“Offensive” Writing

What if someone told you that your writing was offensive?

Reading is very subjective so your writing may very well offend someone. Each reader comes to a story with a specific set of morals and values and this can affect their response/reaction to your writing.

It can be awkward to say that least.

I was once in a critique group where this became an issue. One writer felt that she couldn’t even bring certain material to the group because it was deemed “offensive.” In the end, she had to end up leaving because she felt censored.

I’ve also seen writers being attacked personally because of the content of their novels. Some readers take it to another level and project that it’s probably a reflection of the writer’s own morals and/or agenda and they set their review guns to STUN.

But we as writers know that although some of the things we write are apart of us, there also can be times where the content of our work and the choices of our characters (and believe me, those characters are going to do what they please, thank you very much) does NOT necessarily match up to our own morals and choices or that we have personally did some of these “offensive” actions ourselves.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve read many things that have offended me — but I didn’t attack the writer or necessarily think it was part of the writer’s moral makeup. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate between the writer and the story for some readers though. Unfortunately, sometimes these may be the most vocal readers when it comes to opinions about your book.

Book banning is real. And happens because of the vocal complaints of certain readers who find material offensive. I personally believe that you have every right to be offended but I don’t believe you should censor it for other people. I believe you should let them decide for themselves.

I’ve been told that some of my writing content is offensive in the moral sense, especially in the realm of having teen characters but it hasn’t stopped me or censored me from writing the scene anyway. However, I do find myself being particular about who I share my work with. It can just be an uncomfortable situation for both the writer and the reader.

So what do you do when someone reads something they find offensive? Do you find you censor yourself when writing something that could be deemed controversial? How do you manage that minefield? When reading something offensive, do you find you automatically project that on to the author?

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Comments

  1. says

    I probably used to but not after becoming a writer and realizing that even though as a Christian, I had no desire to write inspirational women’s fiction. :) Which means at some point, I’ll offend someone in my extended family – but I don’t write for them. I know the tastes of my writer friends and I don’t ask them to read something I know is not to their taste. Interesting topic.

    • says

      This is what I had to learn as well. I think my biggest problem that is a lot of my extended family is so paranoid, they’ll think all the “bad” people in my novel are based on them. :)

  2. says

    This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, because the relationship in my WiP can be considered a problematic one. And many times I have found myself changing my plot lines or my characters’ actions, in case they’re found offensive.

    However, I’m trying to curb that impulse. No book will be universally liked. Somebody will always find something in any book to take offense at. And what I want is to remain true to the vision that I have.

    • says

      It’s good that you’re starting to push through your censor and write your true vision. I know that it can be hard. That was the case for me writing this particular novel — I had actually dropped a particular scene for fear of how people would react to it, but it really is something that worked so I put it back in.

  3. says

    I’ve curbed word usage but not content in my writing. I grew up in NJ. And well, the f-bomb was used very loosely. Adjective, adverb, verb, noun. All the time. The word in my world had lost it’s punch from being used so frequently. When I started writing I wrote my characters using this language. But I’ve lived in a number of places in the country since my teen years, and have learned that the good ol’ f-bomb is rarely used, if at all. When it is used it’s meant to cause offense. So I’ve taken it out of my writing. Now, if I were to specifically write NJ teens, I’d most likely add that bit of flavor back in to my writing. And I’m sure it would offend, but then I’d be true to what I was writing about and I do think that matters.

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. :)

      The F-bomb in particular is like a hot button. It can be here in the South anyway. I totally agree with you, if you write about about teens where that word is used, you should definitely not censor yourself from using it. The end goal is to be true to the story.

  4. says

    Lots of deep questions today, Karen! And I have to say, my heart goes out for that poor woman in your critique group! How awful!

    Like Emily, I’m writing a pretty controversial manuscript at the moment, too. Thankfully I haven’t had any problems (yet!) with people being offended by it. However, since it deals with such difficult issues, I feel a heavy responsibility on myself to get it right (at least, what *I* deem “right”). Sure, my characters say some awful things, and act in ways I don’t approve of, but I’ve been trying to make sure the text as a whole portrays a different picture.

    But of course, all this could easily be for nought if readers disagree with what I consider “right”. And I’m sure some will. Not an easy business! But at least I’ll know I’ve said what I meant to say.

    • says

      I have wondered what happened to this particular writer. The particular “taboo” really hit a nerve with the other writers but it wasn’t like she WAS a bad person, she was just writing about something from the other side, which I always find interesting. Like INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch — which is from the POV of a date rapist.

      As far as characters saying awful things — if it rings true to the story, it should be said because if not, then I think it becomes “diluted” a little. But I also think writers are really timid to just GO THERE because a lot of readers still believe a novel can be based on the writer’s real life (which we all know is just not true).

  5. says

    I share your belief that someone has the right to be offended but not to censor. That said, I hope I don’t judge or project an opinion on a writer based on what he or she has written.

    My novel Buck Fever shows an illustration of a boy holding a gun and facing a deer, yet the novel is about this boy not wanting to be a hunter. Still, at times during book signings and events, offended parents have pulled their kids away from the book because of the cover. When I can and the opportunity allows, I explain what the novel is about, but I don’t know that there’s much I can do beyond that (other than accept their reactions as their own).

    • says

      That is really a pet peeve of mine. If I could take all the things that offended me, we would be living in a really censored world. :)

      I’m so glad that you are able to explain to some of your readers the true meaning of your story — but unfortunately, some people’s minds are so made up that they are not open to other views and/or opinions. It is their right; however, it still has to be frustrating.

  6. says

    I wouldn’t want to censor myself because someone was offended, but I would probably also be particular about who reads my work. Like you, I don’t believe in censorship for any reason. It’s important to remember that writers who write fiction don’t always believe the same things as their characters, and even if they do, I don’t agree with bashing them. Interesting discussion!

    • says

      You would be SO surprised how many readers think novels are semi-autobiographical. But I feel the same way you do. I don’t believe in censorship of any kind — sometimes it can be so frustrating. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. And if you don’t want your teens reading it, then don’t let them but don’t censor it for everyone.

  7. says

    *claps!!!!*

    No one has complained that what I write is offensive, but I guess for some it might be (they just haven’t read it yet). I prefer YA books that do explore the dark side of being a teen, or include things that are real to them (like sex). I don’t appreciate it when someone bans a books because of his feelings toward the subject. These are the books teens need the most (like SPEAK).

    • says

      SPEAK should be total required reading for all girls starting high school. It’s a very controversial subject but something that I think girls should be exposed to.

      I also like reading “on the edge” stuff myself. I don’t know why some readers feel that the “dark” stuff doesn’t happen in real life because it does. And all this “dark” stuff creates empathy for teen readers who just may find themselves not alone in a similar situation.

  8. says

    Great topic Karen. Personally, I have not had anyone complain or try to censor any of my writing (yet). It’s like many have said, not everyone will love what you write so it is best to be true to your writing spirit and write what is in your heart. :) God knows there are books that I find offensive or immoral but it is on ME to either read it or not. I can’t go blaming the writer for writing something I don’t like, especially there are just as many people who actually love it. To each his/her own. Happy writing everyone!

    • says

      Love this attitude of of “To each his/her own” because truly that is what it boils down to. I know what offends me so if I even think a book may have those elements, I just don’t even pick it up. It’s not the author’s fault that the content is offensive to me. It’s SO subjective.

      Happy writing to you too! I want to read more excerpts of the sci-fi novel on your blog. :)

  9. says

    I have yet to see an offensive book in the many critiques I’ve attended–possibly because we are all children’s book writers :) You bring up a great point though. If I ever encounter someone who finds my work offensive, I’ll probably look for another person to share critiques with. :)
    Happy weekend!
    Nutschell
    http://www.thewritingnut.com

    • says

      Yeah, if someone is offended by the content, it’s just an awkward position for both of you. But for you, it seems as if you don’t have this problem. Consider yourself lucky. :)

  10. says

    This is a subject I’ve been touched by recently. A reader gave my book two stars. She really didn’t like it because some of the content was too strong for her. At first I was crushed. But then I realized, it is kind of dark in its own way and I felt bad that she didn’t know that from the beginning. So now I let readers now, my story has dark elements.

    • says

      Sorry to hear about your experience, but you must know it was just because the reader doesn’t like dark things (which I LOVE), so for her it was offensive. Reading is so subjective.

      Glad that you could put it in perspective though and be proactive about it. :)

  11. says

    I’m able to read a variety of work without getting offended. The only time I’ve put a book down was when there was a scene of animal abuse, and I couldn’t take it despite the wonderful writing. Otherwise, I’m able to read things through without projecting my preferences onto the writer.

    I try my best not to curb my vision, although I know that people may get offended, even though I don’t mean to offend. It’s fiction, but some people don’t take it that way.

  12. says

    First, I don’t believe in censorship. Everyone should have the right to write what they want, just as I have the right to not read certain things. My material has been deemed offensive and “shocking” as my creative writing teacher said. I try to just listen to feedback with an open mind and at the end of the day, I do what my gut tells me. You can’t take everyone’s advice.

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