When a writer writes, should they play it safe and live comfortably in the knowledge that no one will be offended? Do they push their craft to the limits of their imagination, even if others hate what they do? Is there ever a valid reason for breaking with ‘good taste’? These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about this week.
Last month I tried an experiment: I gave an opinionated, obnoxious and thoroughly unlovely character some of my blog space. Most blog posts that feature fictional characters are careful to let the reader know what is going on; in my blog posts I deliberately kept that fact hidden—instead I left some clues in these posts for readers to find. Some clues were discovered, some were not.
I received a wide range of responses: some thought it was clever and funny; others did not like it; still others felt as though it was a joke made at their expense. So my question is, as a writer, do I follow my creative whims or do I censor what I write to avoid offending people?
This is obviously a complicated topic, and the answers vary with the intended readership—children and the lower end of YA being an obvious example. To keep things simple, I am assuming my intended readers are emotionally and intellectually mature. (Not necessarily a function of chronological age!)
Writing deliberately controversial and potentially offensive material is nothing new. Classic titles like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Catcher in the Rye, The Colour Purple, and almost every historical text with a philosophical or religious theme have offended countless thousands of readers. Every week new titles arrive on the shelves that polarise opinion. Any author’s writing that puts dynamite under someone’s butt is going to get some negative reviews—not on the basis of how poorly written their work is, but simply because some readers will disagree with, or be offended by, something the work contains. That the work is fictional is no defence.
The fact that comedy through the ages has often been crass and offensive shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone—most Western schoolchildren have read Shakespeare, but he certainly wasn’t the first to resort to toilet jokes. Neither was Shakespeare scared of exploring controversial topics. Comedy has always been a tool for political commentary and used to raise awareness of controversial issues. Sometimes the offense caused has been so great that an arrest followed, along with imprisonment. With hundreds of years of literary precedent behind me, I decided it was my turn to become part of this tradition.
The original basis of Faye Ling’s character, the TV character Sue Sylvester, came from the writers of the series Glee—Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. It was Brennan who contributed most of the dialogue for Sue Sylvester‘s character. In one scene, the fictional Sue refers to four student characters as, “Wheels”, “Porcelain”, “Asian 1”, and “Asian 2” in reference to one’s disability, another’s sexual orientation, and the ethnic origin of the remaining two. That such terminology is deliberately discriminatory, homophobic, and racist seems to me to be beyond any reasonable doubt. Do I believe Brennan’s use of the terminology reflects his own personal views? Absolutely not. So why does he write such a character? From his own account, Sue was not in the original script for series one and she was only added as an afterthought when discussions between the writers and producers identified the need for the glee club to have a nemesis. Writers of fiction are constantly reminded of the need to include conflict and tension in the stories we tell. In Glee, if Sue was nice there would be no reason for her to exist and the series would have lost some of its most memorable moments. There is no doubt that she is a deeply offensive character and has raised the hackles of many with her disregard for political correctness and her courting of controversy with uncensored dialogue, but her creators still forged ahead—apparently unrepentant.
So why does Faye exist? When writing her I made some choices: I wanted to try writing a bitter cynical character, and humour with a cutting edge. I chose the style of the post because I wanted to experiment and add a little subtlety to complement Faye’s complete lack of it. Did everyone like it? No. Were some people offended? Probably. Could I have censored her character? I deleted the swear words in her first post, but mostly because it was a way of continuing the sense of dialogue between Faye as the supposed writer, and me as the supposed editor. I didn’t pull any of her punches because it would, I felt, have compromised the comedy and distinctiveness of her personality. I could have ‘played it straight’ and announced Faye as fictional at the beginning, but the piece would have lost some of its uniqueness and depth—it wasn’t just a tirade from a fictional character. You, as my reader, are free to disagree with the choices I make, just as I, as the writer, am free to make them.
In the future will I spend my time constantly worrying about how every single reader will interpret and respond to every single sentence I create? No, for two reasons. First, human beings are incredibly diverse in their worldviews and personalities. It is impossible to predict how everyone who reads your work will react. Secondly, spending too long pondering others concerns leads to artistic and creative paralysis. I would never finish anything, ever.
I don’t set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, and it’s difficult when the people who are hurt are those I know personally. It is one of the paradoxes of writing. To write something moving we need to be intimately in-touch with our own humanity, and the humanity of others. To find something new to explore and a unique way of sharing our discoveries, we may need to distance ourselves from the very people we hope our work will move, at least a little. The cost of our creativity may be their feelings. As writers we all draw our own lines in the sand—to have none would be callous, but draw the lines too close to our feet and we will never go anywhere.
Do you censor what you write? If so, why? As a reader, have you ever approached a writer asking them to change what they have written? How did they respond? I’d be interested to know…
I am constantly censoring myself. Not just when it comes to writing either. One of my personal hang ups I am trying to over come is worrying about what people think of me all the time.
I love that you have tackled this topic, because it something I think about a lot.
The other point I have is, as a writer, you are never going to personally know every single person who reads your work.. so how can you possibly begin to guess what would or would not offend them. I say write what you want. If people don’t like it then they can read something else. But for every person that puts your book down, I am sure another 5 will pick it up .
Getting to that stage of writing, when you first feel able to share what you write with others, can take a while, even if those ‘others’ are friends and family. Then there are the decisions to make about whether or not to share with a select few, or whether to go the whole way and go for the world. These are decisions that have as much to do with how you feel about yourself as about how people feel about your writing, and they’re not necessarily easy to make.
It took me several months to get up enough courage to take each step, but finding supportive yet honest people really helped – both my confidence and my writing. I wish you well on your journey – even though it’s one without an ending.
When you do take the final steps there will always be some who dislike what you do – taking the journey is as much about gaining the confidence to sort out the good advice from the bad, and sticking to your guns when you feel it’s right. Good luck!
Playing it safe is a recipe for blandness.
Keep stretching and trying out new things, TJ.
Even if some paths don’t go where you thought they might, you’ll still draw lessons and be able to use them throughout your other writing.
Inspiration can be a fickle thing, but when I get new ideas I’ll certainly give them a try. I think there may be a balance point between breadth of ideas and focus on one – I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.
To be honest I don’t think you can censor yourself, you have to see where the character takes you, at least on the first draft, otherwise parts of the tale won’t work and you could well end up with a project that you feel is a failure. Calming them down can be done in later drafts but to be honest I think you have to give them free reign.
Well thought out and definitely thought provoking.
Hi Gareth. I hadn’t thought about censorship inhibiting the development of a character. As following a character’s inner promptings is one of the most natural ways of driving a story forward I can see why you wouldn’t want to stifle your writing, especially on a first draft. A good point.