Should writers practice self-censorship, or break out?

Most fiction writers I have seen interviewed claim that they write to either entertain themselves or entertain their readers. The scope of fiction’s entertainment is as broad as it is deep. Such is the diversity of fiction, in fact, that publishers freely admit they don’t know what the next big hit is going to be. Even more so now with indie authors pushing the envelope.

Hit novels such as American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs have stirred up controversy over the extreme violence of some of their characters. The Hunger Games has been criticized for portraying kids killing other kids in a game, and some of the violence in Harry Potter has attracted controversy. In the past, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Lolita have been banned for their sexual content. And, of course, there is the unfortunate Salman Rushdie who wrote The Satanic Verses that provoked extreme Muslim protests and fatwas.

Would any of these authors have become famous if they had self-censored their work so their books could be more acceptable? No, they wrote the story they felt was appropriate to get their message across.

In his classic writers’ advisory The Breakout Novelist, literary agent Donald Maass points out that, “No breakout novel leaves us feeling neutral. A breakout novel rattles, confronts, and illuminates…” He goes on to say, “The key ingredients that I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are: (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality, and (4) gut emotional appeal.” And Maass talks about the need for high stakes, not just high but VERY high. And baddies who are VERY bad.

In my novel, No Remorse, I have tried to address these key ingredients. The independent authority, Kirkus Reviews, has said about the book: “Walkley’s beefy prose and rousing action sequences deliver a thriller to satisfy any adrenaline addict.”

In doing so I make no apology for several confronting scenes that depict serious violence against captives of kidnappers. One only has to do a little research to understand some of the appalling treatment of people by human traffickers, terrorists and serial killers. Often the true-crime facts are so awful that they would be too shocking to publish. Much more horrific than the scenes in No Remorse.

So where do we draw the line? How do authors justify the level of graphic violence that we choose to include. Believe me, as an author who has researched the topic, writing some scenes is as confronting for me as it is for a reader to read. But that does not mean these scenes should be censored if they are important elements to the context of the plot. Sometimes, authors have to be confronting.

Let’s go back to Maass’ four key ingredients. Firstly, plausibility. It is important that the behaviour of the bad guys be plausible. In my case, I have a group of wealthy men who are supporting terrorism to manipulate the global financial system and weaken America so they can accumulate cheap assets. Don’t we know this is already happening? We see evidence of it every day in the news. Plausibility also extends to the storyline itself. Kirkus Reviews said of No Remorse: “With so many interweaving subplots—kidnapped girls, Israeli undercover agents, nuclear weapons and a secret underwater hideout—it could be easy to lose track of what’s going on. But the author’s deft handling of the material ensures that doesn’t occur; subplots are introduced at the appropriate junctures and, by story’s end, all are accounted for and neatly concluded.”

Secondly, Maass talks about the need for inherent conflict. In No Remorse, there is conflict in both the protagonist and antagonist environments, and within themselves. The hero, McCloud, is conflicted about many things, particularly his distrust of women, but it is his own guilt in not saving his younger sister years earlier that drives his behaviour. Khalid too, has conflict about how women should be treated, but is mostly driven to revenge over what happened to his first love. The two opponents in fact share some challenges, but have chosen different paths in dealing with them.

Thirdly, originality. My plot is, I believe, original enough to justify its place, with a combination of the criminal use of living organ donors and other elements I will not reveal here for fear of spoiling the novel for potential readers. It’s not easily classifiable; perhaps it could be best described as “Taken” meets “Mission Impossible”.

Finally, Maass mentions gut emotional appeal. One of Amazon’s top reviewers (Red Rock Bookworm) said of No Remorse: “More action, more adventure and more thrills per page than any novel I have recently read.” Emotional appeal is fuelled by the viewpoint of one of the kidnapped girls, and the constant threats that the main characters are exposed to. Both the hero and antagonist make mistakes, and random events throw chaos into the mix. And while some of the scenes are confronting, perhaps disturbing, I felt this was important for the reader to understand just how bad the bad guys truly are, and understand this at the gut level.

These days especially, with so much new work being published, it is important that fiction writers break out of the mould and provide that diversity of entertainment that readers are searching for. To achieve this, I believe it is important that writers stay true to their stories, and not try to censor their work just because a few critics have registered their sensitivity. Only in this way will we, as readers, be rewarded with entertaining reads that have a deep impact on our values and lives.

2 Replies to “Should writers practice self-censorship, or break out?”

  1. I was going to make Bronwyn’s point, but I think she’s said it better than I could. My personal taste would have been to move The Scene off-stage a little, but Ian’s decision was not taken lightly, and was the result of a lot of back-and-forth between him and his editor. He has produced a powerful piece of writing which, like it or not, makes a violent emotional impact on the reader.

    I would also like to point out that there was a brouhaha among independent writers recently when PayPal announced their decision (since rescinded) to stop servicing payments of erotica featuring bestiality, incest and… rape. The noise about “censorship” and “freedom of expression” was tremendous. Those voices which clamoured for the right to be paid to publish pornographic material describing illegal acts don’t seem to be very vocal right now, though.

  2. There is no doubt that some of the scenes in No Remorse are pretty confronting; I had to read them the same way I watch a realistic film; with my head turned to the side and my eyes squinted, just in case it gets too much.

    But doesn’t that mean that the writer has done an exceptional job? Surely life itself is pretty confronting and a good story should reflect that.

    This is a strong story about an awful aspect of our society and pretending these things don’t happen won’t change anything. Fiction should make us question our world. It should make us think, long after the last page is turned, and No Remorse does just that.

    Banning books because you don’t like what they depict is more frightening to me than any book I could imagine.

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