In summation: It’s not a question of what you write, but more of who you will piss off.
To give a little backstory on the editorial, I was reading an article by author and friend, Alex Hansen about how it could be difficult to write characters that were unfamiliar to him (his prime example was female characters) and how it could be easy to accidentally write something unknowingly sexist. This actually made me wonder as an author, are there writing taboos? Not surprisingly, this has proven to be a difficult question to answer. While we all know that one of the cardinal sins of writing is plagiarism, there hasn’t been a general consensus on what can be written about and what can’t be written about.
Writing Taboos are can be reduced to three central concepts: The author, the cultural setting, and the content. To talk about the easiest of the three, let’s start with content.
Content, the meat and potatoes of literature. Over the years, we have seen several books feature content which many people would consider grotesque, overtly sexual, excessively violent and so on. Books that would feature a topic like pedophilia/lolitaism such as Vladimir Nabakov’s iconic novel Lolita would stand out in the massive book market for addressing issues and subject matter that weren’t brought up in daily conversation unless something happened. Some authors would write about specific subject matter such as drug use and violence in order to address an issue such as Phillip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly which described the drug culture of the United states (which he was a part of) or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange where the author was showing his perspective of the changing youth culture and the notion of free will. Other authors use these subject matters to establish character development and the stories at hand, which that itself is a difficult act to balance. Then, there are some authors who just write about taboo content just because they want to. This is commonly referred to as ‘Shock Value‘, where the intent is the offend or shock as many people as possible. This is commonly found in novel sub-genres such as Splatterpunk, where the intent was to portray graphic violence to no end, reveling in the desecration of bodies and gore.
But with any taboo that is written about, whether if it is necrophilia or killing a loved one, the strength of the taboo weakens because it is being addressed and talked about. Content wise, nothing is really taboo to write about. While some topics will raise eyebrows and create criticism and shock, everything is essentially open to write about. (Funny thing, while researching this, I actually found out that there is such a thing as Canadian exploitation films called Canuxploitation.)
Who the author is and where he comes from can also play an important part in what can be considered taboo in writing. Every author comes from a different background and upraising which can be an influence on their writing and can be easily said that authors put a little of themselves into their writing. One example would be Stephen King, whose experiences with alcohol and cocaine were the influences for books such as The Tommyknockers. These experiences play a part in what they consider to be taboo and what should and should not be talked about.
Though Cultural and Societal norms would be one of the most important as it can play a significant aspect of a person’s writing whether if it is during the writing stage or the publishing stage. Depending on what country or area you live in, there can be many taboo topics that should not be addressed or cannot be written about in certain contexts. Going back to the previous example of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, where the story follows a man named Humbert Humbert and his sexual attraction to ‘nymphlets’, including his new found love interest Dolores (who in the beginning of the book is twelve). While this book has since its release become a critically acclaimed literary classic, many people still hold the notion that writing someone who has a lolita complex as the protagonist is wrong. Though that in itself is an interesting notion; we have had main characters who kill other people for the fun of it, are sexually promiscuous and take drugs to escape reality but the moment an author writes a main character with a sexual attraction to a young woman (which historically speaking wasn’t always considered taboo), it is considered to be offensive.
But the interesting thing about what the common culture and society considers taboo in literature is that it is constantly changing. Concepts and ideas that were once considered to be morally wrong or taboo to describe in literature has become a norm. Books such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was once considered a forbidden read for its language and sexual depiction of characters, but now swearing and sexual content has become a norm in literature that can be bought anywhere that sells books. My guess would be subject matters that are taboo only stay that way because they aren’t being addressed or talked about in the common culture until enough people say, “We need to discuss this”.
One of the few taboo topics that I have surprising found in the literary world is the use of incest in novels. Through searching Google, I found an article dating back to 2010 in regards to Amazon’s removal of several titles where the sole focus was incest. In truth, I find this a little funny considering that popular book series such as George R.R. Martin’s Game of Throne Series and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones where both of them feature incestuous themes are allowed to be sold. My only guess for this would be that it depends on the extent of incest that is featured in the novel. If it is a side plot, it’s okay, but if it is the main premise, it’s not.
The other night, I talked with Alex to get an opinion on what could be considered taboo in writing and he actually had some interesting ideas about what could be considered taboo in writing. He brought up the point that every subject that is considered ‘taboo’ by one person or another has been written about at some point or another and if there were still taboos that hasn’t been written about, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I have to agree with him that there isn’t that much in the world that hasn’t been addressed in literature in one way or another, but it is interesting to think about. It also makes me wonder what ideas and notions that were once considered to be ‘forbidden territory’ would one day become open to reading and discussion.
My honest advice and it’s honestly not much, just write what you want to write. Don’t fear how the people around you will react and don’t fear the censor. The only way we will break taboos is to bring them to light and talk about them. Though by saying this, I’m not suggesting that every taboo should be broken. If you do not feel comfortable reading or writing about something, it’s entirely your decision.