Tag Archives: censorship

A Weed in A Wheat Field?

Writing is the most powerful of the Arts, which is why the Founders listed freedom of speech and freedom of the press among the inalienable Rights that Congress is prohibited from legislating against, in Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States of America.

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgI’ve encountered a number of blog posts recently that encourage novelists to grapple fearlessly with difficult topics and controversial issues, and above all, to write to please themselves. Sadly, some others of the citizenry do not voluntarily assume the same restraint under which Congress must operate, and those individuals take it upon themselves to urge censorship upon novelists whose Muse leads them to include in their stories situations or behavior of which those readers disapprove. Sometimes the self-appointed censors succeed.

The personality and motives of fictional characters are illustrated by the action and dialogue, but in a psychological novel we also get more of the deep stuff, where personality and motivation originate. Such intimations can elicit a strong visceral reaction in a reader, but the remedy for that is not censorship. The reader is free to close the cover and simply say of that book, “It’s not for me.”

As a clinician, the psychology of reading and writing fascinate me. Registered Nurses have to be able to handle all manner of unpleasant things, and when I was in practice, I didn’t have any trouble with the grim realities of healthcare. But I’ve never been able to stomach reading Stephen King – although, oddly enough, the text analyzer at I Write Like says that the first four chapters of Irish Firebrands are written in King’s style (equally shared with that of James Joyce, whom I never had the patience to read).

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Like other forms of Art, whether or not a piece of Writing makes acceptable reading, is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the excess of execrable language in modern fiction (see Let’s Get Out of the Gutter and Watch Your Language!). But I was surprised about how much otherwise controversial material ended up in Irish Firebrands (see Not Your Mother’s Mills & Boon and If Only Life Would Imitate Art!).

Although toilet-talk text enjoys popular acceptance, fiction that deals with theology doesn’t seem to qualify – unless the writing is hostile towards the faith that’s under examination. If fiction is sympathetic towards religious beliefs and practices, its author may be accused of proselytizing. At the very least, such writing is dismissed to a niche.

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_upRomneyPeople’s religious beliefs can be seen as a manifestation of how they cope: how they make sense of the world and psychologically integrate the events that affect them. But when someone believes something different, it can feel intimidating to another person. Examples of this include the terror some people felt about the election of a Roman Catholic or a Latter-day Saint to the Presidency of the United States, although the Constitution does not deem it necessary to prescribe a religious test for presidential candidates. Like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom from an established religion and freedom to practice religion are also inalienable Rights enumerated in the First Amendment.

robeI enjoy reading what can be described as religious, inspirational, or visionary fiction in a variety of makes and models. One of my favorites is The Robe[1], a biblical novel by Lloyd C. Douglas[2] (1877-1951), who was a clergyman whose experience with faith led him to change his religious denomination during his career.

So it was probably natural for the Muse Polyhymnia to step in and direct Irish Firebrands to cross her genre line. I wrote about several characters whose brands of belief (or lack thereof) interest me, and whose struggles to come to terms with the challenges of their internal and external environments, happen to involve the acquisition and/or practice of those beliefs. The characters in Irish Firebrands are flawed, but they’re not evil, no matter if, who, what, where, when, why or how they may choose to worship.

Real people are born innocent, and most of them remain decent, whether or not they become people of faith, to help them stay that way. That may not always be the case in fiction – not even in other novels that I may write. I just follow the Muse on duty, and take what feels like a realistic route to translate Life into Art.

Sometimes what we write is more effective than it is successful. But if what we’ve written is right for the story, we don’t need to haul out the herbicide tank.

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Rose and Wheat by Thad Westhusing

[1] Dr. Douglas didn’t want his writing to be dramatized, but Hollywood did it anyway, and of course they hosed it up. So read the book, don’t bother with the movie. All you’ll be missing is Richard Burton with a perm and wearing a skirt.

[2] He was born approximately one mile from where I wrote Irish Firebrands. Must be something in the water.

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Third Rail Writing.

Recent blog posts about banned books have shown that, unlike the other Arts, inappropriate taboos are still inflicted on the Art of Writing. These restrictions define and confine a Third Rail: supercharged concepts barricaded behind signs that say, Don’t write here.

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Included among these powerful ideas are dilemmas that can affect love stories, such as something that prevents them from ending Happily Ever After (or at least Happy For Now); or whatever may be perceived as altering the distribution of power that’s assumed to accompany sexual dimorphism, such as a heroine who is more economically successful or sexually experienced than the hero; and even passionate middle-aged or elderly lovers. Such strong stories can end up being shelved as Women’s Fiction, a vague category that’s guaranteed to obscure almost any book that lands there.

Another warning sign above the Third Rail is the dogma that proscribes a writer’s crossing genre lines. Oddly enough, this prohibition conflicts with the doctrine that urges the cultivation of name recognition: to achieve branding as a great storyteller. The ability to spin a good yarn is a personal trait, independent of the type of story being told. To suggest that the teller of a well-told story in one genre will lose readership by switching to another, can only be a fairy tale told by trolls intent on derailing an author’s reputation for effective writing.

Related to this is the persistent lack of an official category for what I call Fusion Fiction: crossing genre lines within one work. Irish Firebrands is one such book, because of its combination of Boomer-Lit, romantic beach-read,  social-political-historical commentary, paranormal, inspirational, and psychological elements.

Crossing genre lines within one work offers a reader the opportunity to focus on the desired aspect of the reading experience. If you’re looking for a love story, wallow in it. If you like to puzzle out paranormal clues, have at it. If you want to get inside the heads of characters in a psychological melodrama, go for it. If you’re into to learning facts or skills, or traveling to a different place or time to experience a culture or history, more power to you. If you seek encouragement from reading a story that’s uplifting, inspirational, metaphysical or visionary, be my guest. If you enjoy thought-provoking controversy or pungent social commentary, prepare to be pungently provoked.

Unfortunately, the effort to avoid crossing genre lines within one story, may be what makes it difficult for some who do write within a single genre to create well-developed characters. I can think of nothing that’s better guaranteed to result in a flat, uninteresting “cardboard” character, than to deny that character the opportunity to think, say, and live the variety of things that real people get to do.

Moreover, social, political, or historical commentary, psychopathology, and metaphysical or inspirational themes are also among the subjects that can electrify the Third Rail. When character-catalyzing controversies are made off-limits, writers may resort to awkward back-story data dumping, relying on excessively detailed physical descriptions, and proposing improbable plots to drive their stories.

Should all stories combine genres? Perhaps not, but the leavening that some amount of mixing can provide, would go far towards eliminating charges of “formulaic” genre fiction.

Fusion Fiction powered by the Third Rail invites readers to an experience as vivid and varied as any may wish life would be. If a story challenges me to join up the dots in a different way, every time I re-read it, you’ll find that novel in my bookcase.

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