Oh what a subject. And, no, I’m not here to talk about weird board games, either.
I was actually participating, not just browsing, today on the NaNoWriMo forums and incest was brought up.
Should it be incorporated into a tale? Oh, dear me, I believe I’ve said all I can about an author asking “should”.
Still, that aside, it is an intriguing question. Taboos aren’t like eye colour, and hair colour. Should my character be blonde, should they be Asian, should they be Jewish. While, perhaps, in other eras those questions can carry the same weight as incest, today it’s really unimportant. Oh, but incest. The ultimate sexual taboo, well it or bestiality anyway.
Incest. Calls to mind scenes of brother raping sister. Of father molesting daughter. Of mother seduced by son. Mostly, in today’s society, it is firmly in the public consciousness as a Bad Thing, so you say it and people do lean in the direction of rape and molestation, drugging, slavery, torture. Even in the V C Andrews book my sister likes so much (no, I haven’t read it and I know it was a series and so am uncertain which title to reference, sorry) where the incest is treated far more consensually and even slightly more romantically … it’s in the face of abuse and isolation. It’s not so bad, next to everything else going on in the characters’ lives – or so I gather from listening to her go on and on about it. Even if I’m mistaken, it’s a good point and one someone has probably published. QED.
Sex is a good question, in the end, when the characters will be deviating from expectations. This, today, makes some people very squeamish. People are unlikely to be neutral about a sexual taboo. Take homosexuality. Today, it’s fairly acceptable in the main stream. Oh, certainly, you won’t get the bible thumping Southern Baptist next door to much appreciate your story (though, he may surprise you, it’s unwise to judge an individual on what they are), but in the broader scope of things people will shrug and move on. Now, make your terrible perverted faggot a school teacher; well,now they’re someone who should be ashamed of themselves as should you for writing him! Dear me, gay is okay, but don’t let them near the children!
Oh, dear me, the children, oh what a fun time that is. “Oh, how sweet, little Johnny has a crush on Violet, the girl who sits next to him in Kindergarden”. And “OH! How romantic, they go to the prom together, they’re high school sweeties, they marry and have ten kids.” Of course, this is how society ought to be! That indisputable spark of True Love, the growing story of love and devotion – the opening montage of Pixar’s Up. And, for the record, I agree. Doesn’t have to be when you’re 5, but society could do with more thinking with hearts and less with stock portfolios and logic … where love is concerned, I mean, obviously we need far MORE thinking with our brains in many other regards. Now, let’s make that little Johnny has a crush on little Timmy, or Violet is trying to steal a kiss from Talia. Perversions! My God, how could the writer do such a thing?! That’s sick, that’s perverse, they can’t possibly be … oh what a different story it becomes from those people who’d just moments before been singing your praises.
People will ignore the narrative, the dialogue, every clue, every explanation, every characterisation, everything so that they can love or hate your for a sexual taboo. Now, in honesty, they rarely do so to love you – partially since it’s safe to assume that some explanation is needed to actually give context to this taboo so that it might be made inoffensive; exceptions abound, there are going to be some who will just go “right on! lesbians!” or “the author is so brave to explore incest”, but not as many. The opposite, though. When it comes to that which will offend them, though, people will not see that which might take away the offence. I love to take Heinlein’s work for examples of this. He toyed with taboo, society, norms, mores, morals, ethics, and values. Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, and others. They ask hard questions about our selves, our societies, our beliefs. Thick books, long books, lots of very profound prose and entertaining at that; still all some people walk away with is “eww, OMG they ate part of that guy after he died!” “WTF?! Lazarus just had sex with his mother, Heinlein is a very sick man.” Oh, sure, taken out of context, these do seem pretty bad – hence what I said about few loving you for the taboo. In context though, it all makes sense, it all comes together. You understand the reasoning, the thoughts … maybe you don’t agree with it, no one said you did, that’s not the point of writing, the point is, if the author does her job correctly you have all the data necessary to understand. Your opinions will forever and always be yours to keep and have, but the narrative opens the door to comprehension.
In my opinion, taboos are fun. I like them. It’s, I think, why I love to read SF. I love the way that some of the greatest talents in fantasy and science fiction hold up mirrors and lenses to what we hold to be normal. The way the run you through a funhouse of cultures and societies, of normals and taboos that are like unto our own, except when they’re not. Like the mirrors that make you short, or tall, fat or thin, or the trick one that makes you a gorilla … Elves, and aliens, fairies and space pirates, they challenge us to reconsider our opinions, ideas, beliefs, faith, and thoughts. Some become reinforced, some are shaken, some are shattered, but with the shaking and shattering, even with the reinforcing, that self examination and self-exploration broadens and strengthens us, because there is usually (at least in the stuff I like) a new selection of thoughts, beliefs, faiths, dreams, and opinions to take and make your own, to shape and consider and adopt to fill the void.
In the end, and in all honesty, I thought it might be nice to write a good ol’ sweet, light hearted boy-meets girl, except that’s so been done I wanted to put a twist, so it becomes girl-meets-girl. Harmless, yes? No. now it’s a taboo. Sure, not a big one. But … I wanted to write for teens, young men and women, adolescents, perhaps the young ones just entering puberty. The ones whose bodies have or are beginning to shift gears and open their eyes to a whole new package of wiring and experience that had been hidden away the decade leading up to this point. Boy, that sounds twisted and perverse, doesn’t it? I’m just saying, the ones who want to read something more emotional and complex than the latest misadventure of Amelia Bedelia. When I was eight through ten, many both male and female took up watching Beverly Hills, 90210 and reading Sweet Valley. They were curious about romances, sex, love, dating, etc. That’s all I meant. When you introduce a minor taboo to “children”, and I use quotations because they’re not so much any more at this point, the gears have shifted and they’re accelerating to adulthood, you open a can of worms where people panic and become defensive. Little Suzy is just too young to know about that. Worse, I made the characters, themselves, young adolescents. Now I’ve not only become a dangerous person, but one who is a corruptive influence as now these impressionable children who can’t possibly think for themselves, and know their own bodies, hearts, heads, and passions, Lord Jesus, no, of course not, why they’re only reproductively capable now, they can’t possibly have the slightest idea what sex even is! Let’s not be silly here.
No, no one has much taken that approach with my work, thankfully, I’m honestly not sure how I would or even ought to react to such a thing. I’ve seen it though. I’m sadly only adding a bit of snark to arguments I’ve seen or heard before regarding other works that parallel mine in regards to those particular themes and elements. Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret., Harriet the Spy, and Harry Potter … no, not homosexuality, not sexuality in “children”, but the fact that they paint children and “children” being exactly what they are and ever have been, sometimes with the fun twists of fiction — Harry’s wizardry, for example, but it’s taboo that Margaret should be having anything whatsoever to say about sex, masturbation, and faith – it might be interestingly controversial, if the book weren’t meant to be read by children Margaret’s own age, but rather as a philosophical exploration for adult readers, but give that same exploration to those of an age to be going through that very exploration!? God, no. Harry’s wizardry, and Hermione’s witchcraft does bother some, yes, but besides that there’s the fact that the children, through formation of their own opinions and thoughts, challenge some authority and respect others … doesn’t Ms Rowling know that, if she’s going to be writing these books for children, then the children in them ought to do everything someone older than them saws, just because they’re the teacher, adult, etc.?! Good God, authority should never be challenged, questioned, or ignored, let’s not be absurd, wherever might our society be today if people went around doing such things? Cute how Harry and Harriet both have the same criticisms, I didn’t choose the two for that reason, but I may consider pretending I did, since it looks bloody brilliant.
Taboos, really are great. They force both the author and the reader to think. Some resist, some go with it. Some are changed by it, some don’t bother to keep thinking for longer than needed to get through the chapter. Still … I guarantee people will definitely talk, you may not like what some of them say, but you’ll have ’em talking.
- Crossing the Line to the Dark Side (saundrafox.wordpress.com)
- A Little More on Taboos – and Censorship (brianrushwriter.wordpress.com)
- Sally Field Starred In Show Using Sex With A Goat To Promote Lifestyle Tolerance (politicaloutcast.com)
- If all the women followed these taboos…..(Again) (karthusblogs.wordpress.com)
- Taboos, Taboos Everywhere (english11487fall2013li.wordpress.com)
A friend pointed me to this article. It’s a good one. I’d like to touch upon what your wrote about incest. Most fictional works regarding incest either take the stand point where the act is the result of abuse or dysfunction, else they are pieces of erotica. Society tends to look at this being somewhat acceptable, because abuse is horrible and the participants can be justifiably looked down upon and erotica gets explained away as people being pervs. The thing is, if you bring up an actual romance between siblings, the world flips out, especially the publishing world.
I wrote a series of romance novels involving siblings. (Love’s Forbidden Flower & Time’s Forbidden Flower) You know how they say it can take weeks, or even months for agents to get back you? If you write about honest love between siblings, the taboo is so strong that you will have that rejection within 24 hours. Those who show interest in your writing will ask you to change so much of your work that it will no longer be recognizable. This will include either changing the relationship or somehow punishing the characters for their actions. It’s a sad reality. I said, “No, thank you,” and self-published for this reason.
You might find this post of interest. http://dianerinellaauthor.com/you-tell-me-why/
I agree that taboos are a great way to get people to think. So many things should not be taboo that are. Sometimes I question how backwards society is.
All the best,
I agree about some things making some agents nervous, my own story got a rejection so fast the agent clearly didn’t even finish the synopsis.
Though I don’t explore incest in my own writing I agree very much with what you say: it’s only a book. Frankly I feel a story about anything can be worthwhile, especially a romance.
Best of luck.