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Should Books Have Parental Warning Labels?
Thank you, Soooz for letting me come on your blog and rant a bit.
Censorship is ever a contentious issue in art. We bring it on ourselves: pushing the limits, trying to be hip, begging attention by being controversial. "It's art!" is the general cry--when someone pisses in a glass or takes a picture of something in their arse. When Hemingway, and those of his generation, fought with publishers it was about the odd curse word. Hemingway wanted his dialog and prose to be real--the way people actually speak. When romance writers battled against the censors they wanted to show the sensual side of romance. But those battles were over long ago.
Today I can drop the f-bomb in a book or on my blog without anyone batting an eye. I can describe scenes that would make a nun wet or a hooker blush without fear of being arrested. But still some people push the limits. When I first started writing romance my wife accused me of writing porn. But current YA romance makes what I write seem quaint and almost prudish, and teenagers are reading it without blushing. So writers and artists go to unbelievable extremes to be controversial, and then people scream for censorship.
There will always be those who wish to draw a line and keep everyone behind it. The line itself is arbitrary and changes with generations. And there will always be those who seem compelled to step over that line if only because it is there. But there is a difference between being true to our art and being controversial simply for the sake of controversy. Hemingway wanted characters to speak as men speak (he actually had a battle over the word "swell" because it was slang--not proper English) and romantics wanted to portray love as couples truly loved, without resorting to euphemism and purple prose.
The only good censorship is that which we impose on ourselves, for the truth of our art, not that which we impose on others. I often write fairly provocative erotic romance. In the context of those stories I feel it is beautiful and expressive. I enjoy fine erotic art for the same reasons. But I also write hard science fiction, fantasy, and romance, among other things. There is a different standard, a different feel in mainstream fiction.
In a recent manuscript set in the 1920s the dialog I wrote contained virtually no cursing. That fit the sensibilities of the period, the characters, and the setting. I threw the f-bomb into a scene that was very intense and violent. It fit, and added powerful emotion to the scene. The hero and heroine never kiss, until the scene where he proposes to her, and not even the professional girls venture beyond a 'PG' rating in their flirtatious behavior. Yet the story is at times highly romantic, the heroine is extremely sensual, and the villains are harsh and violent. It is an adult novel.
When we use sex, language, or violence simply to shock and stir controversy it lessens our art. It also lessens the impact of our words. When a villain in the above novel says, "I'm gonna stomp your ass and fuck your girlfriend," it's a shock to the reader. When the hero drops the f-bomb in the midst of an intense and violent scene the reader feels that intensity along with the hero's fear and frustration. The words have power because they are rare and unexpected.
In the same way, less is more when it comes to sex in literature. If the romantic lead goes down on the heroine in the first few pages what is left for the remainder? Sexual tension is best achieved by no sex at all--the desire, the need, the longing, restricted and contained at every turn. Anticipation builds to a long awaited and often denied climax, yet if that climax becomes common place, mundane, there is no anticipation, but only rote predictable outcomes. His tongue slips over her clit yet again, yada, yada, yawn--let's move on with the story.
And so we are left with only the most graphic, deviant, kinky scenes with which to titillate our readers, and the would-be censors scream foul. Sex has lost its power and our words are left limp and impotent. Sex in literature is like anything else we write--too much lessens the value of all. The same happens with violence, blood, and gore. Readers become desensitized, writers ramp it up to new levels, and censors try to establish new lines of defense.
I never want to see Parental Advisory labels slapped on the cover of books, nor publishers attempt to censor Free Speech, but writers do bear responsibility for their words whether they wish to admit it or not. With YA, and even Middle Grade fiction taking on ever more mature tone, Adult and Erotic fiction push the extremes to compensate. Writers are why the sensibilities of censors are inflamed. When teen heroes are slinging f-bombs and teen heroines are playing the slut it's hard to blame parents for being upset with contemporary fiction.
Writers need to understand that by flooding literature with more sex, more graphic language, more violence, and more controversy we dilute the power of our own words. We must censor ourselves or be censored by others. Throwing our characters in bed is cheap and easy, while not letting them quite get that far may be more difficult it is far more powerful and often more erotic. Mama used to say that people curse because they have a weak vocabulary. I implore my fellow writers to use your words. Set limits on your characters and make them strain against the bonds.
I'm interested in what you think, dear reader. Is there too much sex in literature? Should books be rated and labeled? Post a comment.
Disclaimer: Of course none of this has anything to do with Literary Erotica, which is all about the sex. The above diatribe concerns mainstream fiction. Erotica is by definition pure eroticism--the triple X of the literary world. I write that too, and enjoy reading it as well. But as purely adult entertainment, different standards apply. Erotica is already branded as Adult Only and often resigned to a child proof section in book stores. Should all books with sexual content be likewise branded?