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 They can be explained and put into context, but never entirely withdrawn.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.