Saturday, 26 January 2019

Saying what cannot be said

In writing a book, especially for the Evangelical marketplace, some things cannot be said, and this can be awkward.

The three dodgy areas are profanity, vulgarity and sex.

My own fiction writing has included a series of novels about Catholic monks.  One big difference between Catholic monastics and Evangelicals is how they use the name of God. There is no problem for a Catholic about exclaiming"My God!" as an expression of pain or surprise or outrage — but Evangelicals often classify this as blasphemy, unless it is clearly part of a prayer.

I do not personally consider it blasphemous or profane. A Catholic monastic is so profoundly steeped in God's company that every breath belongs to and refers to the holy, and it is hard to write about monastics without including this quirk of speech. Fortunately, in the Evangelical wing of the church there is no high regard for Our Lady or for the Mass or any of the saints. So the way round the problem is to use their names instead. The outraged monk is allowed to exclaim "By the mass!" or "Sancta Maria!", even if his distributor is going to be Kregel.

Vulgarity is also a difficult issue. It's not easy to write about the Middle Ages omitting the word "piss". Shit is also big in any human life — and fiction has above all else to be truthful — but you cannot say that either. So you have to open the thesaurus and be a bit inventive.

Thus, I might have a character say: "I've been sent down here to dig out the gong. For my sins, I generally get to be the man who has to shovel the smelly stuff. I've been shifting ordure all morning, and right sick of it I am."

Please note the avoidance of repetition as well as of words that might give offence. Nobody says "shit", though that is evidently what he means. "Shovel" is not used twice, the second time he says "shift". "Ordure" and "the smelly stuff" are used to create alternative instead of repetition. 

In my early days of writing I'd have simply let "the gong" stand. Nowadays, arcane phrases the reader probably won't know annoy me — so I'd either footnote it or put it in the glossary. The gong is the accumulated pile of shit you get in the garden, just outside a house beneath the outlet of the drop toilet in the bedroom. 

Then there's the delicate business of writing about sex. 

Have you ever heard of a demi-sexual? It turns out I am one. I have an aversion to graphic or overt expressions of sex outside the context of close personal relationship. If sex scenes come on the telly, I have to shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears. If sex scenes are included in books, I stop reading right there and get rid of the book.  However, I am entirely comfortable with my own sexuality, and have no sense of inhibition within the context of my faithful, monogamous, personal sexual partnership. I know. Odd, isn't it?

That's just specific to me, but as I writer I must also work with the parameters of my publisher and marketplace. 

The publishers I have met seem to have little or no problem with sex in novels (less than I do myself), and enjoy what they regard as "a bit racy". Everyone uses this phrase to describe Catherine Fox's writing, but I cannot comment — because they all say it's racy, I've never read her work.

The gatekeepers when it comes to the marketplace (I'm talking about Christian fiction now) are the distributors and retailers, and they have definite and rather fierce standards about sex in fiction: there mustn't be any.

I'm okay with that as a writer — but the thing is, humanity is sexual, and that's just the way things are. You have to find a way to give it expression somehow. You have to say it without saying it. 

Actually, it brings to my mind a poem penned by D.H. Lawrence, deeply fed up after they burned his Lady Chatterley:
Can you tell me what's wrong
With the word or with you
That you don't mind the thing
But the word is taboo?

I must say, I think he did have a point.

The line in the sand is differently drawn depending where you are. 
There is real life, then there is UK Christian fiction, then there's US Christian fiction.
My book The Clear Light of Day was first published by Monarch for Lion Hudson in the UK. At the end of it, two people share a bed. They are romantically involved with each other, but because this is Evangelical Christian fiction they must not have sexual intercourse. So they don't, though in real life they (probably) would.
But when later David C. Cook, a US Evangelical Christian publisher, picked up that book, the last chapter had to be re-written so that the two people in question did not share a bed; one of them had to stay downstairs on the living room sofa. It was okay. The character didn't mind. He was happy to make that alternative choice, and it was his sofa.
I think either version of the story worked all right — but I was intrigued by the variation in requirement.

Elsewhere, I sometimes used terminology we often associate with sex to describe a character in a non-sexual setting, thus establishing their physicality and sensuality, to make their humanity properly rounded and give it depth.

In my book The Long Fall, one of the characters who is celibate because he's a monk, and is also substantially disabled by a stroke, is taken for a walk in a wheelchair by his friend, at night:

‘Are you all right?’ Tom asked quietly, releasing his hold on the handles of the barrow and resting his hands lightly on Peregrine’s shoulders.
‘Y-es. Oh ... T-om ... th-th-th ... s-s-stars.’ His voice was filled with the sweet agony of his yearning delight. ‘I l-l-lo ... m... .’
‘Yes. I know. You love the stars.’
In silent consummation Peregrine drank in the beauty of the night; the wide enchanting wilderness of stars, the close enfolding of the secret dark, losing himself in the music of loveliness. He closed his eyes and lifted his face hungrily against the exquisite kiss of the night air. ‘Oh, le bien,’ he sighed. ‘Oh mon Dieu, comme c’est bien ...’
Tom stood a long while, perfectly still, unwilling to intrude upon this silent communion. Then he took the handles of the chair again, and pushed it along the path, slowly, among the scented plants. He stopped beside a rosemary bush that had grown out across the path so that it brushed against them. Peregrine leaned over and buried his face among the thrusting young shoots.
‘Oh, mon Dieu ...’ He breathed in the heady, resinous aroma; ‘Oh le bien!’ He reached out his hand and rubbed the fragrant leaves against his face until the air was suffused with the scent.
‘Smells so clean and good, doesn’t it?’ said Brother Tom. ‘It makes you feel more alive.’
‘M ... y-es. Oh y-es.’ He righted himself in the chair, and they continued slowly through the fragrant paths of the physic garden.

Nothing sexual takes place here — but the component parts (intimate friendship, night-time, losing oneself in intense sensory experience, the semi-articulate expressions of pleasure and delight) would all be at home in a context of sexual experience. It's a way of writing a sexual being (character) without writing sexual doing (event).

The same was true in writing about the abbot's attraction to a married woman in my novel The Beautiful Thread. One way of proceeding is to stay with the character's emotions and impulses, without taking them through into any form of physical expression. This can even intensify rather than weaken. Like this:

"The last light shone from the west and though the sun had not yet gone down, the shadows began to gather in the hollows. John turned his head to look at Rose. To his consternation, though he did not move, his hands could feel the warmth of her shoulders and the texture of her linen dress, his mouth knew the feel of her cheek as if he had kissed it. The sense of intimacy and immediacy jolted through him like a shock, something more than he could assimilate. He felt the power of it travel through his whole body. The loveliness and gentle wisdom of this woman. He looked away again. In the grass, a forget-me-not, ardent sweet blue, just coming into flower. He wanted to pick it and give it to her. Caught in the confusion between the insistent clamour of warning arisen with him, and the anguished rebellion of his heart, he did not move. He sat as still as a stone.

Resonant upon the dying light, the bell rang out for Compline, calling the community to put the day to rest. Rose stood up, turning to look down at John as he still sat on the step. ‘Father John?’ she said. ‘Time to go.’ And so it was."

In other contexts (for instance, The Breath of Peace, which is actually about the marriage relationship) it would have been seriously incongruous to not include a sex scene. Even so, publishing into an international (primarily UK/US) Evangelical Christian marketplace, the cautions and boundaries remained, and had to be honoured.

So there are always paths around these obstacles, and part of the interest and enjoyment in being a professional writer is figuring them out. Writers and publishers for the Christian marketplace often rail against them, wanting fictional characters given freedom to swear, to use vulgar expressions, to engage in fully expressed sexual congress. Is this not all part of being a grown up human being? Isn't it real?

Somewhat to my surprise, I have come to value the peace and respect implicit in working within these established boundaries. Some readers (me, for example) may find it invasive and unwelcome to be confronted with strong vulgarities and explicit description of sexual congress. And it isn't necessary. We, being ourselves real, understand what is implied; we don't need it played out in full graphic detail righter there in our faces.


greta said...

lucky me, i was able to snag a copy of the UK version of 'the clear light of day.' that final scene was one of the loveliest and most romantic that i've ever encountered. simply beautiful!

Pen Wilcock said...


Thank, you Greta! I'm so pleased you liked that story! xx

Suzan said...

I am like you. I don't need to read or hear or see sexual relationships.

Pen Wilcock said...

Interesting. In our mass-media world I think the predilections of a percentage are possibly imposed on a large body of reluctant recipients!

Rachel marsh said...

One of those oddities of life ..
After reading this I caught up on Twitter, only to find QI had defined the word gong (A gong farmer’s job was to dig out excrement from cesspits and privies in Tudor England).

Pen Wilcock said...

No! How weird is that?! One of those days when you think, "Well the Universe is clearly speaking to me, but . . . er . . . what the hey?"

Buzzfloyd said...

I wouldn't have noticed that 'gong' would be unfamiliar terminology to most people! History is a normal subject of conversation in our house.

I hate sex scenes, especially when they seem gratuitous (which is about 95% of the time). They're as bad as watching close ups of people eating. Embarrassingly intimate and quite disgusting. I'm a bit contrary, though, in that I want to know that the characters are sexually involved without being given the intimate details of it.

There's a superb moment in one of Terry Pratchett's books (he was very shy of sex scenes, thank God) in which he says that two characters closed the door and then the bedsprings went 'gloing' - a reference set up earlier in the book, making the moment humorous, tender and private. Also moving the story and characters on enormously in only a sentence or two.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, well done, Pratchett! To say what you mean without dragging us all through the endurance of every graphic detail.
Bedsprings — reminds me of S.J.Perelman: " "Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin — it's the triumphant twang of a bedspring" - S. J. Perelman."

Anonymous said...

Hi Penelope
Many,many years ago I attempted to write fiction for the Christian market. I attended writer's groups and seminars to gain knowledge about getting published, and there I found out that certain US publishers of Christian fiction would not allow the words "darn" or "shoot" in a manuscript, because they were representational of something they deemed worse! That just told me I would have to stifle my character's reality to a point that would stifle my own creativity and ability to tell my/their stories. I abandoned my efforts to write for publication, and have only rather recently begun to consider submitting some of my work for possible publication again. Good thing I enjoy the process, there may never be a product for anyone but myself to read!

Pen Wilcock said...

The publishers are often the best judges of what the gatekeepers in the marketplace will stand. The thing is, there are some large church groups and associated retail chains who will not hesitate to bring down and entire publishing house and all its writers if they object to something in one of the books it publishes — they exert power by threat of boycott. It is frustrating for a writer who already feels a compromise has been made in choosing such words as "darn" or "shoot", to be told that won't do either!
There are some issues on which I won't budge (matters of moral principle rather than aesthetic), but in the main I feel that it's a test of my ability as a writer to go and think of ways round the difficulty. Another possible way forward is to self publish — or write for the mainstream marketplace, where you can say what you like. Or look for a UK publisher, where the lines of acceptability are somewhat differently drawn. May your writing flourish!