INAPPROPRIATE MATERIAL – WHEN TO SAY ‘NO’ by Miko Johnston

               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?

12 thoughts on “INAPPROPRIATE MATERIAL – WHEN TO SAY ‘NO’ by Miko Johnston”

  1. LOVED your post. I think you are right in that these things need to be addressed up front. I wouldn’t want to have to read bits of child pornography to discover it was in the book. It would be difficult to get the image out of my head. I wouldn’t be able to separate the writing from the content.

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  2. A thought-provoking post. There is that fine line between what is unacceptable and so not desired or allowed in a certain group, and what could be deemed perhaps “liable” censorship. For me, a lot of things should be censored from books etc., but that would go against our “freedom” of speech. That said, I won’t read manuscripts or pages that contain the things that you mentioned in your post.
    I think that if particular groups can try to enlist (receive) members who are as compatible as possible in these areas (hey, talk to them first!), that there may be no need for such “official” written laws (bi-laws).

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  3. Very interesting post–and I consider it thought-provoking, too. I write cozy mysteries and read them, too, more than I do thrillers or other subgenres that contain a lot of violence. The romances I read and write can get sexy but no one is hurt either physically or mentally. And anything that harms an animal–not on my agenda in any way! People are different and I agree that censorship is inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean any of us needs to read something we find offensive.

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  4. Great post, Miko. I, too, was in a critique group visited by a kiddie pornographer, and I had to quash his reading at one point and tell him I just couldn’t listen to it. The guy had no clue what my problem was! I think any responsible group would be within their rights to prohibit the subjects you enumerate. There’s enough ugliness in the world without more of it being glorified in literature. There is a fine line between censorship and offensive material. I read (but did not enjoy) the novel Compulsion which depicted a horrendous, violent crime; but it was literature and did nothing to glorify the murderers—quite the contrary. On the other hand, by I have slammed shut books and boycotted films that gratuitously portrayed animal cruelty.

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    1. We both had that experience in an earlier critique group. I remember warning the other members about this bit of writing, having previously read it. The group chose to remain unbiased until they read it and had the same reaction as me. I wonder how that would have played out if there had been disagreement within the group about the work’s literary merit.

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  5. Large groups should probably have a few ground rules; smaller groups probably know their members well enough to know they won’t be shocked by anything presented. But personally, if I find something beyond the pale, I won’t read it. In fact, I’m finding some books that I really don’t like and they aren’t even dirty. I put them down, too. I wouldn’t dream of lowering my standards. I have to live with myself and there are too many good things out there to read. Why waste time on something you don’t like? A thought provoking post MJ.

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  6. Interesting and thought provoking post, Miko. I don’t belong to a critique group, so that experience/issue is not one I have–and luckily the worse that I’ve reviewed on request is poorly written or boring material (in my opinion!) But I certainly don’t read “stuff” I find offensive. A side-note (residual of Psych minor eons ago) writing out “stuff” can be therapy for some. Hmmm…

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    1. I empathize, but I’ve learned as much from reading poorly written/boring material as I have from reading brilliant work (in different ways, of course). While I agree with your take on catharsis, the author of kiddie porn did not see his work as such. As for the man who wrote graphic sex pieces, we could smile and say he invented ‘flash’ fiction.

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