This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey. I ain’t got time for that now—
—“Life During Wartime” David Byrne, Talking Heads
So. . .I just had a disturbing week.
Way back in December, right before my vacation, two different aspiring writers had coincidentally asked me to do Abbreviated Developmental Edits on novels with a preponderance of p*&$%rnographic sex and over-the-top disgusting violence in them. I get queries like this now and then, and as usual I told them I don’t do that stuff. P*&$%rn is free all over the Internet so there’s no point in amateurs trying to sell it, and I’ll never encourage anyone to abuse the written word by gratuitously exploiting disgusting violence. I love and respect the written word, and, besides, I live on this planet with the rest of you. My sweet son also lives on this planet—in fact, my whole damn family lives on this planet. (So does yours). You’d think it’d be self-evident what a bad idea it is to try to ratchet our communal tolerance for disgusting violence. That’s just crapping in your own nest.
I do edit ‘edgy’ fiction because it’s all about epiphany through Hemingway’s delicate art of omission, and that’s literature, but I wouldn’t give the time of day to Howard Stern.
However, both these writers insisted they really, seriously wanted my professional feedback on how to make their novels as polished and publishable as they could be. (I had quite long conversations with them before they even hired me.) And both—as many do—claimed to be writing ‘edgy’ fiction for the sake of epiphany. So I agreed to work on their novels as ‘edgy’ works aimed at epiphany, and I put their manuscripts on my schedule. Unfortunately, when their turn came last week I was surprised to see the p*&$%rn and disgusting violence still everything I’d already told them it shouldn’t be. In one novel it turned out to take up almost a third of the ms.
I could have sent the ms’s back and asked them why they wanted to pay me for advice they refused to take for free. But they’d taken up slots on my calendar, and I had other clients thinking they had another week before their ms’s were due on my desk, so instead I buckled down and plowed on through, giving the writers the detailed professional feedback I promised, not just expensive ego-massage, but around 7,000 words on everything they needed to know in order to turn what they had into solid, polished fiction thousands of readers might love—fiction all about epiphany.
It was a very long week.
I told them (again) to leave out the p*&$%rn and disgusting violence.
Let me be really clear, folks: if you want to create fiction about the dark underside of humanity, you have to study how it’s done. Simply clobbering your potential reader over the head with things that will shock and disgust them is not fiction. It’s ANTI-FICTION. You remember that fiction is all about creating a response in the reader, right? Well, clobbering people over the head creates really the wrong response.
Like a dirty French novel, combining the absurd and the vulgar, you’re not charmless.
—Lou Reed, Velvet Underground
Yeah, they changed the word. Ha ha. It’s a marketing tactic to try to shuck off negative associations, but direct-mailing is still junk mail, and everybody knows it. There is a significant difference between erotica and p*&$%rn, but the purveyors of p*&$%rn don’t want you to know that.
Sex in fiction has been in circulation since long before Anais Nin made a couple of cents a page churning it out for elderly men until Henry Miller took her under his wing. The French became known for erotic fiction, and it was highly racy for many, many decades to get caught with a novel in brown-paper wrapping. Now those books are kind of endearing. Nin wrote about an aging prostitute posing humorously in her client’s military cap.
We’re all adults here, and that means we’ve already found out about sex. Surprise! You’re not teaching us anything we don’t know. In fact, we’ve all had so much sex we actually know what we like and what we don’t like—we didn’t wait for you to come along and tell us. We’re really not very patient people.
Include subtle sex scenes if you need them to show how the forward progress of your plot affects your characters, write p*&$%rn for your own entertainment, or sign on with one of the little indie publishers playing Anais Nin for the modern consumer, but please don’t fool yourself into believing laborious sex manual instructions are anything like high tension for the reading masses. Sex is old, old, old, old news. From what I can gather, human beings have always been at it.
- Disgusting violence
Who killed Bambi? Murder murder murder!
—the Sex Pistols
I know. They put it in violent movies and TV shows. Blood and guts spattered everywhere. There are big-name authors out there writing cardboard cut-out characters and boring plots who try to spice up their lack of content with disgusting shock tactics. If you’re ‘hip’ you’re supposed to be numbed to it—or at least pretend to be.
Those authors get away with it because readers know their names, they’ve been writing for a very long time, and their publishers give them editors, not because the books are any good. But you don’t have all those perks, so readers’ perception of the quality of your writing isn’t going to be skewed.
When you insist on shoving readers’ faces in gore, hauling out every single revolting cliche you can remember from all the gross things you’ve ever seen on film or thought up yourself, that’s not tension, that’s just nonsense, and if you go too far with it those readers will laugh.
The truth is the aspiring writers who bring me this kind of shock-jock stuff are pretty predictable. Most think they’re quite tough cookies. “It’s the ugly truth—it’s in your face! You don’t get to run away, you ignorant pantywaist. You have to take it—take it—take it!” Not all of them are like this. But most.
Well, first of all, no reader has to take it. They’re the ones with the checkbooks. The failed aspiring writer is the one who has to take it, all on their lonely while potential readers walk away.
And, second, I’ve worked with abused children for years. I know a whole lot more about the ugly truths of the real world than the majority of folks out there trying to gross readers out. So I don’t have a lot of patience with posers.
And, third, how do the most uber-macho of these Incredible Hulks respond to requested editorial advice on their masterpieces? Ayuh. You guessed it. I have clients writing picture books about cute little bunnies in art school who are tougher about taking advice than the worst purveyors of militant “take it—take it—take it!” No one’s tender little feelers are as easy to bruise as those trying to batter everyone else’s.
We’re all soft, ignorant, vulnerable, and quaking. You are, I am, everyone is. It’s the human condition. There’s no point wasting readers’ precious time trying to prove you’re the one extremist toughie who’s not, especially if you’re an even bigger pantywaist than the rest of us.
Readers simply won’t buy it. Because fiction is about the truth.
Fiction is about making the page invisible and an experience alive entirely within the reader’s mind. Sex scenes and ‘edgy’ violence, like other taboo subjects such as profanity and child abuse, are all about what’s not said, that fragile membrane between what the reader imagines and what they are just about to imagine.
The trick is to identify that membrane and make it invisible to the reader. Whoosh. Suddenly they’re inside your fictional world.