ability to create a world you’ve never seen firsthand, or to develop characters you have nothing in common with, then fiction is essentially just a memoir pretending to be something else. You end up with similar characters thinking similar thoughts in similar places, forcing the writer to create drama out of the most mundane things. It can and has been done, and effectively. But it also greatly diminishes the pool of ideas that make for great fiction.

For fiction to be effective, it needs to build tension, develop some sense of yin and yang, of forces pulling against each other. It needs diverse points-of view and a story arc that summons up a range of emotions while pushing the narrative forward. At some point it needs to create a visceral reaction in the reader for the reader to keep turning the pages. I’m not sure it’s possible to do all that without offending someone, unless it’s a kiddie story about a little girl and her cute puppy named Biscuit.

But that’s only part of the challenge writers face in the current environment. The bigger part has to do with content and subject matter – what should be allowed for public consumption, what shouldn’t be, who should make the decision, and whether writers should pay any attention to it at all.

My answer to the last part is no, they shouldn’t pay any attention to it. But that’s just my view. More on that later. As to the other stuff: I’m not sure any human is really qualified to judge what type of book should be banished from the public arena, or even judge what qualifies as too offensive for mass readership. Just because a bunch of people think a book is bad for schoolchildren doesn’t make them right.

The single most offensive novel I have ever read is “Last Exit to Brooklyn” by Hubert Selby, Jr. It’s so offensive that I even I devoted a blog to it. It offends on multiple levels – the language, the ethnic and gender stereotypes, the way it revels in wanton violence, its lack of any redeeming characters, its depiction of horrible people doing horrible things in horrible places, unencumbered by conscience or a moral compass. It was originally published in 1966 and immediately attacked by the literary establishment, censored in some places, and banned in others. It is impossible to read without getting worked up. But it is also brilliant in its own way, a singular work of art that today is published by Penguin Books – a member of the literary establishment if ever there was one.

Could I write such a book if I had the tools to do so – and would I? Good question. Probably not. “Last Exit to Brooklyn” skates pretty close to the edge of human decency. The kind of mind that could conjure up such a brutal and twisted hellscape is one with an awful lot of darkness lurking inside. Writing a book like that means accepting that certain people will never look at you the same again. You can explain to them that it’s just a story, a work of imagination. But somewhere deep in the recesses of their brains they’ll always think you’re a little bent for dreaming it up in the first place. I’d probably start thinking about my daughters – how they might one day read it – and write something else.

But just because I couldn’t write it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written. I hope more books like “Last Exit to Brooklyn” find their way into the world. The world needs all kinds of books, including those that make us very uncomfortable.

I approach this topic through the lens of a reader, but also through the lens of a writer. My own fiction is not exactly a warm and comfortable place to visit. The worlds I dream up tend to be dark and seedy, with sketchy characters and a jaded worldview.

I’ll use my novel “Voodoo Hideaway” as an example (buy it here and here and here!). This is a book about people trying to con, use and hurt each other. They lie and cheat and steal. They bully and threaten. They have no problem resorting to violence as a means to an end. Some are racist, sexist, homophobic, cruel, and warped. They use foul language and ethnic slurs. They are greedy and ruthless. They spit on the downtrodden, and have little use for the rules of a civilized society. A central theme is that nothing is as it seems, and you never know who’s trying to screw you over. You wouldn’t want these people as neighbors.

A writer friend of mine whose opinion I respect read “Voodoo Hideaway” and provided her honest feedback, which I appreciated. She mostly enjoyed it, though she didn’t particularly like any of the characters. That wasn’t a surprise. She’s not someone who has a lot of use for racists, sexists, violent criminals, greedy people, or those who look down on the less fortunate – and there’s a lot of that going on in “Voodoo Hideaway.” There is also a lot of profanity, boozing and bad behavior, which turns others off.

But I didn’t think too much about who I might offend while writing the book. I just started writing it, and after a while it started writing itself. The only thing I wanted was to be as true to the story and characters as possible. If that meant some of the characters said and did nasty things, well – blame them! I’m just the messenger, folks….

If I thought about the public at all while writing “Voodoo Hideaway,” it was only in the context that I had a certain type of reader in mind: Those who like crime fiction, dark humor, and a noir setting. I figured these folks have a pretty high tolerance for morally compromised characters, violence, and bad language, so I didn’t sweat who might be offended. AFTER I finished writing it, and began the rewriting and editing process, I wondered how some of the material might go over. But then I decided to just leave it in there – as long as it served the story and the characters.

Your job as the writer is to write the story as honestly as you can, according to your own creative process and set of values. It’s up to the editors and publishers to consult with you on what could or should be changed. After that, the booksellers will decide whether to carry it or not, and the buying public will decide whether your book is worth the money you charge for it.

And if some holy roller or social justice warrior wants to lash out at it, make a big public stink, and hang you out to dry on Facebook or Twitter, well, let that be their problem, and not yours.

2 Comments

  1. True words, Vance. Culture and acceptable views also change all the time, so what may be a work of genius – not understood at the time of writing – may well be suppressed because it doesn’t fit in its current era. Best to just keep on with your authentic work, and let the market decide…but never outright ban something.

    Liked by 1 person

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