Bother: to disturb; cause physical pain to somebody
Offend: to upset; cause somebody anger, resentment, or hurt
Twenty years on I can still recall my reaction after reading Kathleen Woodiwiss’s first book, “The Flame and The Flower” – a romance novel in which Heather Simmons falls in love with Brandon Birmingham. Lest you think they ‘meet cute’, during their first encounter he rapes her. Then they fall in love. Sorry. I can’t get into a novel where the heroine falls in love with her rapist or an equally despicable person. Of course, no one is forcing me to read anything like that.
Unless it’s presented in one of my critique groups.
One of the challenges in writing groups is dealing with material that individuals may feel unable to fairly critique. Sometimes it’s a matter of not understanding what has been written or having an aversion to a particular genre. If I don’t ‘get’ your poetry, I can’t tell if the problem lies with what you’ve written, or me. I’ll always begin my critique of anything paranormal with the caveat that those storylines don’t appeal to me because they strain credibility. I’ve known others who take issue with profanity, graphic violence or sexuality, religious affronts, child endangerment, and most often violence against animals. When critiquing sensitive material we should express our bias and move on. But on a few – mercifully few – occasions I’ve found myself subjected to unacceptable material in substance or presentation.
My first experience with this involved an ‘author’ who kept bringing in pieces that read like letters to Penthouse Forum, wild sexual encounters that defied believability. Our group had no policy in place for dealing with such material, so after a few weeks of explaining that, shall we say, he misunderstood what was meant by a story’s climax, we finally told him to seek out another group. I should note that the graphic content didn’t offend me as much as the intent of the writer to shock and titillate his audience, like a flasher who inflicts anatomical words instead of parts.
Once I’d been exposed to this issue (yes, that pun was intended) it made me wary of it happening again, so in my next group I suggested creating a policy for a comparable situation. The members laughed it off as unnecessary. Less than a year later, I received pages to critique via email that glorified pedophilia. I wanted to scrub my computer clean in every sense. Since no policy was in place it took a village to expel that writer; angered at our group’s united refusal to read his pages, he dropped out.
I included the definitions for Bother and Offend to make a point. I’ve always thought of offend as being much stronger than bother, so I found it interesting that bother relates to a physical discomfort while offend describes an emotional uneasiness. It makes sense, though. Being bothered is more concrete; you know what’s causing it and how it’s affecting you. But offence is harder to pin down; like Potter Stuart’s legendary Supreme Court determination that hard-core pornography was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it”.
Having gone through this experience more than once, I’ve come to believe that having a written policy best addresses the problem. Individual wording will vary depending on the group, but in general no one should have to read material that is ‘unacceptable’, a more concrete and less emotional term than objectionable. I define unacceptable to include any material that presents what is generally considered heinous – ethnic cleansing, nonconsensual sex, child rape, enslavement – in an agreeable or glorified manner. Simply put, the hero should fight evil, not be evil.
My writers group recently updated its by-laws, so I brought up the idea of including a clause on unacceptable material. Some members agreed that a written policy in place would be wise while others felt that common sense should prevail, otherwise we might be perceived as practicing censorship. The subject initiated more debate than all the other sections put together. Ironically, one member of our group submitted chapters from a religious philosophy book he’s writing and complained about the personal nature of the feedback. Apparently members found his reasoning ‘unacceptable’ and commented not on the writing, but the philosophical ideas behind it.
So am I wrong in thinking issues like this should be headed off at the pass, or left to a case-by-case basis. And where should the line be drawn? What would you advise?