*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. :)