Fighting for restraint


Writers are not known for keeping their opinions to themselves. It’s their job to write about what matters to them, to present their vision of the world as they see it. Some writers devote whole novels, even trilogies and series, to express their values and beliefs.

So, you won’t be surprised to learn that a discussion about graphic sex and violence in novels prompted a lot of debate and opinion in one of Facebook’s crime book clubs.

Opinions are divided, as you would expect.

Overall, most participants disapprove of gratuitous sex and violence. Whether they agree on what’s gratuitous and what isn’t, I couldn’t say.

Normally, I follow such debates from the relative safety of Crouch Corner, intrigued in particular by what readers say. After all, these are the people who buy the books we produce. And it’s interesting and informative to consider a wide range of views.

But sometimes, you have to jump down from the fence, taking care not to land in a cow pat or boggy ditch, I would add. Falling flat on your face in such terrain is also to be avoided. As a former environmental health officer, I could tell you all about the risks to health in graphic detail, ironically.

Ultimately, it’s for every writer to decide how to tell their stories. Their choice of language, the words they put in their characters’ mouths, and the way their creations behave depends on a variety of issues and details.

And in the final analysis, readers who don’t share the author’s vision can put the book down and move on.

That said, it’s only fair that authors warn their readers of what to expect. Publishers do their best to help with words and phrases like serial killer thriller, or gritty, dark, disturbing, not for the faint-hearted. Covers, titles and blurb can often indicate the type of content you can expect.

But is that any predictor of how graphic the content may be?

A recent article in the press suggested that some publishers may pass manuscripts to ‘sensitivity readers’. These readers will advise publishers on how sensitive content could be and whether it could cause offence. I imagine the publisher would then seek to remove such content before publication.

On Facebook, the backlash was about freedom of speech and censorship by the back door, as you would expect.

But what I find more interesting is that publishers may actually be considering such measures.

All freedom requires responsibility. I doubt if anyone writes anything intending to offend. Sure, some people may find the words offensive, but if it’s not intentional, what’s the problem?

But is it necessary to litter dialogue with the ‘F’ word? Used frequently, it ceases to have any impact. But it can still distract you as a reader. It can take you out of a story, which is not good. Sometimes, it’s the right word for a situation. But I would suggest there are always others.

Is it essential to describe violence in blow-by-blow graphic detail? Like any form of description, if it’s overdone it can become boring and take a reader out of the story. The same applies to sex. If it’s a life-changing moment for a character, then show that, by all means, because it moves the story along.

Would you agree?

Do you care about the amount of sex and violence in the books you read?

I’ve always believed that reading was about stimulating the imagination, taking the reader on an emotional journey with characters they care for. When it comes to sex, I’m sure my readers can imagine a scene much better than I can write it. And, they can imagine it how they want to see it.

After all, I may not write it the way they see it.

Similarly, I would question what graphic violence brings to a story. As an author, don’t you trust your reader to know that an assault or murder is devastating? If you trust them, why do you need to describe it in great detail?

One author in the debate claimed you shouldn’t sugar coat crime. By its nature it’s cruel, violent and uncomfortable and people need to know that. But people do understand that. They see it on the news every night. I don’t need a book to show me what I already know and understand. I want a book to entertain and lift me, to give me hope.

That’s how I try to write my books. And like many things in life – I think less is more.

Trust your readers’ imagination. Involve them. Let them fill in the blanks as much as possible to make it their story.


To find out more about the Kent Fisher mysteries, click on the links at the top of the page.

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