Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Warning Labels

I've just been reading another author's web forum wherein a very heated, very long discussion is going on regarding whether warning labels should be put on books that contain certain graphic descriptions of sex, abuse or other violence. I prefer to generally steer away from topics that lend themselves to this type of debate, and the last thing I want once I am published is to have fans or detractors bashing each other (and me) on my blog or forum. But on the other hand, I also realize that no matter how I try, I'll never be able to please everyone with my writing. At best, some people should love my books and some should hate them. The worst possible response would be complete indifference. So I'm going to step out on a limb here and offer a few opinions on the subject I just mentioned.

I can understand both sides of the argument about the labels. I've read plenty of Amazon reviews where people said that they were disappointed in the book because it wasn't what they'd been expecting. I've read many books that I was personally disappointed in because they had a plot point that I hated, one which completely ruined the story for me. I empathize with those who were disappointed in any given book because the cover blurb left out some vital information that might have changed whether the reader paid their hard-earned money for the book or not. I've recently bought two fantasy paperbacks which shall remain nameless but which I wish I'd never picked up. I'm not taking them back to the store because I can also empathize with the authors' need to earn out their advances and returns are a bad thing for fiction--ALL fiction. But neither do I intend to finish reading them, because they were both spoiled by certain turns of events in the plot that I just plain didn't care for. Was I offended by the plot devices in question? No. I just didn't like how the story was going and didn't want to read more. But could a sort of warning label have prevented me from getting stuck with two books whose plots I didn't like? Yes, but not without being a spoiler for the plot itself. "Warning, the main character's love interest dies two thirds of the way through the book and the main character himself dies at the end!" Ehhh...I don't think so. I picked up the books, I bought them, I took the gamble that I'd like them. This time, I was disappointed. But recently, I found a book I really liked. The odds are fifty-fifty on any book. You win some, you lose some. You like some, you hate some. But a warning label? A book might offend you or cause you to experience some painful emotions or memories, but it's not going to poison you or give you cancer. I think it's fair to assume that any book not published under a YA label could potentially have some kind of issue in it that an adult is supposed to be able to deal with and which might contain potentially "offensive" material. Sounds fair enough to me. Put your quarter in and pull the handle.

Very few books or plot devices offend me. I write about complex human issues, so what kind of hypocrit would I be if I got offended every time another author kicked a sacred...gopher? I've kicked a few of those dang gophers myself, and probably will again. But not--as a very dear and well-respected friend once accused me of doing--just because I can. For any of my readers, past or future, who read this blog, here is where I stand on the subject of what I do or do not include in my books:

Boil down every plot element and every opinion any of my characters have and what you'll find there are simple human issues. That's what makes my characters so--to put it in my agent's words--"wonderfully believable." No, I don't tend to softcoat the issues. I mentioned this in another blog entry called Pulling Punches. My books have violence, teen pregnancy, differences of opinion, bigotry, slavery, rape, deception, betrayal and murder. But they also have love, respect, compassion, strength, determination, redemption, forgiveness, unity and hope. Just like life. And yes, it's fiction. But some of the things that happen to my characters just may at some time or other have happened to some very real people who may happen to pick up one of my books. The way my characters experienced their issues in the books may or may not be similar to the way those unknown readers experienced something similar in their own lives. I know that there are bound to be readers who for whatever reason choose to take offense at one or more of the situations or issues I have portrayed in my book. Sooner or later, something is bound to strike a nerve with someone. But I try to always, always treat all my plot issues with the care and sensitivity that they deserve while being true to the story. Every conflict and problem and issue the characters have is something that has grown out of the story, and without them the story would have less punch.

I don't tweak people's sensitivities just to be contrary or just because I can. I write the issues with honesty, care, and love. I never mock someone's pain or experiences or beliefs. My character's beliefs will not always be the same as yours--in fact, I can guarantee they're not, because I made up all the gods and goddesses in the story. But the characters' FAITH in whatever higher power they worship is where the realism comes into play. We all have faith in something. A religion. A significant other. Something. And so the FAITH, not the specifics of the belief system, is true to life, and to the story. Some people may be put off because some of the characters worship multiple gods. Some may object to a character being raped or maimed or abused. But people DO worship different gods sometimes. Sometimes people are raped or maimed or abused. See? Issues. If I ever softcoat the issues or try to make them politically correct, I'll wreck the story, and that would be a worse crime than to just write the story with care, with love, and with honesty.

For those who might wonder about the explicit stuff, there are only about two explicit sex scenes per book, but I tried not to pull any punches on them, so I wouldn't personally label them as kid fare. They are true to the story and grow out of the plot, as any scene, no matter what sort, should do.

There's my challenge, and my warning label. If you're easily offended, don't read the books. They're like ogres--they have layers, and they might be beautiful one moment and ugly the next. I can't promise you'll like everything in the trilogy, but I can say this: I put my heart and soul into it, and I sincerely believe that it's a wonderful story, with all its tough issues and painful moments and tender triumphs. I hope you'll all give it a chance.


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