Thursday, July 9, 2020

You Can Handle the Truth!

By Abir

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?




Good questions this week. 


Let me deal with them in reverse order:


Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?


No. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is: it’s a bit more complicated.

My first reaction - that I’ve never cut anything for fear of giving offence - is true in the general sense. I’ve never held back on using curses, swear words or racial slurs where I’ve deemed them appropriate. My books are set in colonial India in the 1920s, where racial prejudice by the British towards the Indians was part of everyday life. Those racial slurs are horrible, but they’re also powerful, and putting them into my writing is kind of the point. The language of racial oppression is a powerful, pernicious thing, and it exists even today. I want to highlight the injustices and the unthinking prejudices of the governing towards the governed, and the language they used was part and parcel of that. If my readers find that shocking, then I think I’m doing my job. I want them to be shocked out of their complacency and out of the possibly rose-tinted view of Anglo-Saxon culture and history that they’ve probably been taught all their lives.


What about the sex and the violence, Abir?


When it comes to violence, like others on this blog, I tend to be sparse with the gory details. That’s not an act of censorship, it’s merely that the blood and guts don’t interest me. For me, a murder or violence, is primarily a plot device used to get the action going, so that I can tell the story I want to. The physical act is less important to me than its ramifications. Most of the deaths in my books are simple stabbings or shootings because that’s all I need to get my story going. I did once use an elephant to kill someone, but that was only for the sake of historical accuracy, though I admit it was also good fun.


As for the sex, I’ve only ever written one sex scene, and it was damn hard (pardon the pun). What’s more, my editor cut it out of the book, telling me, ‘that’s not how sex works.’

I obviously took issue with this, pointing out that I was fairly sure it was how sex works, and that I had two kids to prove it; to which she replied that neither of them look at all like me, and I really couldn’t argue with that.

So, yes, since then I’ve never written a sex scene. Not because it might offend anyone but because I haven’t felt the need for them in my books. I shall probably write one in the future, but I’m not looking forward to it.


Religion, by God

This is, I think, the one area where I have tempered my writing to avoid giving offence, but it was a very specific instance. My main character, Sam Wyndham has lost his faith in a god during his years in the trenches and immediately afterwards when he loses his wife in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919. In many ways, his loss of faith in a deity reflects my own journey, and I’m not afraid to put these thoughts in Sam’s head or have him saying as much on the page. The one exception I made was for my old art teacher. I based the character of a sketch artist on him in one of my books. I even gave the character his name and told him that the character was in honour of him. My teacher though was a Christian, and I’d had a line in the book where the character blasphemes. I hadn’t really spotted this, but I’d sent a copy of a proof to him before publication and he picked it up. Fortunately we were able to change the wording before it went for final printing.


Friends and family


The rewriting of those lines for my art teacher probably demonstrates where the red line is for me. I won’t knowingly write anything which I know will offend people I know personally. Similarly, I won’t include real-life personal stories in my books unless they are funny and harmless, or they’ve been changed to a degree where they are no longer recognisable by those who might have been involved. In any case, such occurrences are extremely rare. Most of the time I think authors prefer to rely on their imagination. It easier that way.


Moving on to the rest of the question:


Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful?


An author should absolutely be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader. I’d say part of the reason for writing is to have an impact on the reader. I write partly to shock my readers out of their comfortably whitewashed view of history. But there are good and bad ways to do this. Hitting them over the head with unpalatable historical facts is generally off-putting. I find that the best way is to draw likeable characters that the reader can relate to, and then show them dealing with the bitter realities of the world I’m trying to depict.


The truth, I think, cannot be ‘too truthful’. These days, there is an awful lot of self-censorship because of a fear of the consequences of giving offence. But if we do not offer the truth, the alternative is to end up in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and partisan narratives, where objective facts, like wearing a mask in the midst of a pandemic, become issues of political preference rather than simple common sense. We need to fight for the truth, whether people like it or not.


To finish, I’ll just say this. I think we, as writers and readers, have a duty to the truth; a duty to depict the world as it is, rather than to look at it through rose-tinted spectacles. The truth, and the right to question shibboleths  - be they religious, historical or political – are part of our fundamental freedoms, and they can’t be sacrificed in the interests of sentiment.


Brenda Chapman said...

Well said, Abir. Truth in writing is essential.

Susan C Shea said...

One of the many things I enjoy about your series is that you make the truth abundantly clear by the way your characters are treated and how they treat others. You don't have to hit us over the head with the impersonal enormity of history to tell the truth, but show it playing out on the human level where we believe and feel it.