Touching the taboos ~ an essential part of novel development or jumping on the bandwagon?

Touching the taboos ~ an essential part of novel development or jumping on the bandwagon?

At first glance at the literary and creative world it might seem as though there are no taboos left. The recent explosion of literary erotica seems to show that there are few inhibitions left among both writers and readers. Yet it doesn’t seem long ago when the freedom to write about taboo subjects was threatened by certain financial institutions who will remain nameless. That battle was won; literary freedom was maintained.

So what then is a taboo? A quick trawl of the internet will give you a little to go on:

a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing: many taboos have developed around physical exposurethe use of violence must remain a taboo in our society[mass noun]: Freud applies his notion of taboo in three ways

a practice that is prohibited or restricted in this way: speaking about sex is a taboo in his country”

It’s very clear that taboos are a kind of moveable feast, something that shifts and changes according to time and place. Until quite recently in the UK, talking about sex was very much frowned upon, and it’s this that gave us Brits our reputation for being uptight and repressed. This week I sat on a train and listened to a businesswoman on the phone to a chum, talking in some detail about the sex lives of mutual acquaintances. There’s change for you. I squirmed. It wasn’t so much the vague, salacious details that bothered me but the fact that she was sharing them on such a public forum as a very busy train!

The taboos of a country are not fixed and immutable but are slowly fluid. As we change, so do they. Death is possibly one of the most fixed of them in my culture; people seem to feel talking about it will bring the attention of the Grim reaper before their time.

Bookshops often have a whole section of books that are referred rather scathingly as Misery Memoirs, or Mis-Mems, row upon row of heartbreaking covers with emotive titles, each someone’s harrowing tale of abuse. These are big sellers, and I hope that greater awareness of the issues they highlight might be the result of their publication.

When I launched my new novel The Bet a week or two back, a friend on Twitter commented about the timing. That week there had been a case of a school girl running away to France with her teacher. Now one of the central plot themes of The Bet was an incident where a teacher made the moves on a teenage pupil. I wrote the novel some years ago, and I’d set the launch date months before the teacher-pupil affair became headline news. My timing for the release was pure coincidence. My Twitter chum saw it as good timing, in that the subject was topical and powerful.

But the novel was not written with that taboo in mind. I did not think one day, “let’s write a novel about….”. The process was far more nebulous, unplanned, and touching taboos deliberately was the furthest thing from my mind. Put simply, it was how the story revealed itself to me. It’s also not the scenario that you might choose if you were bandwagon-jumping to try to be topical. This was a female teacher making the moves on a vulnerable boy who has somehow caught her eye and piqued her vanity because he’s not interested in her.

It’s far from the only taboo in the book. Death, birth, child abuse, domestic tyranny and violence, suicide and severe mental illness all emerge as the story unfolds. They’re needed by the story itself. They’re not there because I decided to put them there, like ingredients for a cupcake mix. I don’t even cook by recipes; I make it up as I go along, letting myself be inspired by what comes to mind.

When it comes to reading matter, people generally find that stories where the challenges faced by the characters are mundane, everyday ones, the effect is one of blandness. They’re unchallenging. They don’t engage you with any emotional tugs, that frantic willing-on for the main character. Books like that tend to be rather meh! But a book that dares to touch on certain taboos risks being branded as sensationalist, of jumping on a bandwagon to gain more visibility.

Shortly after my book came out, there has also be a very high profile scandal about a now deceased celebrity, accused posthumously of a series of serious sexual crimes against young girls. If someone had used this premise as a plot for a novel, BEFORE this hit the headlines, I suspect it would have been treated as unbelievable, while the truth that unfolds day by day proves horribly believable and sickening. Accounts of this will be appearing for months, if not years, after the initial reports emerged, but to be honest, if a writer later chooses to use this terrible story as a basis for a novel(ie fiction), then to me that would be an attempt to cash in on the misery of others. (I do not include those who write accounts of what happened to them. That’s different)

My thoughts are simply that if a novel demands that you explore taboos, then don your pith helmet and get on with it. But if it’s done to fit in with a Zeitgeist or a movement or a fixation with celebrity misdemeanours, or because it may make the novel saleable, then I believe the effects may be other than expected. A novel that delves into psychologically dark areas can be very different depending on how it developed. One that has deliberately used those dark things as devices will perhaps seem far less real and powerful than one where the dark has bloomed of it’s own volition. And I know which I prefer to read…

4 thoughts on “Touching the taboos ~ an essential part of novel development or jumping on the bandwagon?

  1. Well said. It seems to me that if a novel intentionally avoids subjects that might offend the sensibilities of some, then it intentionally avoids reality, where our sensibilities are offended with regularity.


    • I’m all for facing reality, Bill.
      I think you make an excellent point. Some time ago, an author of my acquaintance was looking for books that were *feel good* to list monthly as book of the month in a blog. I suggested one of mine, Away With the Fairies and was told “Oh that’s far too grim, people won’t want to read that, about the poor deer being hit by a car!” and I was gobsmacked when she accepted a murder mystery for the blog. For some, fiction can come too close to harsh reality and they’d rather stick to sweet, nice fantasy-like make believe stuff rather than actually face some tough things squarely.
      Life is tough, but running away from it makes it harder in the long run. better to stand and face the shadows.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting.


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