Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Shock Value in Literature (Part Two)

*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 fa├žade.

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. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Every author has a point to prove, only some will go about it a little more gently. ;) I loved reading this series and hearing all the feedback you got! :D It was an interesting subject to mull over...I did skim a couple parts in this post, btw. ;)
    What would you suggest doing when you don't know the author's worldview? Because some authors we don't know a lot about their personal life. I guess you would probably try to figure it out by their story and how they handle the shock element. I like your point about looking at the people the author (or God in Scripture) was writing to, and judging accordingly. Because of their different backgrounds, some people may need a different level of shock than others, and it's always best to read a book at your comfort level.

    Anyway, this was such a fun series and I enjoyed it very much! :)

    1. Some authors have more chutzpah than others in the detail they include, and levels of comfort certainly differ among authors and writers. :)

      Thank-you for your feedback on this series as well! I would say if you don't know the author's worldview you can always do a quick Wikipedia skim; most authors are on there. But if they aren't, then you look for indications from the characters on ideas such as 'works vs. grace' 'nature vs. God', 'select vs. universal salvation', etc. You also look at the author's system of rewarding and punishing their character's actions. Their sense of justice and morality gives a huge indication into their worldview.


  2. A great follow-up post, Schuyler from your last one! I totally agree about in reading the Bible that it is with Divine inspiration written so that a child may read all and understand God's love, but also as adults God convicts us of our sin and the depravity of the human heart through such passages that sometimes can really shock and appal you. . . growing up I actually did not read some of those passages in Scripture in Judges and such, though upon the occasions I did read them I came away with only a better understanding of the repulsiveness of sin and God's holy hatred of it, and of His great love and forgiveness for us who are so wicked and unholy. The truth is we live in a fallen world - God's Word does not cover up on the darkness of this world or in the weaknesses and failings of His own children - but then in the darkness the Light of Christ shines like the greatest, brightest, most glorious Beacon!!

    Now these days we so trivialize sin and excuse the sinner before we even touch on God's work, that Grace and Heavenly mercy is so cheapened and . . . ineffectual. God forbid that we should ever think lightly of sin - our sin cost our Lord His own blood!

    That is why I agree with you. . . it is wrong to put shock-value scenes, immorality or gory violence for the mere sake of drama and entertainment. That would lead us to be dulled by sin as this culture actually is. It has to be depicted gravely, with fear and trembling and much prayer. . . and the same goes with reading it.

    I will always love what is wholesome, true, beautiful and lovely and of good report! Yet I understand that there is sin and evil in this world and in our own hearts and God often has to jerk us out of our foolish, foolish apathy. He does so through His Word, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, through examples of the past in history and through the parables of the Prodigal Son!

    1. I think I was around 8 or 9 when I first read through the whole Bible. :) And even when we were wee things our Dad skipped a couple of chapters until we got older. :)

      So glad you enjoyed the follow up post, and I especially appreciated the one sentence where you said sin must be depicted gravely. That's an excellent way to word it, and very true.

      And I very much enjoyed joining in on your blog party today! :)


  3. By the by, last Thursday, my blog, Fullness of Joy had its 3rd birthday :). To celebrate the event, I am hosting a blog-party of "special magnificence" throughout the week, and as a cherry-top icing a fun giveaway for three winners to end it all. It will be a week long tag series, with every day or so I'll be making different literary-themed topic tags. . . which everyone is invited to join in! I DEARLY HOPE YOU DO JOIN IN 'cause it will make me so happy and should prove to be fun I think!

    Today's topic is "Historical Classics" :)


  4. Thank you again for an insightful article, Schuyler. I especially appreciated the time you took to talk through the graphic parts of Scripture and the reasons for them. That must have taken some thought and prayer.
    I liked the bit you quoted from Dickens: "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...."
    To use the "inference" of evil rather than to "prove it elaborately" is good advice for writers.

    the Philologist

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the follow-through article. :) I must give some credit to my brother, for his comment and the Lord's inspiration put me on that line of thought, and helped me think through a deeper defense of my thoughts.



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