In the past I’ve gone back and forth on the issue of whether or not to include things that other people would deem “inappropriate” in the stories I write (things like profanity, sexual references, violence, etc.). There are really only two schools of thought in this debate: one says to hide such things because they’re immoral, and the other says it’s okay to show them because literature more often than not aims to represent life with fidelity.
I think when people naysay writers who are more controversial, it’s because they’re under the impression the author is supporting the things about which he’s writing. Yes, this could be the case at times, but with serious literature—writing whose aim is to truly reach a deeper level and not skim the surface of titillating gimmicks—there will always be something with greater meaning existing. Essentially, the question I’m getting at becomes, “If you’re a writer trying to emphasize something with your story and the only way you can do that is with inappropriate content, is that okay?”
My answer is yes, especially if your primary aim is to try and emphasize the asininities of said inappropriate content/conduct. Let me give an example. If I’m writing a story about the futility of believing sex is a need on par with, say, food and water and breathing, I’m going to have to flesh out what that looks like—give a representative vignette for the reader. I already know where to go for this material: locker room conversation.
I played ice hockey in high school, and what was said in the locker room would be enough to make a porn star blush. There was only one thing on every boy’s mind, and that was sex. In the locker room he could talk in a way he couldn’t at home around his mom, dad, and siblings. He was set free. The locker room was the cathartic arena in which he could express the latent sexual bravado suppressed at home, and he would do so with quite a scintillating libido-spawned vocabulary. Now, imagine that you have fifteen boys in the same locker room, all feeding off of each other’s energy. It’s a madhouse of pornographic dialogue.
This is my subject matter for emphasizing the obsession with sex. Eventually an epiphany must occur in the story that showcases how the pursuit of sex and the glorification of it are utterly futile. To do this, though, I have to first build up and highlight how central the idea of sex is to their existence. I can not do this without recreating conversations my hockey teammates had. Is this okay, or is this immoral?
I’m perfectly fine with it because my story is not aiming to showcase these boys as idols, but idiots. The story needs to be neither preachy nor muddled in meaning. It just needs to be a good story, and quite honestly, a story like this is rife with potential to be rather humorous.
Some people would say the litmus test for my question is, “Well, Nelson, would you let your grandmother read this story?” My answer is, “Of course not.” It’s definitely not something I would want her to read. But when I think about it, the reason is not because I’d be ashamed of my writing. My reason is I wouldn’t want her to think less of me (a.k.a., I want her to think better of me, or think I’m someone I’m not—which is shallow). And those aren’t noble reasons. There’s no truth in that, only charades. A writer has to eventually reach a point where he no longer cares what people think about his art . . . no matter how close those people are to him.
Since I don’t like the grandmother question, I tend to answer my own mental debate by posing another question to myself: “Why are you writing what you’re writing?” Someone else had a better answer for that than I can give, so I will reference him. His name is Wyndham Lewis, and he’s an author from several decades back. Flannery O’Connor quotes him in her book on writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose:
“If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I despise rot.”
O’Connor then follows this quote by saying:
“The general accusation passed against writers now is that they write about rot because they love it. Some do, and their works may betray them, but it is impossible not to believe that some write about rot because they see it and recognize it for what it is.”
I think there’s a lot of wisdom there.
True, some people simply won’t be able to handle the subject matter of “rotting” stories, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all know what we’re able to tolerate, and some of us have lower levels than others. But there are some who will disagree with your art and call it immoral without actually taking the time themselves to see what it is you, as author, are actually trying to do. To these impatient, belligerent souls I only give a shake of my head in disappointment and have no patience for them. Their desire is to not display true life, but rather, to run from it. What takes place in that hockey locker room—nasty as it may be to some peoples’ ears—is life in all its gritty substance. But these touchy readers would rather we not put this out there for others to see. They would rather literature not be gritty. Basically, they want fantasy. They want to pretend as if the dirtier parts of life do not exist.
I do not understand this. I don’t think Christ understood it, either. He was all about streetwalkers, swindlers, degenerates, and hookers. And people couldn’t believe it when he went and talked to them. Now that’s conflict. That makes a good story.