Monday, July 20, 2009

Never Say Never....

How dark is too dark for you (as reader, viewer or writer)?

When people hear what I write, some will say: I never read books about children in jeopardy. I never read about sexual assaults. I never read about people killing their families.

Seems like a lot of people have "nevers" in their rules for reading. I respect and understand that. But aren't the greatest, most lasting stories those that successfully break the rules of "decent" behavior?

A father raises his hand against his son, the dagger glinting in the harsh desert son....

A married man lusts after a young girl, goes to her in disguise, and rapes her....

A wife, desperately in love with her husband, kills and dismembers her own brother for him, then when her husband betrays her, kills their sons.

The above examples break these "never" rules--and they're some of the most widely read and told stories in history: Abraham and Isaac, Leta and Zeus, Medea...

As both a writer and a reader, I like to be challenged. I don't believe in rules--why limit yourself? Why not first try the thing that you have pre-judged, then decide?

I like light and fluffy and I like dark and twisted. And a lot in between. Usually I enjoy my fiction grounded in reality, but then I'll fall in love with something like Mark Helprin's Winter Tale and be totally transported into an impossible never-land of magic.

So why bother with rules?

Why not view life as a smorgasbord, taste everything you can, then go back to feast on seconds with the writers who fill you up while also leave you craving for more?

I'm not talking gratuitous violence or sex--but gratuitous is in the mind of beholder. First, the author who creates the story and then, their audience.

In my own books there are often children in jeopardy--as a pediatric ER doc, how could I not offer justice to some of the victims I worked with for seventeen years?

I also won't shy away from including crimes against women. Not to be salacious, but to illuminate a significant problem that our society often forces into shadows.

In fact, my next book, URGENT CARE, due out October 27th, is about a victim of a sexual assault facing her greatest fear: the man who raped her and has come back, now killing his victims.

I strive for emotional honesty, keeping it as real as possible and still be entertaining. I try to respect my audience--after all, they're paying for the privilege of reading my books.

As a reader, there are definitely some excellent authors whose books I will no longer read--because to this audience member their writing is too over the top, without giving me a payoff that ties the violence and gore to the main characters, leaving me feeling used, abused, and manipulated.

I don't read a book to see how much pain or angst the author can wring from me. I read to be enlightened, inspired, to laugh, to feel good about myself and the world around me, to immerse myself in a new world with new ideas and new people to learn from.

So, yes, there are Brussels sprouts and cauliflower mixed in with the prawns and Belgian chocolate on that smorgasbord of stories, and I might taste them and never go back for seconds.

But that's okay. Because the next dish down is a new delight to try....

So where's the line for you as a reader? What makes a book a "fling against the wall", never to trust that author again?  What kind of stories make you come back for more?

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at


Jen Forbus said...

I think I'm a lot like you, CJ. I won't say a book is too dark unless the "dark" has no purpose other than reaction...or worse yet, to sell to the masses.

I don't ever immediately condemn anything. Instead, I sit down and ask myself what the writer is trying to accomplish with the "dark." If I can figure out what the author was trying to accomplish and feel he/she did just what they set out to do - first check mark. If that effect in turn moves the plot and helps me to understand the story - second check mark. But I tend to subscribe to the belief that more is not always better. Great effects can be created in minimalist situations (goes for sex scenes, too).

I tend to stay away from horror because I don't find entertainment in being scared for scared's sake. There have been some exceptions, but not many. I also tend to stay away from plots I find impossible to believe. Again, there are exceptions.

But the greatest plots to me are the ones that change me after they're finished. Maybe they challenged me to consider my beliefs or they opened my eyes to a new view, new culture, new understanding. I love coming away from a book feeling like I'll never be the same person again.

CJ Lyons said...

Wow, great insights--you said it better than I could!

Totally agree that more is not always better. My first two books have received tons of accolades about how "sexy" they are....but there's no on-page sex in either, it's all just building sexual tension between characters.

Visceral, emotional responses in the reader trumps on page gore and/or sex least for me.

Thanks for stopping by!

Unknown said...

What great questions!

I suspect people make rigid rules after having been burned by authors who are better at exploiting the human condition than exploring it -- the opposite of you, CJ!!!!

Or maybe such readers just know their limitations. A skill I'd love to acquire, though it isn't really a family trait :)

I can't usually read extended torture sequences. But it's the storytelling quality, the tone, the sense that interesting questions are being asked and explored, rather than the darkness or the lightness that draws me to a book.

Death and the Maiden or Little Nemo, as long as it's good, it works for me :)

One writer (not mystery/crime, exactly) who handles BOTH lightness and darkness with astonishing deftnes, especially considering his young age, is Jonathan Safran ("Exremely Loud and Incredibly Close"). Still trying to figure out how he does it.

The only thing that makes me throw a book (the first book I ever threw was Murder of Roger Ackroyd) is when I think the writer has violated the unspoken contract with the reader -- introducing elements that are dropped for no reason, or last minute characters who "clean up" for the story, or, something you alluded to, introducing a rape or abduction or murder just to get the plot going.

CJ Lyons said...

I so totally agree--those things will make me hurl a book as well!

And I loved Extremely as well, what a poignant book, makes me wish I could write like that....

Thanks for stopping by!

Shane Gericke said...

Very well said, CJ. Biblical violence is some of the worse ever, yet folks who think that's fine and dandy would shudder at modern "dark" fiction. Me, I'll read anything as long as there is a point to the violence and/or tragedy. Otherwise, it's a body count movie, and that doesn't interest me at all.