Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Viscerality: What is too much?

Dear Knuckers:

Like many of you, I have some stories that are deeply emotional that deal with traumatic experiences. They aren't gory per se, but they are disturbing stories.

For instance, one of my earliest shorts is called Digging. I have never tried to publish this story because I believe it is too visceral, too primal. But when I let people read it the response is consistent -- the story resonates. It disturbs. It has the intended effect, which is to show an ugly underbelly, the snake's belly, the scaly underside beneath the coiled head and body.

Specifically, Digging deals with incest. Oddly enough, that's a story so common among writers that publishers specifically say: No incest, no rape stories.

I say: Why not?

They answer: Too visceral. Too disturbing. Readers want fiction, not reality.

And yet and yet the Digging story got two responses that I remember in particular.

One was from an English teacher and she said this:

Your unapologetic brutality was disturbing.

The other was from an Army Ranger, one of those special force types who is the real shit. He's a Captain now, and he's a cutout Tom Clancy character a lot like Chavez. If you know who Chavez is, then you know what I mean, and you know I mean this guy is no bullshit. When he bought his house, for instance, he made sure he had a clear path of egress to gun down anyone who invaded his stairwell, even aligned the rooms such that he wouldn't be shooting into his daughter's bedroom.

I camp with him once a year or so and he brings a full trauma kit and a well-beaten rucksack and somehow he still convinces me to carry his fucking water for him so he has room for his camp chair.

Yeah, that guy. He read an entire batch of short stories and commented on one story only, one word, and it was Digging and it was this word:


So I ask you my fellow writers and knuckers specifically, is it too visceral to write what is real, what is savage, what is the basest in our skulls just above the spine. Doesn't the blood flow up through the neck and through the primal parts first, before it branches out to the thinking gray-matter that really doesn't matter at all?

I ask this because my current piece, the Marty piece, the one I alluded to here -- Dead Characters -- is primal. It is unapologetic.

It is real. It is savage.

It is visceral. It involves a mightily abusive and dysfunctional family unit. It involves rape and murder and personal treason.

Is that too much? Am I crossing lines here?

What do you consider too much? I don't mean ~gore~, I mean primal emotions. I don't appreciate gratuitous gore and won't write it. I mean primal and savage acts that leave a taste -- literally -- in the back of your throat when you read them.

- Eric


Stephanie Lorée said...

I don't tend to write about sexual assault because I find it personally disturbing. However, that's not to say I won't read it, it just has to be well done.

If you're good enough writer--or bullshitter--you can tell a story about anything and it will resonate with the reader.

Loralie Hall said...

I think there's a difference between being visceral, real, intense...

and glorifying disgusting acts.

To speak to something primal in the reader, to draw out their disgust and emotion the same way you felt when you wrote, I don't see a problem with that.

Even making the reader feel sympathy for the antagonist is acceptable. As long as you're not glorifying the act.

That's what I think, anyway.

Joshua McCune said...

One of my biggest fears when sending out KISSING DRAGONS to agents was its darkness. It is a war story, and war is worse than hell, and I wanted to show that (and the fx on the MC).

Writing should be about truth/authenticity... especially the hard truths, the ones we want to bury six feet down. Of course, that won't always get you readership b/c people tend to want to avoid hard truths (they just want to graze their edges and bluster about them like they're in the know).

Wine and Words said...

I agree with Bane. I think the only thing it might affect is readership. I suppose I am the opposite of most. I can only stomach the lovely, sunny, polyanna version for so long before I am "digging for worms" and skeletal remains, motives teaming with larva. Too visceral? Those of us who have lived such atrocities are laughing. Telling us not to write rape or incest is like like telling African-Americans they need to use the other water fountain. Pure bullshit (but then it's not my bottom dollar on the page, so who am I to rant?).

Write it like it is, or was, or how you imagine it. People can subscribe to their personal black list or listen to the PG version on tape.

I suppose I am opposed to anyone writing about such things because they THINK it gets a reaction, as opposed to NEEDING to write it. That may make sense only to me, but that's nothing new :)

Hey...and thanks for sending over a reader. I am beyond honored.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I don't write that way, but if it's a 'way in' for you, go for it!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

There is always hope in anything I write. I leave hopeless and shattered alone -- they can be had by all simply by living without paying hard coin for it. LOL. Perhaps that is what turns editors off. Roland

Anonymous said...


Interestingly, my daughter and I talked about this very topic last night. She's in speech and she was lamenting some of the judge's coments that had come with her critiques.

When you boil it down, the reason was it's sheer viscerality. Her material was disturbing in a gut reaction sense and it made the judges uncomfortable.

Case in point: one speech was about a young gal in a mental institute who admired a fellow inmate's ability to take charge of her life. Something the narrator couldn't do. Yet this admiration came out when recounting the way the inmate had lit herself on fire. Immediately the judges shut down because it pushed their comfort zone. They believed she was admiring the act itself, not the ability to follow through and take charge.

Interpretation has a lot to do with whether a story flies.

2nd speech: an emotionally neglected young lady (14 years old) recounting her vast sexual encounters when pressed by her therapist. The judges were fine with this until DD got warm and fuzzy remembering the 26 year old man who had taken her to his bed and just as gently redressed her, carried her down stairs and set her in a cab for her ride home. In her life, this was the first true affection she'd ever felt. For the judges, it was disgusting and unthinkable.

Yeah, you'll have a hard time getting by some people's comfort zones, but sometimes those stories need to be told anyway.

Best luck. I'm behind you on this one~


Julie Musil said...

I love your description of that military guy. Sounds like a guy my son would love to meet.

I have no problem reading stories like this, especially if that sort of story line is organic. If it's in there for shock value, I can usually notice it right away. But I've read some really bad stuff, as part of a powerful story, and those stories are the ones that stay with me the longest.

Phoenix said...

I think Annie's comment sums up everything I would have said and more. Growing up in an abusive and violent home, calling 9-1-1 (or having our neighbors call 9-1-1 for us) was everyday for me. I only realized much later in adult life that the "funny" stories I told were emotionally disturbing to those who found them (and my dark sense of humor about them) unnerving.

In the end, the world is lumped into two groups of people: those who look away, offended and disgusted, by what hits closest to home and what is most primal, and those who can stand and stare at it and go Yeah? Is that the worst you can do?

A lot of people don't want to read emotionally jarring. But a lot of people have already lived there, and believe me, they know the language by heart.

PS thanks for sending Matthew my way. I try my darndest, apparently, not to get new followers and now you go and mess that up. :P

Anonymous said...

Stephen King gets away with it; why shouldn't you?

Cynthia Lee said...

Eric, I gave you a Liebster Blog award. Just a heads-up. :)

Misha Gerrick said...

I think that it's a thing between you and the reader. There will be people who can read stuff like that.

I am not one of them, but who says that that you should be kept out of the market because of people like me?