A potentially controversial post... - Mari Biella

It’s time to don my flak jacket and helmet and try to look brave, because I’m going to talk about the potentially controversial topic of controversy. This is something of a pertinent issue for me. My novella Loving Imogen has a somewhat controversial theme, and though nobody’s complained yet, someone might. Indeed, given enough time, someone almost certainly will.

Authors are of course no strangers to controversy. James Joyce got into trouble for his extensive descriptions of bodily functions in Ulysses. The Catcher in the Rye (ironically, for a book lamenting the loss of childhood innocence) came under fire for its adult themes. Lolita got people’s backs up for obvious reasons. American Psycho? Genuinely disturbing, and I don’t shock easily.

Admittedly, just about anything could be construed as being controversial. Controversy is in the eye of the beholder; it’s all a matter of perspective. Don’t believe me? Why, even the dictionary has been banned from certain libraries. But should authors shy away from controversy, or should they embrace it? How controversial is controversial? It’s an important question for all authors; it’s hideously complicated, I imagine, if you’re writing for children or young adults. Words, once spoken, can’t be unspoken. They can be explained and put into context, but never entirely withdrawn.

So how to handle controversy?

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that you shouldn’t run a mile at the thought of potentially controversial subject matter. Nor, for that matter, do I think you should be inflammatory for the sake of it. Author Jennifer Weiner gives what I think is very good advice here: “Characters first, issues second.” I don’t object to controversial storylines when they grow organically out of the characters’ personalities, beliefs and actions, but I do wince when I get the feeling that characters have been deliberately constructed as puppets, whose foremost purpose is to illustrate the author’s point. Good characters are rounded, three-dimensional people, not ventriloquists’ dolls. I really hate it when “Evil Character x” is portrayed as the epitome of wickedness or idiocy due to his holding, or not holding, a particular opinion. Apart from anything, this just displays a failure of imagination. I once heard someone say that every villain is the hero of his own story, and I think that is often true. Trying to see things from your villain’s perspective is an enlightening exercise.

Inevitably, of course, an author’s feelings and beliefs will colour their fiction. However, I’d hate for a reader to put my book down feeling like he or she had just spent several hours being bashed over the head with my opinions. Speaking purely as a reader, I hate feeling like I’m being preached to. I doubt any reader picks up any book because he’s desperate to know the author’s opinions about a given topic.

This ties in with that vexed question of how present and visible the author is in a story. There are different opinions on this, and different ways of writing. My own preference is for Mari Biella the author to largely disappear from the finished work. I want to be largely irrelevant to the reader. Of course, I’m there, lurking in the background; I just don’t want to be noticed. I’m not the important one. The characters are. I’ve written about characters who are entirely different to me, and have completely different opinions. I disagreed with them, but I didn’t dislike them. It’s hard to dislike someone you understand so thoroughly.

What is important, I think, is to craft a good story, to tease out your characters’ beliefs and emotions, to make it real. A touch of controversy can add depth and realism to a character, since nobody’s a saint. Indeed, handled well, controversy might even disappear from the finished text to a large extent. After all, your story is not a debate about a given topic; it’s a visit to another person’s world, outlook, and experience.

If something happens, then it’s part of our world whether we like it or not, and as valid a subject for fiction as any. Fiction can actually provide a safe environment in which to explore controversy – safe because it is fiction, these people are characters, and these specific events have never actually occurred. But at the same time I don’t think fiction is ever really about a controversial topic. It’s about characters who happen to become involved in something that might be construed as controversial.

Is anything game in fiction, or should we leave some stones unturned? Any comments welcome.


julia jones said…
Will you give us a hint about the controversial subject of your novella?
JO said…
In theory, I agree totally - of course writers should be able to raise difficult issues. And then things happen like planes go missing, and others crash - the subject of many a novel and film - and I look at grieving relatives with cameras up their noses so the world can see their tears and I wonder if we shouldn't be a bit more sensitive sometimes. I have no problem with controversy, but a huge problem with exploiting the vulnerable.
Debbie Bennett said…
I so agree, Mari. I write controversial stuff too. I've only had one complaint so far - and she hated everything about the book anyway.

And villains? I find it fascinating getting inside their heasd and creating empathy. I loved my bad-boy so much I wrote a spin-off series from his point of view.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Julia – my novella deals with some rather unconventional and ill-advised personal relationships. It’s not American Psycho-level controversial, by any means, but it’s not inconceivable that someone will be offended by it either. I hope I’ve dealt sensitively with the theme, but others might disagree...

Jo – this is a massive problem, and one that I’m not sure of the answer to. There’s sometimes a fine line between the legitimate desire to explore difficult topics and blatant insensitivity. It’s a similar problem, perhaps, to the question of whether you should include “trigger warnings”, alerting readers to potentially sensitive themes. On the one hand, it warns readers of material they might find distasteful or upsetting; but then, on the other hand, just about anything might be distasteful or upsetting to someone.

Debbie – I love getting inside my villains’ heads too! And I often find that I end up empathising, if not quite sympathising, with them.
Bill Kirton said…
This is something I've mentioned before (probably too often), but it was a salutary lesson. In one radio play, I became fascinated with images of expansion and contraction, using them to illustrate the conflicts between imaginative potential and social constraints, love in its varied forms and the repressions applied to its less conventional manifestations. So I was making my characters speak MY words rather than their own. A review of the play (in The Listener, which shows how long ago this happened) began 'This is a tiresome play about tiresome people' and I agreed with every word. We might have to curb some of our characters' excesses, but they need it to be done on THEIR terms.
Kathleen Jones said…
Mari, I think that so long as issues are presented through characters we should never shy away from controversial issues. My novel The Centauress is about a woman who was born 'intersex', but it is about the woman and her problems, rather than about the issues of intersex and transgender. There will be people who will be offended by it, but I believe that the more people know about the subject and the more they talk about it the more enlightened society will be and teenagers won't feel that they have to commit suicide because they are rejected. We need to be able to write about everything that affects people's lives, however controversial.
Now I have to prove I'm not a robot and choose an identity!
Mari, this is such an excellent and thought provoking post. It's something I'm reflecting on a bit at the moment, since I have a feeling the novel I'm working on right now will be quite controversial in some quarters - especially since it's about real and well known people, albeit historical.
I once ran one or two workshops on writing 'issue based' drama for the Traverse young playwrights and one of the exercises I asked them to do was to think of a character who represented everything they hated on a particular subject - that was the easy bit. Then they had to write a monologue as that person, getting inside his or her head, writing in their voice. They always found it difficult - but they also always found it a useful exercise. I agree with you that as far as possible the writer as a person needs to disappear into the reality of his or her characters. We've all encountered those pieces of drama or fiction where the writer sets out with an 'issue' in mind and then invents a set of unbelievable characters saying unbelievable things, to illustrate it.
I do believe quite strongly however that we don't have a right not to be offended. But increasing numbers of people seem to think that they do!
Lydia Bennet said…
Very timely post as well as thought provoking Mari - today we are being asked, on fb, to sign a petition to stop channel 4 from commissioning a comedy set in the Irish Famine (it's the irish writer who wants to write this) - I must say I"m rather shocked and dismayed to see writer friends signing this - there have been comedies about the wars in which far more people died, it's all about character and viewpoint (e.g. Blackadder, Dad's Army) and tone rather than the issue - and are we now to be told not to write about contentious subjects except in an approved 'serious' way? Nothing more stodgy and dull than writing 'ishoos' in a preachy way.
glitter noir said…
Thoughtful and provocative, indeed. I admire the way you've baited us with the promise of controversy...while withholding all specifics. How can I resist? Will read a.s.a.p.--with some pride knowing that no book, so far, 's been too naughty for me.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for all the comments, everyone. And thank you too, Reb - though I now feel that I might have misled you by making you think that my book's a right shocker! I don't think it is, really. I hope you won't be disappointed!
Debbie Bennett said…
Catherine - I may just pinch that workshop idea...
glitter noir said…
My heart was set on a wicked blend of Lolita, An American Werewolf in London and Fifty Shades of Gray. But I look forward to reading your book for what it is.
Debbie, feel free! It works really well - stretches imaginations because rather surprisingly, many people who are just starting out haven't thought about having to get inside the minds of their villains.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Mari - I think that when the issue is central to a story, the characters tend to fade into grey blobs. It must be hard to write about an issue that one feels so passionately about that it becomes the be-all and end-all of the story, rather than to take a step back from the passion and let the art take over.
Dennis Hamley said…
A bit late to this, Mari, we're in NZ and been waiting for the dongle shop to open so we can get back on w-fi. This a terrific and important post. Yes, we do have to get inside the minds of people of some unpleasant people. It's educative for us, as well (we hope) for our readers, that we come to like, understand and even sympathise with them. Catherine, not having a right not to be offended is one of the wisest statements I have read for a long time.

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