“Offensive writing” and its impact


I like reading what other people perceive as “harsh” authors, guys like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk and one of my favourite books is We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book many people couldn’t stomach because of its gun violence in a school. Notwithstanding the very real pain that people must feel reading about something identical to an experience in real life, I’ve never bought into the idea that I am more or less affected by things in books because I am slightly closer to the situation than other people. For instance, I have a child but I don’t believe for one minute that I’m more sensitive to kids dying in books than someone who has never had them. I have never been a victim of murder but I don’t believe you need to be, to appreciate how gruesome it can be or to empathise with the survivors.

My first book, The Sham, was a thriller. Lots of readers told me they couldn’t get past the first scene, which I didn’t think was that gruesome when I wrote it, but evidently affected people in a way they couldn’t cope with (mostly because of the cruelty upon a child and a bird, both of which were based on incidents that did happen in real life) . It got me thinking about whether anything is sacrosanct. I read an article in The Guardian recently about how readers found the fictional romance between a Nazi camp guard and a Jewish inmate in For Such a Time, “shocking and offensive” and campaigned for it to be delisted for two Romance Writers of America awards. Angelina Jolie received the same response for her love story set during the Bosnian war between a Serbian guard and a Bosnian woman in In the Land of Blood and Honey, but isn’t that the point of books? That they help us imagine things, to feel things, that we don’t need to experience in real life?

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5 thoughts on ““Offensive writing” and its impact

    • Thanks so much for the lovely comment! I try to use my blog to write concisely but it’s difficult, isn’t it? Like the Mark Twain quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead”!

  1. This is a most interesting topic. People often have the desire to avoid books that deal with pain. Unfortunately the world dishes up a lot of it and instead of shoving painful topics under the rug I think they should be dealt with. Every person will at some point experience some kind of distress that can be crushing. I had the same experience with my first book, “The Remembered Self: A Journey into the Heart of the Beast”, a memoir in novel form about child abuse. The book deals straight on with a big problem that needs to be taken off the taboo list. I often wonder why people like vampire and horror but turn away from real problems. Maybe it is the attraction of being scared when you are safe. I don’t think any topic should be off limits in writing. The human condition makes for strange bedfellows and that can make a great story. I am glad when a writer chooses to make a book have depth and encourages readers to consider the strangeness of the stories of life.

  2. Ellen, I’m having some problems with my twitter account so there are many things I would have posted by now that have not been. I always post your site and like it very much. Just FYI

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