Saw a query online the other day from a writer wondering if an explicit sex scene should be included in a New Pulp tale. My gut reaction was; Sure, why not?—as long as it wasn’t gratuitous, didn’t detract from the plot, and gave the characters involved some sort of extra depth. Sex in a story is like any other human element you add; it either fits in seamlessly or it jumps up and down waving a NOTICE ME banner. I figured that was a no-brainer response, but I guess it’s not as simple as that, judging from some of the responses that came before and after mine.
I also read an email newsletter where one member asked if we’d ever written a scene so graphically violent and scary it was a bit disturbing. Yeah, I’ve done a few… So had a lot of others. All part of the game.
Talking about stuff like this is good because shared ideas and experiences help a writing community to grow close and sort of define itself. Now and then we all need some reassurance that what we’re doing is OK. At the time I got involved, it didn’t even dawn on me these topics might become as much of an in-depth exploration of styles as they did.
It became obvious as the discussion threads about the sex scene (there were two of them I know of) went on that there are two main camps of thought when it comes to what is OK to add to stories and what might be controversial: the overall readership pleasers and the mavericks who write from the gut. Not surprisingly, New Pulp seems to have more of the latter. I’m not going to take sides in this one, because I think both points of view are valid, depending on circumstances, and how things are handled. My own experiences tell me there’s no hard and fast rule for how far you can take an idea before it becomes uncomfortable to most people. Pulp has traditionally always been a pioneer in the edgier areas of fiction. It’s strictly a YMMV (Your Mileage Will Vary) in how violent, lurid, or kinky you can get and still sell well—let’s say about 50 shades of gray area worth.
That got me thinking though, where do I draw the lines?
In the past, I never gave too much thought to who I was writing for when I sat down to compose a tale, because I always wrote the kind of things I love to read. Most of what I enjoy reading or writing doesn’t have a lot of explicit anything, because I prefer a subtle approach, but I’ve been known to throw a shocker in now and then. My criteria in crafting a tale have always been to evoke an emotional response from the reader, because that keeps people turning pages. For me there’s a fine line between scenes that keep me reading because they are just so overwhelmingly riveting, and those that make me shut the cover and turn away in disgust. I have been told I have a dark side, based on some of the things I’ve written, and yet others might find my stuff too bland and long for something more radically avant-garde. Experience has taught me there’s an audience for everyone; it’s just a matter of finding those folks and then doing what you do best.
There are several deciding factors in what goes on every page I type. Am I happy with what I have here? Does it work for the story or do I need to push myself into more uncomfortable topic areas to make it better? What has the past response been? Where I used to just write to please myself, I now want to reach an audience, so my focus has changed. I have an eye on just who my readers will be as I am writing, because there is a certain level of appropriateness for every niche in the market. You don’t put certain scenes in a book being marketed for ‘all ages’ that can take place in one that is ‘adult only’ in content. I try and have a variety of offerings these days, so this is something I am consciously aware of as I write. Some publishers also prefer to keep their books on the PG 13 side, which means explicit language, sex, and gore have to be toned down. Don’t think that it makes for less of a story if you do decide to keep it mild rather than wild, because good writing will shine even when there’s nothing you wouldn’t share with your grandmother or read to your eight year old.
I hear arguments all the time that the readers shouldn’t dictate what we write. That’s something I can’t totally agree with, unless you’re just writing simply for the art of it. Readers are the people buying and recommending or panning what we write, and they’re a vital resource for that reason, if you ever plan to support yourself at least partially on your writing. Writing to a market was something the classic pulps did without remorse, churning out magazines filled with entertaining fare that was geared toward pleasing readers so that they’d come back for more. Ignoring what readers respond to because you need to do your own thing is going to cut down your sales over time.
While you will find like-minded individuals who will eat up every word you type, the majority of readers who become fans are going to balk if you suddenly change your style from, say, witty to gritty. I think this is where a lot of book ‘fails’ come from, because the writer has been inspired to do something totally different and the established fans are left wondering what the heck happened. Nobody likes to be stuck in a formulaic rut for decades, and we all want to stretch our wings and expand our offerings, but you do have to give a nod to the folks who built your readership. So yeah, go do something totally different, and then either sell it that way, or use a pen name. I make it plain when I put out something, who I believe the intended audience will be, so at least my publishers know from the get-go. I also ask who the target market is. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a projected readership; in fact it’s good business. I’m not a one-trick pony, and neither should you be, but I am sensitive to the fact that some people find hardcore violence and explicit sex in a book disagreeable and so I’m not going to ram that down their throats every chance I get. So do consider who will be reading something before you add or delete anything.
Where it gets hinky for me is in the very extreme frontiers of controversial topics. That’s where my inner censor goes to work overtime trying to sort out what I can comfortably write as opposed to what makes my skin crawl. Those of you who know me and have read some of my stuff would be shocked to see how much farther I can push it with splattering gore and the absolutely kinkiest pornographic scenes. Yeah, I’ve written porn on occasion, mainly to see how far I can stretch myself. It’s just not something I want to be known for, so for now it sits in files unread and unpublished—one of which I password protected so my kids wouldn’t find it by accident, and now some 20 years later I can’t recall what the password is! The one taboo I do have is writing anything that glorifies senseless violence and/or brutal sex as weapons used by the leading characters to dominate and subjugate others. That I am adamant about, because as pulp writer, I create heroes to be looked up to, even when they have feet of clay. The world we live in is full of hatred and intolerance taken to extremes by overly zealous people who have lost their humanity to some cause or other. When that occurs in one of my books, it happens for a reason, and I hold my heroic folks to a higher standard. They don’t rape women and burn babies just because the enemy did. That’s just me, but it’s how I write and I don’t feel the least bit constrained by it. Hate the bad dudes if you must, but aspire to be a better person than they ever will be.
So if you ask me, what you should or should not include in a story depends on how well you handle it and who will read it. Our pulp forebears had market censors to deal with that we don’t have to consider in this ‘anything goes’ age, but they got around them as much as possible. So don’t overly limit yourself, but do keep in mind, readers are a diverse group. Level with them from the get-go and you’ll never have to ask if this scene fits or if that one was uncomfortable. The folks who are best suited to enjoy your story will find it, and those who might not like a particular scene or three will at least be forewarned.