*Young readers are advised that the following article discusses shock value in literature, including sex and violence, and they may wish to have an older adult check it out first.*
Welcome back, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to part two in our series on Shock Value in Literature. If you haven't read Part One, you can catch up here. I must say, the discussion in the comments has been wonderful, and you've all brought up different aspects and perspectives which I've immensely enjoyed reading. Thanks so much for joining in!
I originally wrote this series as one post, but it grew to such a length that I split it into two. So here we pick up at point number four....
4. Look at the author's boundary lines.
When evaluating whether or not a book crosses the wrong line with shock value, it's important to look at the author's boundary line. Maybe the characters had an affair. Do we need all the details? Maybe a murderer slit his victim's throat. Do we need descriptions of the red gash from ear to ear? Or, even more than the actions, dig into the character's thought processes. In one of Agatha Christie's novels, the first person narrator of the story turned out to be the murderer, and after reading it, I really didn't have to know how a murderer thought to know that a murder is wrong.
I'm not setting specific rules here of how much blood or how many kisses can be given before the boundary line is crossed. That's simply not in Scripture, and it would be legalistic of me to do so. But one must ask, what is a proper boundary line, and what will my reaction be if it is crossed?
For instance, take the Song of Solomon. Some people groan when that book is mentioned, other people blush. Some parents won't let their children read it at all, and others give free reign. Personally, when I started reading the whole Bible I read the whole Bible. All of it. Even Song of Solomon and a few other explicit passages. And my parents found for my brother and I, that we understood those passages according to our age. Song of Solomon is wrapped up in poetic language and imagery, and while now I understand much more of it than I did at eight or nine, I still don't get the full extent of it. In other words, the Lord wrote the only book in the Bible on sex and marriage in such a way that it didn't cross the boundary line into a crass and explicit description of the wedding night. Some of it the reader understands through prior knowledge and inference, and not just what the lines say at face value.
The same principle holds true with good authors--classic authors. They'll write their social messages in such a way that it's grasped on different levels according to abilities to understand. Compare and contrast Victor Hugo's Fantine and Charles Dickens' Nancy for a moment. With Fantine, we know she's a prostitute. Hugo says so. She lives in the streets, she sells herself, and she makes no disguise of it. Hugo, thankfully, never goes into excessive detail on the matter, and never writes scenes where she's plying her trade, but still, it's there. Nancy, in Oliver Twist, plys the same trade. You know she's a street girl. But never once is the word prostitute mentioned, and if you read the book aloud to children, (which, please don't) most of them would simply think of her as Bill Sykes' girlfriend. Neither author offered a sinful amount of detail, but one chose the subtle route and the other chose the straightforward one. And personally, I like a book whose shock value can be understood by the reader bringing knowledge to it themselves, rather than the author spelling out everything.
Here's Dickens again on Oliver Twist:
I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream....I endeavored, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspect, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could by possibility offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. ~The Author's Introduction to the Third Edition (1841)
That's a wise way to handle degradation. Shock yes, but shock by inference and it won't be necessary to 'prove it elaborately by words and deeds'.
While I don't like Jane Kirkpatrick's feminist character in Emma of Aurora, I chose to keep the book so I could glean from some of Kirkpatrick's writing techniques, specifically in how she handles personal information. She talks about childbirth, husband and wife relationships, pregnancy, and all the surrounding aspects of that in her books without being crude or explicit. She's clear, and yet appropriate at the same time. I would probably never give her book to guys, and yet she's an author who can write about the messy and sometimes personal aspects of childbearing and marriage while still keeping within appropriate boundaries. Her books don't contain these elements for the purpose of shock value, but I use them as an example of how fiction can be written with clear, but not inappropriate detail.
*This next paragraph young readers may wish to skip.
Sex, however, is different from violence. If you're reading a war story, you should be reading about blood, wounds, death, and executions. Again, it all comes down to how much detail is necessary to get the point across. Take Washington Spies, for instance, an excellent book about Washington's spy ring in the Revolution. I loved the book, and it gave a clear and accurate portrayal of history. But again, there was one point where the shock value passed too far. It's okay to talk about a man being hung. But writing a detailed essay on how exactly to draw the noose isn't something the average reader needs to know. I skipped that part.
5. Look at Scripture in its Context
Here's where we might get a little controversial, but bear with me and I'll see if I can state this clearly. :) When God authored Scripture, he divinely chose to use different 'genres' if you will within the inspired, inerrant context. We have poetry, history, law, prophecy, and yes--even parables, or 'fiction with a point'. That being said, every Christian reader should bring their reading diet into accordance with the principles of Scripture without taking Scripture out of its intended context.
For instance, take Leviticus. It has straightforward speaking on a variety of sexual laws and women's health issues. Frankly, a lot of the chapters are embarrassing to read aloud. But Leviticus is not fiction, nor is it intended as a guide to writing the next breakout novel; it's a health and sanitation manual. It's not meant to be a indication of how much detail to put about sexuality in fictional stories, but rather a how-to guide for real-life health for the Israelites.
Again, take Judges 19-21, a very lurid section in Scripture on rape, etc. That's not fiction. That's history, and history should not be sanitized or 'cleaned up', but portrayed honestly and accurately. In historical research and biographies you can't cover up details, and lots of people in real life did plenty of bad things. This principle breaks down a little when it comes to Ezekiel. The passages about Israel's prostitution were historical, but they were also allegorical, and while they weren't fictional, I would understand if some people say God 'fictionalized' the account to confront Israel. However, again I would argue that in using this account as a framework, the intended audience is key to understand why God used it. He used that story to confront complete pagans there: and if an author is writing a story to convict a pagan prostitute, than maybe they'll need that kind of detail. But if they're writing to a primarily Christian audience, who have not participated in prostitution, then the detail should understandably be different.
You might think "Well, God included it in Scripture for me to read, so why are you saying it was only for a pagan audience?" Good question. God didn't just include those parables by themselves as 'stories' for us to read. He tells us what the intended audience was like, why he had to use those allegories, and what the after result was. The account is meant to be taken as a whole story of the fall of Israel, with the parables included as a part of that process, not just Ezekiel 16 and 23 as stories by themselves. God includes these accounts in Scripture to show us just how far he had to go to confront the Israelites with their sin. His purpose was not just to be shocking for shocking's sake, but lift the skirts of Israel and expose their lewdness so they could not hide their wickedness behind a façade.
There are some times, obviously, when shock value is not appropriate. I don't think children's stories need rape attempts and drug abuse to warn them away from those things in the same way that an adult audience might. Novels on people who struggle with homosexuality, victims of sex trade, or victims of child abuse may have their proper place (I've talked to people who wrote them and they have a Dickensian dream of reform through stories.) But again, the same principles of proper boundaries apply, and these stories are not for entertainment, and written to reach a very specific audience.
If it's just 'fun' to the author to shock people, then they're working from the wrong direction. But if they have a purpose, if they are like the prophets of Israel reaching a callous people who will not listen, then it's fair to listen respectfully to the point they're trying to make.
As one last note, while authors may have legitimate reasons for including shocking content, whether of violence or immorality, it does not necessarily follow that every reader needs all the details. Some readers may require more shock to get the point the author's trying to make. Others may not need much at all. So if you're one who blushes easily, then don't feel like you have to violate your feelings to get the full integrity of the story. It's okay to skim.
There were a few passages in Spenser I read over very lightly. I can't do that with Scripture, because all Scripture is God-breathed and perfect. But I think a lot of us would secretly admit that had we had the writing of it, we would have used a little less detail on occasion. :)
Thus concludes this series on Shock Value in Literature. I have enjoyed thinking through this topic with all of you; thanks so much for reading and joining in. :)