Writing potentially controversial content

To mark Banned Books Week, this post covers writing something which might set the censors off. Over the course of my development as a writer, I’ve learnt from some embarrassing mistakes.

This is such a great video, from a fellow writer and lover of classic literature, and her 17-year-old twins. I love the point about how it’s important to see these words used in historical context in literature, as opposed to hearing them bandied about in high school halls. The N-word has more shocking impact in a book like Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men, where it’s not some positive term of endearment. It’s the same way with how strong curse words have more impact when used very judiciously, instead of peppering every other page with F-bombs.

Another great point is the importance of teaching young people how to properly read and analyze literature. It’s sad to learn many modern-day folks can’t distinguish the views of a writer and his or her characters. Here I thought it were obvious if it’s a writer vs. a character expressing a POV.

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When I was 16, in my sophomore year of high school, I had an excerpt from Cinnimin published in my school’s literary magazine, Inkblot. One of my friends in Creative Writing Club, a senior, spoke to me privately and asked if I’d mind having the N-word taken out of my excerpt. Since this school was, and remains, about 50% African-American, and this was shortly after the polarizing O.J. Simpson verdict, I agreed. I didn’t want anyone to falsely accuse me of being a racist.

When I saw the excerpt in print, I cringed. It was one thing to shorten a scene where Cinni and Quintina angrily discuss school desegregation and other racial issues, but when Cinni’s stepfather castigates his daughter Alix for tuning to a radio station playing Elvis, it made no sense for him to say “the white devil Elvis.” There’s an important word missing there, giving real context to his outrage and opinion of Elvis.

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My most facepalm-worthy first draft, at least in regards to this issue, is the third book of my Max’s House series, with the dreadful working title Resolutions. It’s so obvious I gut-loaded it with extremely offensive, controversial, hot-button stuff just to goad my imagined future censors and come across as cutting-edge as possible.

There was no need to have so many curse words (which I couldn’t even write, just represented with symbols), use the K-word 45 times in reference to my Jewish characters, depict a ridiculous “party” where everyone burns Bibles and flags, show so much violence, or any of the things I saw fit to include. They don’t even freaking fit into the core storylines.

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If you’re including something like flag-burning, a character who curses a lot, a racist character, sexist “jokes,” a sex scene in a book that’s not erotica or romance, or a rape scene, it has to make sense in the context of the story and the character. It’ll be painfully obvious if you just shoehorned it in there to try to seem cutting-edge or controversial.

We all have boundaries, however, and there are ways to be true to a time and place without writing something which makes you uncomfortable. For example, since I can no longer bring myself to write the K-word, I use the word Yid as an anti-Semitic slur.

If I were ever to write a Chinese historical, I couldn’t depict footbinding as normal and beautiful, even knowing it was considered as such by the vast majority of Han Chinese for over a thousand years. Instead, I could get around it by having Hakka or Manchu characters (who never bound women’s feet), a Han family who converted to Christianity (and thus would be less likely to continue the practice), or a very modern, radical, reform-minded family in the late 19th or early 20th century.

You also shouldn’t feel obliged to include potentially censorable content just because you feel it’s expected. You can still have a good story that works without any curse words, 20 different kinds of diverse characters, or discussions of hot-button topics.

On a similar note, if you can’t bring yourself to use a historically accurate word like Negro or depict historically accurate attitudes towards minorities, you should really reconsider either writing historical or writing that particular type of story.

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2 comments on “Writing potentially controversial content

  1. Arlee Bird says:

    So far I’ve avoided getting into any controversial writing although I do allude to controversial topics in some of my blog posts. I’m being careful for now.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    Like

  2. Chrys Fey says:

    It’s so easy nowadays to write something controversial. If you use magick, have gay characters, talk about suicide, religion, history, etc. I think authors should tackle these subjects (if they want to and if it’s necessary for their book’s plot) because these topics shouldn’t be ignored or silenced. And if it gets banned, you know you’re doing something right. 😉

    Like

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