Be careful for what you wish for...

Venusian Broon

Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity
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I will apologise in advance for what is a bit of a long ramble - but it is closely linked to writing

Over a month ago I finally flipped my 'Imperial Septim of chance' to decide what my next primary project was going to be, my current WIP in the 'editing and sending out to Beta's at the moment' stage. It came up Dragons so it is now 'The Singing Star' (most definitely just a working title.)

A lot of the plot was already in place, but as I went over it again a new piece - an epiphany - hit me. Something was going to happen to a main character in her childhood, that was going to have a direct consequence on her right at the end.

The event at the start was sexual abuse - or at least someone was going to attempt to sexually abuse her.

I was going to say that I wasn't going to dwell on such things- the event would take place 'off stage' - and the plot mechanic that I came up with was not a clichéd 'She gets her revenge' story line (although there is retribution on other levels. Too complicated to explain here.) But the plot point - I've not revealed it all - makes loads of sense to the story and the society that my characters were in (an overgrown and wild penal colony type world) would make things like child sexual and physical abuse endemic. My writing style, I suppose, is to have a degree of realism about what humanity is likely to be and capable of - both positive and negative.

But also I was going to say that I instantly also had a knot of disquiet about having this. Partly this was because - fundamentally I was writing a piece of entertainment - can you square something so dark as child sexual abuse and the consequences of such things on characters in later life with a good read? Some would say you can't. And perhaps I would gloss over it too much and therefore portray it in a too simplistic or wrong-headed manner. Also I have never experienced any abuse personally - although I have occasionally stumbled across the occasional dark moments with friends - it is not something that is generally talked about.

So I was thinking hard about this. I thought it would also make a good serious topic amongst us writers on how to approach really difficult subjects, and what other published writers have done.

Now I'm not religious, so no gods/god, but being Fortean I do think there's something in like a 'Cosmic Joker': a higher power who is responsible for twists of fate and acts upon his victims at the most opportune or inopportune times.

I had jury service. So I put the above posting on hold and did my duty.

I got a nine day trial. I shall not give many details but in summary it was a historic child sex abuse case, daughter accusing the father of multiple rapes when she was ~12 in the early 1970's. It was only after the case had finished (we returned on guilty verdict on one rape charge btw) that I realised just how tough those two weeks had been on me. My conscious and moral centre is clear on my decision, but it was a traumatic experience overall emotionally, so I've been keeping my head down and just thinking and talking it through. But god knows what the family had and will go through because of all this - it was one of these cases where really no answer or verdict was going to 'solve' anything.

So I got some insight into child abuse - when it happens in real life today - and it's made that knot of disquiet tighter, more complicated and larger. It will make me think even more carefully about what I'm putting into this story.


Anyway I would really appreciate any thoughts that this essay has generated in the good folks here at Chrons.

----------------------------------------------

P.S. While I was waiting about in the Jury room I had a few books to read, one was Stephen King's The Shining. Frankly the most horrific chapter in it for me is not the supernatural creatures and goings-on in the Overlook hotel, but the chapter where we get inside Jack's mind as he breaks Danny's arm - a graphic example of actually showing child abuse. Also I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo on the telly for the first time - again packed with child abuse...
 
We write about awful things, all of us (pretty much). We write about murder and self-sacrifice and mutilation and abuse. Because, I guess, some of the big questions in the world live right there, in the big tensions and the awful things.

The problem with writing child abuse isn't even that it's so awful, necessarily. It's maybe that it's so obvious how we feel about it. Can you have ambiguous child abuse? (well, Lolita and The End of Alice, but they're told from the abuser's point of view). Is there any doubt but that it's a Bad Thing? Strikes me that this is the case with rape too, and it's a reason we should be careful with both -- they're one thing. Bad. And they can't really be anything else (or if you're going to write that kind of book it probably concentrates on that question).

Having said that (forgive the rambling), write it. If it would happen in your world, it would happen. You've thought about it. You're not using it casually. Write it.

[Just out of interest, when I was a child I remember hearing my parents discussing a legal case they'd been told of by a lawyer friend. A young girl in a village in West Lothian had accused her father of sexual abuse after her mother's death. There was no question about what he'd done. The villagers were appalled and disgusted. How dare this child complain about something that was just her duty? That was in the 70s, I think.]
 
I hear you, VB. While we're outraged to hear about the sexploitation of children, historically it appears to have been the norm.

The difficulty in accepting that in writing is knowing how to balance acknowledging it, and showing it.
 
One thing that occurs to me is that if any kind of abuse is endemic in society, it's probably not considered abuse within that society, not by the vast majority, anyway, who simply accept it. Think of how FGM is considered by those who perform it, and I'm pretty sure that there are tribes (?in S America??) which require boys to fellate the older men so they can swallow the semen in order to become men themselves. It isn't considered wrong by those involved, and indeed the boys are treated as on the verge of being men so are proud of what they've done/have had done to them.

To a lesser extent there's also the rape of young girls on Pitcairn and the Asian men grooming the girls in Rotherham and elsewhere. The perpetrators feel they are justified or entitled, and an awful lot of other people in their communities evidently agreed with them. And if a child is brought up with it, the child will also think it's normal. Therefore you might have to write a scene where the protagonist begins to realise it was wrong. And even then, not every victim of child sex abuse is permanently damaged.

I'm not going for moral relativism here, and I don't mean to imply you should be any kind of apologist for rapists, but if you're writing about the society you have to present it as part of that society and not imply that only the baddies do it, if that makes sense. The child rapists, after all, may be good and honourable men in many other respects, just as many otherwise good and honourable men owned slaves when slave-owning was prevalent, and they didn't see anything wrong with it.
 
It is a very heavy subject, but one that should get more 'air time'. It is so prevalent in the world, and not just in third-world nations...it happens a lot everywhere. It's sad that people need to keep it quiet, or behind closed doors because of what ever they feel. Shame is common, and no one who has been abused should feel shame. Society should not look at victims and give them anything but support.

I am starting a chapter in my book, where a sixteen year old girl is brought to the MC's cemetery for her funeral. She was found hung, and they chalked it up to suicide. The catch is my MC can speak with select spirits who linger after their deaths, and she is going to learn that the girl was actually choked by her step-father after she was in the process of being assaulted by him. He then set it up to look like suicide. With help from Detective Hamblin, and a little sleuthing, she will make sure the ******* gets his. So I am using it as well, and more often than not, abuse is done from family members. I am sad to say that I know and have known more victims than I would have thought possible. It is prevalent and I say show it and talk about it. It isn't something that needs to be swept under the carpet and hidden behind closed doors.
 
Um, it's tough. People get very emotive about evil things happening to kids. My advice? Get some very, very good betas from a wide spectrum, including some parents (not because we know more but we do know the crawling fear of something happening and how we might respond less than rationally) if you can, I think. But, as ever - it's in how you execute it... :)
 
if any kind of abuse is endemic in society, it's probably not considered abuse within that society, not by the vast majority, anyway, who simply accept it

Absolutely right, but it's difficult to make a protagonist sympathetic if we see them engage in activities that may be realistic for the setting, but abhorrent to the modern audience. A few authors have gone there.
 
The thin line to tread is writing about such things with honesty and respect. I have complete confidence, from how you phrased the question, that you'll be able to do just that. It should not appear that the writer just plucked "awful things" out of a hat as a cheap short-hand for a character's angst.
 
@The Judge - loads of excellent points and gives me plenty of food for thought on what will be happening on this planet.

My angle to cut through the moral relativism side of things s that the MC's are part of the remnants of an all-female order banished to this penal colony only a short time before he novel starts. This work is in the same universe as my current WiP and I openly have stated it was a homage to some extent to Dune among other SF works - so one of the literary fore-mothers of this order are of course the Bene Gesserit, to give you a rough idea of where I'm coming from.

Hence they will perceive a great deal of what is happening on the world as abuse (especially to them as they have fallen from power), and as we are getting the story basically through their eyes, the reader should see that too.

@Denise Tanaka many thanks for your confidence - I only hope I can deliver!
 
The event at the start was sexual abuse - or at least someone was going to attempt to sexually abuse her.

I was going to say that I wasn't going to dwell on such things- the event would take place 'off stage' - and the plot mechanic that I came up with was not a clichéd 'She gets her revenge' story line

P.S. While I was waiting about in the Jury room I had a few books to read, one was Stephen King's The Shining. Frankly the most horrific chapter in it for me is not the supernatural creatures and goings-on in the Overlook hotel, but the chapter where we get inside Jack's mind as he breaks Danny's arm - a graphic example of actually showing child abuse. Also I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo on the telly for the first time - again packed with child abuse...

This is problematic on so many levels. It's not just the 'she gets revenge' that's cliched at this point, it's the whole abused child, rape, sexploitation thing in general that's thoroughly overplayed. To the point where we have writers throwing out rapes like candy without any real sense of consequence or impact. Or the other side of the coin is the very cliche you're trying to avoid, where the abuse is the inciting incident and leads to the entire plot of the story. It's a severely traumatic event in a person's life and it's so often used as a cheap device. I'd say don't do it, avoid this cliche like the plague. Write something better than that.

I hear you, VB. While we're outraged to hear about the sexploitation of children, historically it appears to have been the norm.

The difficulty in accepting that in writing is knowing how to balance acknowledging it, and showing it.

Historical norms are irrelevant. It's fiction. Readers only complain about historical norms when they go against what they want in fiction, and only cite historical norms when they want to see something in fiction.

Absolutely right, but it's difficult to make a protagonist sympathetic if we see them engage in activities that may be realistic for the setting, but abhorrent to the modern audience. A few authors have gone there.

Same with historical norms above. 'Realism' is problematic. Readers of fiction don't want realism, they want realism that caters to their whims. Every piece of fiction is unrealistic on far more levels than any piece of fiction has ever been realistic. Simply having a coherent plot is largely unrealistic, yet it's not complained about because that makes the fiction more readable. People will come up with any and every excuse they can to support the things they personally enjoy or attack the things they don't personally enjoy in fiction. Realism is a hollow argument. Andy Warhol's Four Stars was realistic, but that doesn't make it interesting or watchable or particularly good fiction. And even that was only a tiny slice or realism.
 
It's not just the 'she gets revenge' that's cliched at this point, it's the whole abused child, rape, sexploitation thing in general that's thoroughly overplayed. To the point where we have writers throwing out rapes like candy without any real sense of consequence or impact. Or the other side of the coin is the very cliche you're trying to avoid, where the abuse is the inciting incident and leads to the entire plot of the story. It's a severely traumatic event in a person's life and it's so often used as a cheap device. I'd say don't do it, avoid this cliche like the plague. Write something better than that.

That's ok then, I'm not doing anything you mention on either side of the coin. Something different.
 
So your child rape as plot device is different. Good?

To be honest I wasn't going as far as rape in the plot at all, in fact I was probably going to limit it to an attempt made to abuse her...but then something else happens that stops it.

The child rape I mentioned was the actual trial I was Jury foreman on a few weeks back.
 
Off-topic, but I do like your new avatar, VB. I sort of miss Mr Bowie, though.

I'd noticed that avatar being used by others that weren't me (on other forums) - so I determined to find a new one for 2000+ posts

Although perhaps he might make a guest appearance for special months or numbers of posts :)
 
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Readers of fiction don't want realism, they want realism that caters to their whims.

Absolutely, though I'd say more sensibilities. It can be hard for us to handle character POVs that are morally diverse from us. For example, child prostitution has been common through history, but god forbid if any author writers a paedophile protagonist.

I suspect you're not the sort of person who really wants to read about morally objectionable protagonists, by modern standards. :)
 
Absolutely, though I'd say more sensibilities. It can be hard for us to handle character POVs that are morally diverse from us. For example, child prostitution has been common through history,

Again, people only mention this when it's in support of something they want to see. They never mention what's common through history when it doesn't appeal to them personally. Rampant disease, absurdly short lifespans, lack of any education, physical disfigurement, untreated mental illness, lack of sanitation, and various things that are so abhorrent that they would be censored from this 'family friendly' forum... yet none of those are argued for as historically accurate or as adding realism. Funny that.

but god forbid if any author writers a paedophile protagonist.

Morally reprehensible characters make for piss-poor protagonists. There's nothing sympathetic about a person who rapes children. If you are sympathetic to the plight of paedophiles, good luck to you.

I suspect you're not the sort of person who really wants to read about morally objectionable protagonists, by modern standards. :)

Writers write what they want to explore; create worlds they want to see come to life (in the sense of become more real, more fleshed out). Readers read what they want to explore; inhabit worlds they want to escape to. No part of writing or reading fiction including paedophiles as the good guys or the rape of children appeals to me on any level. If that kind of thing appeals to you, that's your... preference, but don't try to justify that preference as somehow logical or right. Again, there's a whole lot of abjectly abhorrent and terrible things that we can find in history, many of which are too gruesome and graphic to talk about here, yet, magically, none of them are being argued for. Why? Because there's no appeal in reading about those myriad atrocities, yet some people will gleefully read and write about the wanton rape of women and children.

Even if you're playing the devil's advocate here, Brian, arguing for the artistic merit of paedophilia it pretty ****ing atrocious. If you honestly think that kind of sh*t is good or worthwhile then just go ahead and delete my account, because I don't want anything to do with a place run by someone who honestly thinks paedophilia is a valid topic for art.
 
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Rampant disease, absurdly short lifespans, lack of any education, physical disfigurement, untreated mental illness, lack of sanitation, and various things that are so abhorrent that they would be censored from this 'family friendly' forum... yet none of those are argued for as historically accurate or as adding realism. Funny that.

All of those things have been discussed here previously as welcome topics to be explored in fantasy fiction, and some books are focused on these very issues (Connis Willis comes to mind immediately as the Black Death was the focus in one of her many award-winning novels).

None of those issues would go against being "family friendly", so I find that argument of yours somewhat strange.

I am also confused by your general argument - on the one hand my reading is that you appear to lament the lack of "realism" in fiction, and make the complaint that "Readers of fiction don't want realism, they want realism that caters to their whims" - and then go on to agree that you you only want fiction that caters to 21st century liberal ideals.

What point are you actually trying to make?

EDIT: Are you trying to say:

a) fiction should avoid covering any subjects or situations that might make a modern reader uncomfortable, even if there's an historical precedent

b) fiction should aim to cover subjects or situations that might make a modern reader uncomfortable, if there's an historical precedent
 
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We all draw our lines in the sand and the point is a philosophical one anyway.

VB has already said he's not using child rape, but the suggestion/threat of it - played offscreen as well.

I can think of plenty of times I have read a book and been challenged by the dreadful 'atrocities' inside but as far as my sensibilities go, I think it would be a cop out to put the book down. But that's me, I wouldn't have a problem with others balking at my level of tolerance in art, and I certainly wouldn't be happy with anyone putting words in my mouth or extrapolating it to mean I'm advocating paedophilia, rape, etc etc.

Moses, Citizen and Me is a chilling yet beautiful tale of the child soldiers in Sierra Leone's war of the 90s; Stephen King's It concludes with a load of kids having sex with the one girl in the group, and his novel's are frequently accented with child abuse. The Library Policeman, for example, has quite a graphic description of the boy MC being raped in the bushes; These things pretty much beyond the pale and I had trouble reading and accepting it, but I had no problem with the man who wrote it. Or why he wrote it.

My final point is writing about these things can help people process or deal with certain traumas; In 2009, after the movie Precious came out, I saw plenty of Afro-Caribbean kids in my classes and on the tube reading the novel Push (on which it was based). Bearing in mind I work with marginalised kids who more often than not come from broken or dysfunctional homes, etc, it was clear that reading a story of another illiterate child who was subject to violence, sexual and mental abuse, was morbidly obese, has a Down Syndrome first child as a result of being raped by her father (which happens twice), was giving them something. I'm pretty sure it wasn't entertainment they were getting.

Like I said, it is a philosophical point and the human condition is forever to be plumbed.

pH
 

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