When too much is not enough.
I thought I’d use this opportunity to expand on a short post I wrote on my own blog some time ago. This was prompted by a report I read on the Spinetingler site about Chevy Steven’s novel Still Missing. For those of you who don’t know, this was a debut novel by an American author which dealt quite graphically with some rather unpleasant issues; it generated a lot of media interest – as much for the pre-publication publicity budget the publishers had put behind the book, as for the content itself. In a nutshell and without spoilers, the novel concerns a young woman who is kidnapped, held captive for a long period of time and repeatedly raped. It’s told in a series of flashbacks, interspersed with sessions with her therapist, so the reader knows from the start that she survives the ordeal and learns how she pieces her life back together.
Over the past fifteen years or so, the market has been saturated with so-called “misery memoirs” – allegedly true stories of how men and women have overcome a traumatic childhood to make something of their lives. Some of these have been subsequently debunked in the press, but I’m not about to debate the veracity of the tales – just the voracity of the reading public in devouring them. There’s clearly a market, and publishing is a business which like any other business is constantly looking for the next marketing opportunity.
Whether you’re comfortable with the idea or not, sex sells – in any format. You only have to watch tv to see near-naked pop starlets simulating sex while miming their latest song. But how does this translate to the literary world and where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? Clearly it’s acceptable to relate autobiographical accounts of sexual abuse. Authors such as Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper made their careers in bonkbusters, but this is generally consensual sex. Fictional non-consensual sex remains the remit of crime and thriller novels and we are back with Still Missing.
The Spinetingler article debates the morality of such voyeuristic “torture-porn”. Personally, when I read the novel, I couldn’t actually see what the fuss was about and I did wonder whether the fuss itself was generated by the publisher as yet more media exposure and free publicity. The book is dark and graphic, yes, but I didn’t feel it was gratuitous in any way. Without the rape, the reader has nothing against which to measure the psychological impact it has on the character’s life from that point onwards. Without the violence, there’s no reason to justify her later actions. And that is the deciding factor – whether graphic sex and/or violence is both necessary and relevant to the story and that it is portrayed as horrifying rather than titillating. It’s important to me as I’ve had to make that decision in my own writing and it really isn’t an easy decision to make – to be true to your own story without patronising or offending the reader. I think I made the right decision.
And that’s the most important thing to me as a writer. To take the reader on a journey, be it through hell or heaven, alien worlds or alternate realities, and for the reader to live the story and come out the other side feeling changed by the experience in some way. And hopefully for the better.