Friday, June 13, 2014

Shock Value In Literature (Part One)

*While I use veiled terms for the most part in this series, young readers should be aware that these posts discuss matters of sexual immorality and violence in books, and use caution accordingly.*

This week I've been mulling over the pros and cons of shock value in literature. Shock value as in, excessive detailed descriptions on the part of the narrator, or actions on the part of the characters, on subjects of wickedness and immorality.

When I was younger, the solution was very simple: if the characters were really bad, then of course it was a really bad book. That's not a wrong way for a young girl to believe; I think that idea protected me from reading information that was too heavy for me. Shock value in literature is for adults, not for children, and children probably should put down books that have really bad characters.

But now that I'm older, for good or ill, I like to take the reasons a little deeper than my ten-year-old self did. Is there a place in fiction for eyebrow-raising passages and scenes that cause readers to blush?


I first shifted my mindset after finishing Oliver Twist a couple of months ago. That's a dark book, and some of the scenes--Fagin's jail scene and Bill Sykes' capture--were almost more dark than I could stomach. After finishing the book, I wondered rather wearily if Dickens had to take his darkness that far. But then I read his own explanation, and respected him for it:

I fully expected [this tale] would be objected to on some very high moral grounds in some very high moral quarters. The result did not fail to prove the justice of my anticipations. I embrace the present opportunity of saying a few words in explanation of my aim and object in its production...I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil....

He went on to say that if he had not taken such drastic means, no one would have listened the point he needed to make. And with those few words, I began to think that possibly--just possibly--good literature can include shock value.

So before you throw a book out for shocking content, here are some things to think about:
1. Look at the author's times.
While William Wilberforce's fight to end slavery is a real life story, and not a fictional account, it bears some application on this point. Wilberforce lived in a time where debauchery in the upper classes was thinly disguised, and the majority of people committed things that we would whisper about. But in Eric Metaxas' account of Wilberforce's life, he met with a great deal of resistance when he tried to bring up cruelty in the slave trade. Bloody details of whippings, brandings, humiliation, and evil gratification of lusts were all part of the grim research Wilberforce and the Clapham circle had to collect to prove their point. Frankly, the details they gave are still shocking today, and most people didn't want to hear them even then. But people had to hear it to make it right.

When it comes down to shock value, before dismissing the book completely, look at the times the author wrote in. Are people struggling with drink? Then the author will probably come out strong on the temperance side. Are upper class people buying the services of prostitutes? Then authors may have a legitimate reason for touching on that in a plot line. Are lower class people dying in factories and on street corners? Then the author probably will include tragic deaths to wake people up. The times bear a part in dictating the details and the message. Our times may be different now, but that doesn't mean the author was wrong for addressing the book's original audience with the details they thought were necessary.

Listen to their message of reform. Look at their reason for writing it before you dismiss it as too detailed, too strict, or too crass. They may have chosen their details for a specific and very necessary reason.

2. Look at the author's audience.
A lot of shock value in Scripture comes because of the audience. In other words, all those squirmy passages you dread reading out loud at family Bible time are because people didn't want to listen to God, and he wanted to get their attention. Why otherwise would he tell a prophet to marry a prostitute and then detail the whole sordid affair of her adulteries with other men? Why would he paint the Israelites' apostasy in such clear and detailed language? He wanted their attention. This was a wicked people, who had lost a great deal of their ability to be shocked through their lusts and self indulgence. And God confronted them with their actions in clearer and clearer terms as they got closer to the point of no return, so that perhaps they would turn and repent and realize what they had done.

The same can be true in stories. If an author is writing to a callous audience, or an apathetic one, or simply an ignorant people unaware of the issues they're trying to raise, then shock may be an appropriate measure. Obviously it takes great care and humility before the Lord to know how much shock is necessary; and since authors are prone to human error, there may be times when they take their message too far. But people haven't changed since the Israelites or the Victorian Age, and let's face it: there are some issues we don't want to face until we're hit squarely with them.

3. Look at the author's reason.
An author should never include sexual immorality or death for entertainment. Never because the characters 'just wanted to do it' (a mindset authors are prone to slip into.) Never to spice up a book or 'spell it out' for the reader. Authors, if they use shock value to make a point, must be in total and complete control of the actions and the details while they're using them. In using this means to teach, the reason 'the character wanted to do it' will not do.

Dickens wrote to shock a lazy, comfortable people into seeing the poverty running rampant in their streets. He wrote rich characters to confront his peers with a mirror of their selfishness and hate and greed. He wrote about children who committed shocking acts because fathers neglected their homes. And he didn't always give happy endings for the very specific reason that he didn't want people closing the book with a happy sigh and forgetting all about the suffering. He wanted to brand it on their hearts and minds so that they never, ever forgot that because of their apathy, people died who should have lived long and happy lives.

Then again, you have Jane Austen. While her books are not 'shocking', persay, I think you could make a case for shock value in Mansfield Park. She didn't use explicit detail, but she wanted to shock her lazy, moralistic readers into realizing just how shallow their morality was. Good morals (like Maria's) lead to running away with another man after you're married. Sincere religion (like Fanny) leads to withstanding temptation in the first place. Many of her readers wouldn't have wished to hear that message. (For more great insights into Mansfield Park, check out Suzannah Rowntree's review in War Games.)

Spenser included the vile Duessa and the (ahem!) rather forward Acrasia and her Bower of Bliss in his section on Temperance and Holiness in The Faerie Queene. Both women were shocking and frankly both are very difficult to read about. I'll confess that I didn't think it necessary to read every single line of their section in Spenser's cantos; I got his point without that. But he put them in to show what Temperance must stand against. There's no point in writing about Holiness if there's nothing unholy to be holy around. People won't understand their need for temperance if they don't understand that it will guard them against evil lusts. Spenser put the women in for a very specific reason, not just to up the action, or revel in adding some extra spice to his plot.

While some authors have a very good case for including detailed cruelty and lust, some of them don't need it. Douglas Bond, in his novel about John Calvin, The Betrayal, did an excellent job of portraying Calvin's life. The priests during that time were corrupt, bought girls' services, and lived for their own pleasure. For the integrity of the story, Bond had to include some of those elements. But, while the book is excellent, I think Bond misjudged his times and his audience at a couple of parts. None of his readers really needed the detailed description of hot pincers and burning flesh during an execution to get the point that people were being unjustly martyred. And while I'm sure Calvin had to withstand a good deal of temptation, neither did we need a scene of him resisting a woman's advances. They simply aren't necessary in the audience that reads Bond's books. Most people who pick them up know a lot of history, and can already fill in the details.

The same holds true in Patrick Carr's Sword and Staff trilogy. While he set his story in a time of war and spiritual battle, some of the accounts of death and blood and crushed bodies and throat wounds (had enough yet?) paint the picture more grotesquely than necessary. Since the book is for entertainment, and not a war training manual, probably a sufficient skim would have been necessary.

So, when evaluating an author's inclusion of sexual immorality, violence, and other disturbing elements, take the time to look at the author's time, their audience, and their motivation. All these things weigh into whether or not the book is worth reading, and they are very important to consider, rather than dismissing the book immediately.

And on Tuesday, we'll return with the second half of this subject Shock Value in Literature. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I liked this post, Schuyler. :) It's something I've wondered about for a long time, and while I haven't read many books that have had shocking elements in them, I appreciate the comments you made. Gives me a clearer perspective to take into the books I read. :)

    1. Thank-you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's actually a subject I've been thinking about more recently, and just never took the time to put into words. :) Blogging is a good way to formulate thoughts!

      Haha, I'm sure you don't read very shocking books. It feels kind of funny writing this post: like "what kinds of books does this girl read anyway??" :P

      But I think the subject is one worth discussing not only for how to handle fictional books, but how to handle reading passages in Scripture that are shocking as well. :) So it applies across the board.

      Love you! <3


  2. Interesting post! :D It made me think of a couple of books I've read that I'm still trying to evaluate fully or put away because I didn't like them. Certainly you never want to add the shock element just for the sake of entertaining. For example, I read a book that was pretty good, but when one of the characters had inklings of turning good, he died while denying there is a God. I'm not exactly sure why the author put that in--I don't know if he was a Christian or not, or much about his life; but, like you said, some books have that to wake people up. Sometimes you only have to read a book once to get its point. ;)
    Another thing I wondered about is if situational ethics will sometimes add the shock element. That sounds wierd on paper, but in certain instances when the characters do wrong, but they could have found a better way to do it, the author might be trying to get a point across. Granted, this probably doesn't include most of the books with situational ethics, but there might be a few exceptions. What do you think? ;)
    I'm looking forward to Part 2! :D


    1. While I don't delve into this in the articles, there can be good forms of shock as well. For instance, readers like to be shocked on the identity of the villain, whodunit, how the hero will ever make it out of the scrape he's in, etc. etc.

      But then you come to depressing shocks--like the book you read where the character died rejecting God, or the book Mary Johnston wrote where the girl dies in the last chapter after she gets engaged. Those are bad shocks.

      And then there are books where the author puts in dicey immorality--pushing the envelope of shocking behavior just because they can--and that's a wicked shock.

      So shocks have several different flavors and levels, and not all of them are bad.

      I really liked what you said: "Sometimes you only have to read a book once to get its point." Well and truly spoken, my dear.

      You know, I have been turning around the situational ethics point again in my mind, and have wondered about the very aspect you bring up. I think you have a point there--and it deserves a whole article on the subject!

      Hope you enjoy Part 2. :) <3


  3. I shall enter into the budding conversation by adding some thoughts of my own. And yes, I know I comment about once a year on your posts, as I always give you my comments verbally. ;) I shall speak on the following two questions, as I believe they will contribute to what you said. I will begin by saying that I myself have never usually read anything particularly shocking in literature, but that largely is due to my choice of reading and the genres that I read. But even in the genres with which I can most often be found reading, the principles you mentioned ring true. For example, as you know, I read encyclopedias at a young age. There were many interesting things, many educational things, many fascinating things—and also many lurid things that I was not particularly looking to learn about or desirous to know. Therefore, I think the following two questions are helpful to further thoughts on the matter.

    1. What Response is the Author Intending to Elicit?
    To take two passages of Scripture, Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23 comprise examples of graphic literature. Yet these are the very words of God Himself, so we cannot avoid them or diminish them or pretend they are not there. In the first case, the Lord Himself gives fairly graphic descriptions of female physiological and biological development. In the second, He gives graphic details about numerous acts of prostitution. But why did the Lord use descriptions such as these in both of these cases? It was not certainly to produce evil, morbid, or licentious thoughts on the part of the readers, for the Lord never temps anyone to sin. Neither did He act out of ignorance, for He knew what He said and He meant everything He said, without exception. Rather, when one reads those passages with a mind illuminated by the Holy Spirit, one sees and feels the weight of the horror of the sin of Israel and Judah as metaphorically demonstrated in both those cases. One feels no inclination to revel in the graphic evil described. Rather, one feels the horror of apostasy and the humility to fall before the throne of grace so as to be kept secure from such sins.

    2. What Amount of Understanding Does the Reader Possess?
    By this question, I refer to the amount of insight, experience, and maturity of the reader. For instance, to use an example directly from the first question, I read every word in the Bible by the time I was eight years old. There was not one passage of Scripture I did not read and there were no details hidden. However, the level of detail contained in passages such as Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23 simply passed me by, as I thought little of them except to grasp the sin of the divided kingdom at that time. I would not have known what they were describing, and since I did not know, it did not serve to burden me with details too heavy for me to handle at that time. Therefore, just because

    However, in order to counter the possible objection that could be raised to censoring shocking details based on that point, I will add by saying that there is a difference between God’s Word and the writings of men. God wrote His book as the only perfect Author that exists, and His book is the only book that is flawless. Therefore, reading the writings of men that contain graphic details must be met with the question: how much understanding will the reader possess in reading these things? For example, I remember starting to read “The Three Musketeers” when I was about 12. I stopped, however, because I clearly recognized that the descriptions of sexual immorality were borderline pornographic, as well as not intending in any way to express the idea of the depravity of sin and the need of a Savior, unlike a passage such as Ezekiel 23. Therefore, my point is that we must ask ourselves the question as to whether we have the ability to rightly handle these details in the writings of men with sound wisdom and understanding.

    1. Why thank-you for stopping by! It is a pleasure to have you. ;) And thank-you for adding to the discussion. You expanded my thinking on the matter, and brought up some really good points.

      I, too, thought of the passages in Ezekiel as I wrote this post. And I like what you said about the Lord using those passages to confront and horrify people with their evil. Shocking people to horrify them with the end goal that they might turn and repent is a legitimate use of the means.

      But also, as you say, I tend to raise an eyebrow when people say "Well, God used it, so I can too!" You know, just because He did doesn't mean we need to use the same graphic language when we talk about prostitution, adultery, and sexual immorality. God used it righteously, but we are much more likely to handle it incorrectly. So therefore, while there may be fruitful places for more detail than most people to feel comfortable with, Scripture does not give us free reign to say whatever we please.

      And amen on point 2! Which, consequently, I discuss in my next post. :D

      As for The Three Musketeers, I'm glad you looked it up first. Every time I think about picking it up, I think "Nope, he has trustworthy judgment, and I'll take his word for it." ;)

      If graphic detail is required to convict people that they need Jesus, then it has a legitimate use. But without that reason to guide and guard it, readers and authors will fall into pitfalls pretty quickly.

      Thanks again for commenting! I really enjoyed hearing from you. :)


  4. Thank you so much for tackling this topic. Graphic depictions of sin and/or its effects can be a knotty subject, but it is truly important to discuss. And reading the comments section afterward has been almost as good as the article itself!

    ~The Philologist

    1. A great thing to wrestle out together. I, too, enjoyed the comment section, and thanks for chiming in as well! :)


  5. I enjoyed this post, and had to laugh at your description of Acrasia as "rather forward"! By the way, how is your reading in Spenser going? Have you read Book III yet?

    I think we've all done a fair bit of thinking on this topic. I think I would agree with you in most part in theory, but my application would be a bit broader. I think the world is a rough and tumble place, and being able to deal with it can be a sign of maturity. For instance, it might be a bad idea for any un-self-controlled teenager to read Spenser. But a more mature person would be able to read these things and take Spenser's point, without missing the point and being enticed...

    There are so many sides to this question. For instance, I was once discussing Shakespeare with my mother, trying to figure out why he could descend to such (what would seem to us today) vulgarity. But then I think how accustomed his audience was to, for example, seeing mothers nursing (the feeding blanket is a very recent invention), living in close proximity with animals, families living together in one-roomed houses their whole life long--to say nothing of how much more worried everyone was back then about legitimacy--and what with one thing and another, it seems more reasonable that such matters would be much less hush-hush than they are today...

    On the other hand, there is a kind of jadedness that comes from reading, for example, too much Dumas. Affairs! Adulteries! Assassinations! We can accustom ourselves to the shocking as well as to the natural, healthy, and God-given...and that can derange our ability to discern what might be a problem and what might not be.

    I conclude that the Lord probably intends us to become accustomed to natural and healthy acts. If not, He'd never have given us the Song of Solomon...or the literal meaning of, for example, 2 Kings 9:8. Not so much as to speak of nothing else, but certainly not to be overly delicate about such matters.

    I do, I think, disagree with your feeling that the passages in (eg) Ezekiel were OK for God to write but not for us. The Lord gave us these passages so that we could learn to think of these things the same way He does. And that doesn't mean we don't think of them at all, or never speak of them. It looks to me as though the Lord wants us to become accustomed to a certain way of thinking and speaking of unnatural acts as well, rather than remain unaccustomed to either thinking or speaking of them. And the way we should think of and speak of them is with fierce and satirical horror.

    Thus far my rambling and hurried thoughts!

    1. Spenser is coming along rather slowly, but I am partway through Book 3, and just started that last month. I'm hoping to review it sometime this year, if I can finish it. :)

      There is a good level in being comfortable with, as you said, 'natural and healthy acts'. And to some extent, when I read it properly done in books, I don't mind it--take James Herriot for instance, who writes mostly about vet work with animals. You get a lot of mating and birthing information along with it, and Herriot gives a lot of detail, but he's fine.

      Probably a lot of people's comfort level depends in part on what they've been used to--if you live on a farm where animals are reproducing, you're much more likely not to think twice about it with animals or with people, either. On the other hand, if you live in an area where you're constantly bombarded with sexual immorality--at the mall, in the magazine aisle, etc.--then you may be more sensitive to mentions of it in books simply due to the atmosphere in which you live.

      On the one hand, we don't need to be like Alice Wendlekin in Best Christmas Pageant Ever, who says "My mother doesn't like me to talk about Mary [mother of Jesus] being pregnant, especially in church." Obviously, there are some subjects it's perfectly appropriate to discuss. :)

      I dealt more with my thoughts on the Ezekiel passages in today's posts, and I would be interested to know what you think on them. :) Thanks for chiming in! I always appreciate your viewpoint, and it helps me expand my own. :)

  6. Schuyler, this is a great post series and I am so glad you have actually addressed this issue as I have been mulling it around for a while both in relation to my choice of reading material and into the borderlines of ethics and morality and depiction of sin I should present in my writing as a vivid backdrop to God's grace and righteousness at work in humanity. I have, for instance grapled with this question in regarding my WW2 novel. Jane is a character of virtue, in her desire to follow Christ in His love and godly life - but she also has a clash with her cousin Amelia, an independent, rebellious, hurt young woman. . . and I kind of balked when I realized where her (Amelia) actions would take her- namely lead to immorality. I have definitely not wished to write such a thing, or take my character down that route. . . however I have come to feel that whitewashing the element of evil is not an option either, but rather pointing to sin as to what it is - "SIN" in an age that has grown callous to immorality, and adultery would show in contrast the saving power of God's grace and the purity and beautiful goodness of living an upright and godly life - the goodness of godly marriages and family. I am not sure at all that I have the courage to write these themes into my novel - I know I would only mention, in perhaps the same manner that Jane Austen did with P&P and Lydia, Wickham with little detail. Allong with this feeling that I need to write this, through research I have found strong elements in the Australian War Front where there was morality issues with the coming of the million American soldiers with General MacArthur to Australia's shores. . . that along with the general direction of the plot and characters all seem to point in allowing, briefly, a place for the depiction of sinfulness and the consequences of going that path - and also the final mercy and redemptive grace of our Lord. But it is scary!! I have been thinking about it and praying but also trying to forget about that point in the story: this series of yours brought it to the forefront of my mind! What do you think? Perhaps you would be willing if I discussed it with you in an email sometime!

    I appreciate, though that we both have similar views about the issues of morality in stories especially when we were/are younger. That was just like me when you mentioned as a younger girl any story with a bad character who does wrong things means the novel is bad to read! I (and my parents) held the same view of evaluating a book, for us when we were young, growing up. And I am really grateful I was not exposed to some of the more mature novels and classics until I was older. However, once you are older in faith and maturity I think there comes a time when you need to read books with a more clear view of the world, evil and goodness, books to "shock you out of apathy" as you put it. . . because the older you are, you will hear and encounter those things in your life and struggle with seeing all this evil and sin and books that deal with them in a praiseworthy, edyfing or challenging way is very important I believe. I confess I am still very cautious, and I shrink from readimg books with too many shock factors especially dealing with marriage/immorality (I think I can bear up a little more with violence and poverty/social issues though!)- but I really believe, when well written, they are vital to the depiction of faith and grace. As Paul wrote, "where sin abounded, grace abounded much more". I think the thing that makes me accept and sometimes appreciate when an author depicts wrongdoing and evil as evil and sinful. . . for what it truly is, and then takes a right response with it in the actions of the characters, with the displaying of justice, repentance, mercy and grace and final redemption (or destruction).

    This is a really fascinating topic, Schuyler and I really enjoyed these two posts and the things you shared clearly both from God's Word and from examples in literature on this.

    - Joy <3

    1. I'm so glad this post was timely for you! It certainly struck a chord with me, and I'm glad to see that it has with many of my readers as well. Yes, how much of those elements to include in a book can be very challenging, and definitely something that must be wrestled through in prayer, seeking God's wisdom. But especially when we're writing history, it would be false to gloss over all the bad and put only the shining good, for even God did not do that with the history of His Word.

      My book is set during WWI, and I originally had a plot line that I removed for its thematic elements. But in the rewriting, I've put in several things that I never expected or intended originally. However, they were put in purposefully, and I put great thought into them before I did.

      I would be most happy to chat over some of these things with you by email, if you'd like to drop me a line! :)

      I think with young readers it's wise to build them up with what's true and right, so that they have a strong foundation, and are not introduced to heavy baggage to soon. It's like Papa Ten Boom in The Hiding Place, telling Corrie that he will 'carry the suitcase' for her until she's old enough to handle it herself. That's a principle my dad has used many times.

      But then, when they are older, it can be helpful to introduce them to some of these themes and elements through literature. Then they can play 'War Games', as Suzannah's new book says, and wrestle through how to think and respond to these issues before they are hit with them in real life.

      Evil must be punished. Grace must be offered. Redemption must be accepted or rejected. And when coupled with those things, shock elements can be used in a dominion manner instead of just for the fun of it.


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