Thursday, September 22, 2022

De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est from James W. Ziskin

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?

First, I don’t believe in cancel culture. There are repercussions for actions. That’s all. No one has to love you or buy your stuff if you do something odious.

So, no, I don’t particularly worry about offending people’s sensibilities with my work. But I do have opinions on what I would and would not write.

We all write what we’d like to read. Dietrich mentioned it in yesterday’s post. I’m no different. I won’t say there are topics that are off limits for me from a moralistic point of view. Or a political one. But there are some that I don’t feel “comfortable” writing about.

Just as I don’t enjoy rollercoasters, I am averse to non-stop tension and dread. I don’t want to read it because it makes me uneasy and causes me stress. Some people love that kind of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we all have our personal preferences for entertainment, and mine are, I suppose, more on the emotional and pensive side than the relentlessly tense.

Don’t get me wrong; action is great. There are wonderful books that do a masterful job keeping readers on the edge of their seats for 350 pages or more. An unyielding pace of thrills and danger can make for excellent writing. Just not so much for me. It stresses me out. I need a break. A lull in the action to catch my breath and steel myself for the frightening twists ahead. I appreciate, for example, the moments of respite in a Ludlum novel, where Bourne, though running for his life, finds a safe place. For a night at least. The same can be said for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. There are terrifying moments, interrupted by short periods of calm and safety. The characters, as well as the reader, can rub some blood back into their knuckles before the next heart-pounding chase and escape.

My books are more “patient.” I like that my protagonists have time to live, think, and make regular life decisions throughout the story. Sure, there’s danger at some point. Points, even. But I want my characters to be relatable in the real world most of us inhabit. I realize that millions of readers love the escape of a nail-biting adventure that never lets up, but I’m not the writer to deliver that experience. Which is okay. De gustibus non disputandum est, as my father was wont to say. (There’s no accounting for taste.) That’s why some folks read cozies while others read horror. Some like wrestling, some love ballet. Me? I can’t eat lobster. I gag. That doesn’t mean others are wrong for tying on the bib and sucking the meat and juices out of the spindly legs. I just can’t do it.

Just as I can’t stomach nonstop stomach-churning tension.

Another subject I would never write about is serial killers. They usually don’t interest me. There are exceptions, for sure, but the reptilian-cold murderers of many don’t light my fire. I’m much more interested in why regular people kill. Are drawn to killing. Make the mistake of killing. An average Joe accidentally runs over and kills a vagrant on his way home from the office late one night. He hides his crime. But how well? Now that’s a story I could write. Or the woman who kills her lover in a fit a rage. Or self-defense? Was it or wasn’t it a justified killing? Or even a cheating husband caught in a blackmailing scheme. A blunt object suddenly presents itself and… Free. Or is he?

There are other topics I find too unsavory to write about. Torture, molestation, terrorism, and war, for example. At least not over the course of 300 pages. These I could use in subplots—and I have—but without overindulging on the vice and gore.

Finally, I don’t believe I would ever write a detailed sex scene. It’s the best way to earn justified ridicule. Just close the door and let your characters have at it in private. But I have written a short story that takes place at a 1950s wife-swapping party on New Year’s Eve. (They didn’t say swingers back then, so wife-swapping it had to be!) There’s no sex at all on the page in my story, however, so I hope to be safe from ridicule. “Prisoner of Love,” comes out next year in an anthology edited by Gary Phillips, Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James Brown.

So, in conclusion, no, I don’t avoid topics out of fear of offending. But I do follow my personal taste. I enjoy writing what I write, and encourage others to do the same. How boring the world would be if everyone ordered the same dish at dinner.



Catriona McPherson said...

Your "patient books where characters have time to live" reminds me of a very well-known best-selling thriller with a breakneck pace, where two characters go through 48 hours without eating (or peeing)

Terry said...

Your characters have time to live, but I find that there is tension in the things lurking around the edges. That's what I go for in your books!

James W. Ziskin said...

Two characters in search of a loo…

Ann said...

And then there was page 31 — or some page long about there — in Bombay Monsoon that surprised me. Loved it!

James W. Ziskin said...

Haha, Ann! I think it was page 231. A certain four-letter word?