by Chris F. Holm
At last year's Bouchercon, I was fortunate enough to partake in a panel called "Sex, Violence, and Everything That Makes a Book Great," featuring such luminaries in the field of literary head- and/or boots-knocking as Christa Faust, Scott Phillips, Benjamin Whitmer, and John Rector, so one would assume this week's question would be right up my alley. That I might have some measure of insight into the topic of whether there's any such thing as too much sex or violence in fiction. Or that my penchant for writing violent crime and horror might place me in the no-such-thing-as-too-much camp, the writerly equivalent of the slasher-flick director whose only on-set order is "More blood!"
One would be sorely mistaken. The fact is, my beliefs on the topic are many-fold, contradictory, and ever-changing. Today, they are as follows (I think):
1. Every Story Has Its Own Line
Violence that would seem gratuitous in a manor mystery is commonplace in a tale of psychological horror. Just saucy enough for a tale of romantic intrigue is gonna seem a little out of place in a mainstream thriller. Trust your ear, your gut, and your beta readers. If you've crossed your story's line, they'll let you know.
2. Every Reader Has Their Own Line
Some folks won't read tales that feature violence toward children. Some won't read explicit sex. Writers faced with people who've dinged their work unread are often quick to "Yeah, but...," and who could blame them? Everybody wants to be the exception to the rule. Only here's the thing: it's cool as a reader to have a line you just won't cross. Your tastes are what your tastes are. As a writer, I respect that. All I ask is that if you're going to veto something out of hand, try not to badmouth it while you're doing so. Remember, you haven't read it, so there's a chance you don't know what you're talking about.
3. Every Writer Has Their Own Line
See above, only substitute "write" for "read." We writers are allowed our lines as well. Only in our case, I think there's value in forcing ourselves to march right up to them and peer long and hard at what's on the other side. Sometimes we hold at arm's length that which affects us most deeply. The stuff we don't want to talk about often makes for the most compelling writing. And when a writer's line conflicts with their story's line, the story is always right - even if it pushes said writer out of their comfort zone.
4. Fiction Itself Has No Line
There is nothing in the whole of human experience that should be considered off-limits to write about. Every time folks get to thinking that there is, a writer will come along who shatters those perceptions with a work of staggering beauty, clarity, and honesty. However, that said...
5. Sex (or Lack Thereof) and Violence (or Lack Thereof) Have No Inherent Artistic Value
The fact you write unflinchingly about sex and/or gruesome violence does not make you de facto a better artist. And the fact that you choose to write without doing so does not make you superior to those who do. Some writers mistake vulgarity for honesty. Others claim the moral high ground on account of their own personal hang-ups. The fact is, if you're serving your story, you're doing it right. If you're not, you're not. It's as simple as that.
Don't quote me on it, though; I could change my mind tomorrow...