Controversy in Fiction Writing
The other day, I was sitting in my dorm writing an essay and devising a foolproof take-over-the-world plan when, out of the blue, the song “Getting to Know You” from the musical The King and I popped up on my iTunes. In addition to driving me crazy—seriously, it's so catchy your brain will try to murder you in your sleep—it reminded me of my sophomore year of high school, when the theater company came together to put on the school musical, The King and I. It made for three months of black dye and spray-on tan jokes, teasing the lead male for having to completely shave his head, and a little bit of Christian controversy.
The high school I attended was a Christian Reformed school, one of the places where the Dutch reigned supreme. While everyone seemed to like the play for their own reasons, there were a few lines—and one particular scene—involving the worship and praise of Buddha. Despite the play director's reassurance that it was part of a play, nobody in the theater company looked comfortable in that one scene where most of the cast had to bow down and pray to Buddha. We got several letters complaining about that, but overall the play was still a success.
This made me think of other famous works that were controversial when they came out. Books such as JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, JK Rowling's Harry Potter, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin were all criticized and banned for reasons varying from coarse language, to witchcraft, to intense violence and sexual imagery. All of this begs the question: Is it ever okay for me, as a writer, to toe the line of controversy?
I can see the argument going in both directions. On the one hand, you need to respect the reader in whatever audience you want to write for. In addition, there are a few books (*cough* Fifty Shades of Gray *cough*) that can either go too far or include controversial aspects for no reason except to sell more books. If you want to write anything, you need to be smart about it.
On the other hand, when a writer handles controversy maturely, his or her books can really be considered a work of art. Harry Potter, for example, is my favorite book series because Rowling treated her readers like adults. She didn't give us more than we could handle, but at the same time, she challenged us to learn and grow with the main character himself. Les Miserables is a great play that has controversy from beginning to end: poverty, prostitution, rebellion, lying to the law, etc. But again, Victor Hugo treated his readers like adults and gave them a revolutionary spirit. Additionally, I think we need a little controversy to show that the world isn't as black and white as we think it is. Some people read or write in order to ask questions and find answers in nuggets of truth that can be found in the stories we tell. Sometimes, we need to expand the limits if we want to be able to do that.
Another thing that controversy does is allow us to question the way we live and analyze each other as human beings. As grateful as I am for parents not allowing their children to be given more than they can handle, at the same time, I want to have the freedom to read and write stories that ask tough questions about humanity. I want to be free to express opinions with others and, in return, to see what others have to say about certain ideas that society keeps dodging. I also want whatever children I may have to ask questions without feeling like they're trespassing on something taboo—I want them to learn whatever they can and draw their own conclusions based on what they're given, not to feel embarrassed about being curious or disagreeing with their peers.
So, after giving it some thought, here's my take on controversy in writing: Whatever you decide to write, you need to ask yourself why you choose to include this or that controversy in whatever you write. If you just want to make money off of it, then it's not going to be handled maturely and odds are people are going to forget about it sooner or later. If it's not a key part of the story, then you probably don't need it. If you're writing to sensationalize or glorify it unnecessarily, or even if you're just including it for the sake of making money out of it, then you definitely don't need it. If you want to have a character swear, would it be a word that he/she would probably say? As for sex and violence, you don't necessarily need to add the nitty-gritty details of what happened. Give them enough so that they know what's going on, but not too much so that they cringe. In the case of sex, it's actually better if you don't give them the details of the scene. Invested readers experience the details you give them, and the details of a sex scene are pretty much only there to sensationalize the act itself, and in doing so they add nothing of consequence to the story itself. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind gave readers an example of a sexual encounter handled best; the scene itself was skipped, and yet readers still got the gist of what happened and they still saw how it affected the characters involved.