Should Writers be Afraid to Offend?

Much of stereotypical science fiction has courageous heroes traveling into deep space to fend off some kind of alien threat.  In stereotypical fantasy literature, the hero fearlessly battles dragons, demons, or wicked sorcerers.  Given all these brave figures that speculative fiction authors create, should speculative fiction writers be afraid to offend?  More specifically, should they be afraid of antagonizing people, of scaring off a part of their potential market? A colleague recently commented that the words “murderous savages” on the back cover of my novel will repel some readers. He suggested that I delete them. My book though, deals with murderous savages (hence the second word of the title “Quantum Cannibals“).  It’s really the best way to describe them. “Homicidally-gifted sanguineous collectivity”doesn’t do them justice.

Offensive Classics

There is certainly precedent for offending people through literature.  The Merchant of Venice shocked and offended me.  Shylock is the archetype of the unscrupulous,greedy Jew, trying to literally rob the flesh off those he encounters.  How many people, having read Shakespeare, would assume I was unscrupulous and greedy? On the other hand, if Shakespeare had been afraid to offend, would any of his works have any value?

Courage is resistance

The characters of the American classic Huckleberry Finn have terribly demeaning attitudes towards negros; the word”nigger” is used over two hundred times.  Had the author used the term “black”or “African American” would the reader have been able to get a true sense of the people and atmosphere of the pre-Civil War south?   A school in Pennsylvania pulled the novel from its grade 11 literature program on account of the racist nature of the characters.

Lazing away
Huckleberry Finn

Similarly, To Kill a Mockingbird has come under fire for immorality, dealing with rape and racism, and using the word “nigger.”  Nonetheless, the book and the movie educated many Americans about the evils of prejudice and vigilante justice, along with the danger of reflexively believing a woman who accuses someone of rape.  The novel also emphasizes the value of charity and empathy with the mentally challenged.  Nonetheless, sixty years later this book’s depiction of mid twentieth century America offends people.

To Kill A Mockingbird
Victim in literature of “MeToo” lynch mob 

Wells’ The Time Machine appears initially to be about conflict between an enlightened society and a bunch of savages but resolves itself as a discussion of intense class warfare.  Critics have called the Lord of The Rings “racist,” for among other things, condoning prejudice against Orcs, “a brutish,aggressive, repulsive and generally malevolent species.”  Should Tolkein have explained them better; their broken homes, deprived childhoods, the oppression they suffered at the hands of humans, elves and hobbits?  The very concept that some species, races or people are worse than others is unacceptable to many readers.

A Call to Action!

So what is a writer to do?  Should he be afraid to offend and thus preemptively avoid upset, or should he take the Lenny Bruce approach, saying nigger, nigger, nigger, kike,kike, kike often enough that it stops being offensive?  In one of his comedy monologues Bruce suggested that hotels should describe the breasts of their female patrons to their male guests and advise in which room these horny women could be found.  A person would likely be arrested today for that kind of talk.  It landed Bruce in jail many times during the 1960’s.  If he feared, he did not let him stop him.

Western democratic nations generally don’t arrest novelists because of their fiction. In countries with totalitarian governments a provocative story in which a protagonist acts against social norms could land the author in jail, or worse.  Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick was quite concerned about the scope of totalitarianism:

The greatest menace in the twentieth century is the totalitarian state. It can take many forms: left-wing fascism,psychological movements, religious movements, drug rehabilitation places,powerful people, manipulative people; or it can be in a relationship with someone who is more powerful than you psychologically.

Eye In The Sky
Dick’s Eye In The Sky

Dick suffered more at the hands of his own personal demons rather than any totalitarian entity.  Nonetheless he’s been castigated as a neo-con libertarian for statements such as these, and some readers turn away from him. Progressives have savagely denounced Orson Scott Card on account of his conservatism.  Readers who love Ender’s Game ask whether they should boycott Card because of his radical conservatism, an outgrowth of his strong Mormon beliefs.  Although there is little in his fiction to disturb people, he is not afraid to offend people by upholding his values.  Should a writer’s politics or values be separated from his writing?

Ender's Game
Ender’s Game

In some cases, the politics are part of the creation.  Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series features a brutal antagonist in the process of conquering the world in the name of collectivization.  In Faith of the Fallen, Goodkind presents a close-up view of the misery imposed by socialism.  Even though the setting is the equivalent of an alternate-world medieval society, the story provides a sense, an understanding of contemporary life in places like Venezuela or North Korea.  This has made Goodkind and his works an anathema to many progressive readers.

Some have argued that fantasy fiction tends to be conservative because of the setting: usually lands ruled by kings and princes.  Urban, or modern fantasy is growing in popularity, but has far to go to catch up to the medieval approach.

A Writer Should Not be Afraid to Offend

Should a writer be afraid to offend people, afraid of driving away potential readers?  The answer depends on another question: why is he writing?  If he wants to get a message across to readers,whether the evils of socialism, the depredations of capitalism or the hazards of conformity, he can be sure that someone will get ticked off .  Is the offensive material an essential part of the message?  Could Lenny Bruce or Mark Twain have made their points without saying nigger?

Vegan Cannibals

If the story is trying to teach about a real place or population that has repulsive practices, it would be dishonest to whitewash those.  The Aztec  fed on captives and members of their own population.  You can’t depict them as vegan, claiming to present an alternate reality.  When you take away the essence to make something palatable, you are not left with the same thing.  A bland Jalapeno pepper is not a Jalapeno.

If the story is for the sake of entertainment (whether of the writer or the reader), there is a lot more flexibility.  The author isn’t watering down any message.  There is still a matter of accuracy (eg. vegan Aztec), but with the lower goal of entertainment, the risks are reduced.

Yes, I said the “lower goal of entertainment.”  I’m taking a chance that I’m offending you with this.  For me literature is a means of conveying truths about the world, about people and their relations.  On the other hand, if a story is not entertaining, no one will be interested in its truths.

Chukchi family (Siberia); these families could include a transvestite shaman
Chukchi family (Siberia); these families could include a transvestite shaman

Fear of Cannibals

When I was advised to delete the term”murderous savage” from the cover of Quantum Cannibals, I demurred.  When I was advised to remove the homosexual sex scene near the start of the book, I did so.  I agreed that it was too distracting and concluded that deleting it would not detract from the message I wanted to convey (one of the characters was modeled after the pederast poet Allan Ginsburg).  Though I don’t believe in transgender “rights,” I did not water down the transvestite shaman in Quantum Cannibals.  It (he/she) is based on a truth which has been documented in the records of the American Museum of Natural History and elsewhere.  It was more important for me to convey this truth to my readers than to worry about whom I might offend (including myself).

Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me
Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me

“Though people differ in color and creed, they all love, quarrel, protect their children, etc., exactly as we do.  The message is clear: we should love them because they are like us.  But that statement has its questioning brother: what if they aren’t like us?”
—Dr. Edmund Carpenter

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