Graphic Content In Books: Can It Add Value?

This is a difficult post for me to write. For two specific reasons; I understand why not everyone can tolerate explicit content, and I do believe it must be limited to the right place and time. With that said, I recently finished The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill and wanted to discuss why I am able to appreciate some of those heavy hitters that may leave others gritting their teeth or saying no.

Graphic Content in Books

I am one of those readers who can often be caught exploring darker titles that many I encounter have deemed too unsettling or even crude. A lot of times I will walk away from some of those books with mixed emotions. There is the side of me that easily grasps why the audience for such works as Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or McCarthy’s The Road may be very specific and then there is that part of me that cannot help but feel they are deserving of so much more. So I am tempted to explore what it is that makes these dark and unsettling titles so powerful and effective. Why am I drawn to them? Clearly, I do not read about violence and disturbing scenes for the simple sake of doing so. It certainly is not fun.

I consider the audience.
There are limits in toleration that are more pronounced based on targeted audience. What one may find acceptable in an adult book could quite possibly become appalling in a middle grade or even YA title. Understanding the intended readers can alter the experience. If I were to pick up one of the above titles and believe the author was attempting to reach anything other than an adult audience, my moral compass would have gone haywire and I would not have completed the books. This is where YA and I walk a fine line together, however. I am still trying to understand the defining age group of today’s YA.

Then I find myself weighing in on whether it feels gratuitous.
Does that brutal scene that made your skin crawl serve a real purpose? Did the author achieve something of great significance or invoke a necessary emotion by adding that level of violence or discomfort? I constantly assess how each decision fits within the story and whether the omission of is would have resulted in a less memorable or impactful effect. Be it sexual, violent, or even graphic representation of drug abuse it must serve a true purpose in order for me to accept it.

So does graphic content add value?
In the end, if I feel it targeted an appropriate audience, carried a relevant theme and believe the author is mindful of how they chose to present the content, I have found my tolerance can be extremely high. And more often than not, some of my most rewarding encounters with books have been the more challenging ones. Life is full of hurdles, and as much as we may or may not talk about them, there are many disturbing issues that warrant discussion. I find incorporating these elements into books can bring about important discussion and raise much-needed awareness. Difficult themes are often thought-provoking and challenge us as readers and individuals. For that reason, I will always believe that there is value to be found in the addition of graphic content when utilized properly.

I hold a high level of admiration for authors who have the ability to take the edgier aspects of life and implement them successfully to give their stories that raw element of truth. But I feel it must be done so intelligently. Know your audience and prepare them.

How do you feel about graphic stories? Are you able to appreciate them or do you find that you are better off to avoid them? What are some of the limits you have set in place when reading stories with heavier themes and content?

Let’s Chat,

Danielle ❤

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58 thoughts on “Graphic Content In Books: Can It Add Value?

  1. Hi D, I like graphic content when done well. sometimes it’s unnecessary and too graphic, when the author uses words to tell instead of showing us. Which makes it all cluttered and what not, but I love graphic content in general when written well it makes my heart pound and captures my emotions.

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  2. I don’t mind graphic content but it has to be a novel set up to show this. When I’m reading a novel that is rather mellow and I’m hit with this in the end it never sits right. It has happened at least twice now and it disappoints me then but when a novel is dark from the beginning then it’s accepted and it won’t bring my rating down because of it.

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    1. Yes! I feel like the author needs to know their audience and prepare them. It should never be a shock factor really. It should be an expected and intelligently used tool that serves a stronger purpose. Throwing it in randomly does not accomplish anything too successful in my opinion either Inge.

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  3. I don’t mind graphic content as long as it’s relevant and well written. I never finished A Clockwork Orange, but that was more because of the slang he developed for it which I just couldn’t get my head around. One that I found really horrifying was American Psycho, but it was also really effective. Very explicit, very graphic, but in the context of the book it’s also very effective, because I’ve always felt that you aren’t really meant to enjoy reading the book in general.

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    1. I have yet to read American Psycho and am curious to see where I will sit with it. I tend to have a high tolerance, but only when I feel it is accomplishing something of value with the reader. A Clockwork Orange can be very challenging with the slang alone, so I get that! It is a favorite of mine, but it honestly to two attempts to get past the dialogue he developed and I think the film prepared me for some of it? I could not agree more though. If the author is implementing the content for the right reason, it is incredibly useful. Graphic content can convey emotions and solicit thought in the deepest ways when used correctly. Thanks so much Morgan!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fantastic and really interesting post.

    I don’t mind gratuity/graphic content at all. I was brought up watching 18 rated films when I was 10.lol and I’m accustomed to it, I don’t mind, like and even enjoy it in books.

    But, it’s personal preference which I don’t think some people get, just because they find something overly gratuitous/graphic it doesn’t mean that it is, only that it is to them. There are cases where things are overly gratuitous/graphic though and it is too much for anyone.

    I read grimdark, it’s gratuitous/graphic by nature and often you expect it in that genre. Same for thrillers, some have gratuitous killings, etc and they fit the book and you expect a bit of gratuity/graphic content.

    I do think though that whilst at times it fits the book, it’s the same as pacing, action, characterisation, etc, certain things fit certain books that also, sometimes it doesn’t fit and it has been shoehorned in merely because it’s expected and as shock value. It’s not just books though, games, TV and film all do it too and with everyone constantly pushing the boundaries things are only going to get more gratuitous and graphic.

    So, for me, I don’t mind it at all and have no issues with it but on the flip side I also have things that don’t really register on the gratuity/graphic content scale and yet I can’t stand in books too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I grew up exposing myself to a lot of content that was forbidden. I snuck horror books (King) and films. I was young and the appeal was originally the forbidden element was ever appealing 😉 so I developed a tolerance early on as well.

      If is works for you, it works! I think it is definitely a writing tool of great value. And even in grimdark it solicits powerful emotions that I imagine the stories would suffer incredibly without. Those authors know their audience and the audience knows what to expect (I would hope). So maybe it is not entirely gratuitous in that sense?

      I also have something I have almost zero tolerance for that fall beyond graphic and will never stomach well. I think we may all have triggers though.

      Great point to bring up genres such as Grimdark Drew!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For me, it’s kind of a yes and no answer. I read Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys and I thought it did a very good job showing the graphic violence that jews had to experience. I had to stop reading the book once and awhile because I thought I was going to be sick. So although I didn’t necessarily like reading it, I thought it was important to the story. So I would say, like you, I don’t mind it but it does need to be relevant to the story being told and needs to add some kind of impact for the reader instead of just being the book for the sole purpose of it. Great discussion 😀

    Amber @ Escape Life in the Pages

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Amber! And you are so right. Even when the author is achieving something of value with graphic scenes, we are all still going to have personal limits or triggers. There have been a few titles I had much respect for but had to take breathers from. But they were highly effective!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with you, and i think as long as it serves a purpose, I don’t mind it. Don’t see the point in the mindless violent scenes that have no reflection on them afterwards, or doesn’t show how it emotionally affected someone. (Unless it’s a horror book. There it’s kinda expected).

    When i was younger, (13-15), some shit happened to me that people would call “graphic” or “violent” if it was written as a book scene. So whenever an author actually includes stuff like that and the emotional aftermath, i just want to give that book to everyone to read and reflect on. Back when it happened to me, i tried talking about it, but was mostly dismissed, or when i talked to my friends (similar age) they didn’t know what to say or how to handle it, even though they understood it was something bad/wrong/not ok.

    Most of these things are still considered taboo, i’ll be damned if i know why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Norrie. You bring up such a personal and valid point for me. I also had a traumatic incident from my childhood that I was unable to share or convey properly with others. But I did find an outlet and way to express some that to a few close.friends in the form of books that dealt with the topic. And I know they would not have been as empowering or effective without including the difficult content!

      Violence and graphic scenes are another tool that authors have in their arsenal. It is definitely a matter of how effectively they choose to use them. Knowing their audience and timing those scenes to invoke the right feelings can leave a powerful impression.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Graphic scenes don’t bother me, but the context matters. I would expect a graphic, violent scene in a George R.R. Martin book, but not in, say, a work by Tolkien (battles, yes, but not in explicit detail). The audience is also a factor. Younger teens might not be able to handle something that older teens can.

    It’s really weird, what people will put up with. I know someone who has watched all the seasons of Criminal Minds twice (a show that features serial killers and their gruesome murders all the time), but they couldn’t handle one episode of Penny Dreadful, where vampires (made up creatures) got shot on screen. They were irate at me for recommending Penny Dreadful because of its violence, and I had thought it would be fine since they watch a show that deals with horrendous, real world violence.

    I suppose it depends on the person, what their tolerance is, but in some genres a certain amount of violence is expected. If someone complains because the murdery mystery novel talks about murder, I’m not sure what to do about them..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is definitely an individual preference. But I feel audience is the first and most important step. Knowing who target viewers are and making sure they understand what to expect. Similar as you mentioned in comparing Tolkien and GRRM. I have heard GRRMs work referred to as gratuitous but often disagree. His scenes tend to be utilized well enough to solicit powerful and lasting emotions and therefore serve a solid purpose. Fans know if it is coming. But you would not hand his work to a younger or more squeamish audience.

      I would have though Criminal Minds would contain way more possible triggers. But maybe the problem was that the viewer was not able to see the purpose of the content as easily in Penny Dreadful? Although, I would imagine it to be expected given plot.

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      1. That’s what I had thought about Criminal Minds, too. Waaay more triggers than a lot of other shows out there, but somehow less violent? I dunno. If it is part of the story and well done, it doesn’t bother me.

        You definitely have to think about audience and category, especially since cover blurbs do a terrible job of describing the actual plots.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hey, Danielle! I wrestle with my “limits” all the time as a reader. I feel that the purpose of reading is to discover different lives, and sometimes the people behind those lives are very violent, cruel, etc. I consider myself fearless in that I’m not afraid to open that door and find out a little bit about who’s behind it. I did read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and loved it, although there were a few scenes that gave me nightmares. I’ve also read “American Psycho”–though I did DNF it at about 25% in. As far as I’m concerned I will never pick it up again–it’s vile, racist, and the women-centered violence so extensive that I just found it ridiculous and cheap.

    Generally, I have few triggers. I don’t mind objectionable content (sex, drugs, violence)–but, like you, ask myself if its really moving the story forward. If it isn’t, I put it in the gratuitous category and consider DNF’ing it. I don’t do “torture porn” (extensive scenes of sexual abuse, rape, etc) because I feel like in this day and age–what does such writing really accomplish? I would hope that people are more progressive than just showing the act, there’s gotta be something critical to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kellan! It sounds like we are on similar pages and may even share some triggers. I have yet to brave American Psycho as you are not the first to tell me it is so problematic. I keep saying I will, but it most likely will be one of the one the few titles I won’t tolerate well. I agree that graphic content is a powerful tool for authors that must be utilized with care and knowledgeably. Knowing the audience and understanding the long terms effects and whether they serve a greater purpose is must!

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  9. I usually do not care for graphic scenes in books, but I do make exceptions. I like Chuck Pahluniak novels, and they are pretty gritty. Morgan mentioned American Psycho in a comment above. I read American Psycho, and for that particular book, the graphic nature was necessary. I have gotten so squeamish, I don’t know if I could read it, now. Morgan made a good point, though, in that you are not supposed to be comfortable, as you read it. :-/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is just it! While I will never fault someone for choosing not to read certain titles. There is definitely a time when the discomfort can serve a true purpose though. If it raises awareness or solicits appropriate feelings, I am usually very tolerant. I struggle most if I feel the targeted audience is too young or the content is completely unexpected. Authors need to understand their audience just as we learn what to expect from them. Thank you so much Icky!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Danielle. You have explored some ideas I have long considered in my mind. I don’t read anything which contains graphic content, physically or emotionally. I have a reactive mind and it causes me more emotional and physical harm than good from stretching my own experiences. That said, I think there is certainly a place for it in literature. If the content, as you mentioned, provides value to the story and understanding the goal– I don’t find it inappropriate. For example, in fantasy, these medieval worlds need to violent to help understand the environment and political nature. Does it need to be graphic? Perhaps. What’s the goal of the scene?

    I like to push my reading boundaries regularly, but I won’t do it with graphic content. It’s just not for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jackie! I know we all have varying tolerance levels and triggers. I admit my own are pretty high. Reading is such a personal and individual experience that what works properly for one might actually he almost traumatic for another! So you are right. We have to question what purpose the content serves and whether we are okay with the means the author chose to achieve it. I will never fault another for opting out of exploring the more graphic side of literature though, as I completely understand the challenges.

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  11. First of all, I have to say that I LOVE this post! If I ever get around to writing content posts again, I can only hope to aspire to your level of thoughtfulness. Well done!

    I’ve read many books in my lifetime that contain graphic violence–all of them targeted at adult readers. There are times when, if it’s particularly horrific, I have to stop reading for a while and reflect on how I feel about it. I don’t recall setting a book aside permanently because of it, though. I don’t enjoy reading such things, but as long as it feels true to the story being told, and not gratuitous, I don’t have a problem with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading your comment means so much to me. I am not sure my content is exactly where I want it to be just yet, so thank you so much! I seriously almost trashed this because I was unhappy with it. I am in this stage of constantly second guessing all that I write. Do you do that any?

      I think that is really the key for me. What is the author’s true goal? Are they using difficult content to convey relevant and important themes? Did it solicit an emotion or thought that was necessary or that I feel challenged by? If so, my tolerance is pretty high. It is rare that explicit or graphic scenes will bother me. More often than not, if it does it is because I have discovered them in a book that targeted an audience I felt was too young.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw, you’re welcome. 🙂 I always enjoy reading your content posts! As for second guessing what I write, oh my goodness–I do it ALL the time! (That’s why it takes me so long to write my reviews after I finish a book. I never like what I have to say about it. LOL)

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  12. I think it depends on the book (which sounds like a cop out answer, but is probably true!). I don’t necessarily like graphic content, but I think trying to be *too* circumspect sometimes means these things lose impact. Like, in ASH PRINCESS, the girl gets brutally whipped, but I honestly just never cared. It was probably a combination of the whipping not being that graphic AND surrounding issues like the way the character responded to it (telling me it was awful but not actually seeming impacted by it), but, yeah. I think some graphic description can serve a purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No I completely agree! It really does depend on the book. Because it depends on what the author is trying to achieve (at least in my opinion) and the audience. Well placed content can really impact our emotions and drive us to think. It challenges us. And so glad you mentioned lack of because it can certainly lead to the opposite. If an author tones certain scenes down too much (which is really also a matter of personal opinion) then they can fail to challenge us or solicit any true thought or feeling. Reading is such an individualized experience that what works for one may fail completely with another.

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  13. What a wonderful post, Danielle! We must have some similar reading habits. I regularly read books that, while I *love* them personally, require a bit of a disclaimer before I recommend them. The intended audience plays a big role in what would shock me; if Blood Meridian were marketed at YA, I think I’d have those cartoon popping eyes. But beyond the audience I also look at how the book is marketed either on a wide scale or just how the back copy reads. Does it suggest a darker tone or, if the author is established, suggest that this fits in well with their previous works? I’m extremely open to what can be explored in fiction (even if I don’t want to read about a particular topic, that doesn’t make it taboo) but I also sympathize with readers who may feel ambushed by content. I will say that what I love about the book community, as far as I’ve encountered it, is that people are generally open minded about what others choose to read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! And I feel marketing and knowing audiences ultimately play such a huge role in how those more controversial titles are received. Is the author and marketing team knowing and targeting the right “viewers”? Because that makes a world of difference as can putting the disclaimers out there. The content can be very beneficial and well received when handled intelligently, but no one deserves to be overwhelmed or caught off guard completely as we all have personal triggers. I do feel like you and I have very like minded approaches 😊

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  14. Hi Danielle, I think, for me, it depends on the nature of the graphic content. Graphic sexual content, rape and child abuse are a bit to much for me. It just upsets me to much so I will skip it in a book. Supernatural and murders are usually fine, it doesn’t disturb me in the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Content can certainly be everything. It can really determine the necessity of the scene and whether it is adding any real value or evoking the correct emotions. I also have similar triggers. Most I will power through if I feel the author’s purpose is important, but I particularly struggle when children are involved and find I can rarely handle it. So I understand completely!

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  15. It’s interesting. I find graphic content so much easier to handle in books vs movies, particularly violence. I wonder if that’s because, most of the time, in books (at least the good ones) it does serve a purpose. (Although I am super sick of rape being used constantly as a plot device…) But in movies a lot of times it’s just…honestly half the time I don’t even know why they need to do it…just to appease the blood-lust in people? Also there might be something to how your own imagination can tone down a graphic scene vs onscreen there’s no way to escape it. Either way, I tend to feel like the graphic content of books is usually done well and serves a purpose, at least in the books I read! You pose an interesting, thought-provoking question though. As always, thanks for a great blog and thanks for writing about something that makes me think!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You raise such a valid and interesting point! There definitely seems to be a huge difference in how we register and perceive such content bia screen vs book (at least for me). I do think it might be that we certainly are a tad more in control of it and the pacing when we are reading. We can pull back and pause as needed where on the screen it is in your face, happening now exactly as the artist determines. Also, I also agree that it seems to be utilized more often in a less meaningful manner in a lot of films. Which makes it significantly harder to digest for many of us? Thank you so much!

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  16. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful discussion post, Danielle. I do love what people have to say about violence in any form of entertainment. Nowadays I feel like we got extremely desensitized to violent scenes because of how much of it we are exposed to everyday through media. In books, I pray that any violent component serve a purpose and that it is not gratuitous as you mention here. If violence/gore isn’t part of the universe, and if it isn’t used to reflect upon the level of cruelty or its mere presence, I’ll probably end up questioning it. Sometimes I also feel like well-done violence is really… cathartic for the soul. Not saying that we should indulge in violent behaviours. Hell no. But living it through other characters helps… somehow… sometimes. Again, great post, Danielle!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could not agree more Lashaan! It is important to have that exposure to the truth (even uncomfortable ones) but must be done in the right context. I am personally very tolerant of graphic content but can only appreciate it and find value when the author has utilized it to convey something meaningful to the reader! What did I gain from the encounter? Did it solicit a heavy emotion that encouraged me to further explore or confront a significant topic? And was it presented to the ideal audience? These things matter most to me.

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  17. I’m with you about graphic content needing to have a purpose in a story! I don’t like books that use it simply for shock value or to show X is a very, very bad person. I’m sensitive when it comes to any sexual content in books, and will always be more critical of a book that uses say, assault and rape to push a story forward. I feel like writers tend to fall back on that trope of using assault to make someone a hero or as a catalyst for the plot.

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    1. I think sexual assault and violence will always be one of the hardest and finest lines for myself too. It is an extremely difficult topic that absolutely must carry a solid purpose or my tolerance is nonexistent. I do feel that authors are becoming more and more aware of their audiences and learning to use such content more intelligently thankfully. I never favor seeing that shock value simple for just that.

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  18. I read a lot of violent horror so I’m fine with most graphic content in it except when there is torture involving toilet functions like that scene in the human centipede that nearly made me vomit. I’m ok with a smattering of bad language but draw the line at the extreme stuff where there is swearing in every sentence. I read vthe start of a book where the MC was talking about hating the effing fridge being empty and the colour of the effing table and so on-I DNFed that one as the swearing was in every single sentence and it got boring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a great point! Even with language it has to serve a purpose or add some value or character. If an author just litters ever sentence with it, it loses any possible meaningful effect. And yeah, I read a lot of horror too so I accept more than I think some readers might but still have specific triggers and “no way” scenes. I have yet to bring myself to watch Human Centipede for that very reason 😂

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  19. I really agree with the question of whether a graphic scene serves a purpose or not- I think it makes all the difference for me. And there is the question of age group (though I too am having trouble defining what that is nowadays). But like you said, life is full of hurdles and it really can add something.
    Fantastic discussion!

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    1. Thank you! It definitely seems to all fall into proper utilization for sure. I am at a loss with YA anymore though. I mean it is young “adult” to my understanding, but then I see people upset that the content is not fit for children 13 or younger?! I would consider them to be “middle grade”. There are a lot of conflicting opinions on what audience YA is intended for.

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  20. Great post, Dani and I think a really good topic for discussion. I don’t mind graphic content either… I am one of those people that thinks it should be exposed because right or wrong, want it or not, it is a part of ‘reality’ – in books, so many elements are a mirror of real life and real life is a dirty mahfah. why hide the true colours? I get it, it’s certainly NOT for everyone. Most people do read to escape the brutality of RL, but for anyone who does want that connection to remain in between RL and fiction, it’s just a natural element to have… each to their own when it comes to graphic content; I am sure as readers we know our boundaries and choose our reading material wisely, but that doesn’t mean it will not remain one of those ‘evergreen’ topics that readers will always debate about 🙂 I love this post – love how sensibly you approach the theme in fiction! ❤

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    1. So very true Liis! And there are so many reasons an author can choose to utilize graphic content and heavy themes. I think that the biggest factor can sometimes be ensuring that the audience knows what to expect. Since we all have different triggers and tolerances, it is best to be clear about what we are approaching (receiving). That shows a mutual respect and understanding between reader and writer that is of great importance! Like you, I am very open to difficult content. But at the same time, I do have a few triggers and find it frustrating to stumble upon them completely unexpected ❤ Thank you so much!

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  21. I generally don’t mind graphic content, but I’m not sure how I feel about it in YA books—unless it’s REALLY obvious that the book is going to contain that sort of content. I don’t think YA readers should ever have to be surprised by what they find. As far as my own limits, I’m okay with some graphic content, but sometimes it can go too far. For instance, I started reading The Walking Dead graphic novels and by the third volume (hardcover—so this was a lot more individual volumes), I decided to put it aside. I like the show, but the graphic novels are way more extreme—with scenes of violent rape and torture. At some point, I realized it just wasn’t my thing and I didn’t want to subject myself to it anymore. (I also have memories of the movie of A Clockwork Orange, which I watched way too young—those memories are still disturbing to me. Wish I hadn’t seen it.)

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    1. YA seems to be such a tricky area. I have mixed thoughts as I am still trying to understand what the true targeted age audience is for YA? Maybe if that felt more clear, it would be easier to solidify my thoughts. But I could not agree more with you. Readers need to know upfront what to expect. Authors and publishers need to be clear and concise about triggers and content during marketing and blurbs. My tolerance is very high and I still am completely put off when something is thrown in unexpectedly with no warning. I have to ask, what if that were a trigger for me? I would be very upset now. Thank you for sharing some great thoughts on this!

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  22. Damn, I read the title of this post and I was thinking graphics haha. But back on subject, I think some graphic content when done appropriately can have major affect for bringing home the message. But I also believe you can infer quite a bit with out describing the brutality. Describe the feeling rather than the act….if that makes sense. Great discussion 🙂

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    1. It definitely makes sense! I have encountered plenty of scenes where conveying the emotion alone would have more than sufficed. Graphic content is a tool that I feel authors have to learn to utilize wisely, or it becomes a “cheap” gimmick of little value. But when implemented properly, it can certainly drive home important messages 🙂

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      1. This is the reason why I hate the book American Psycho so much. I can honestly say it’s the only book I actually hate and it is with a passion. It is so disgustingly and disturbingly graphic. I could handle one or maybe two scene of something moderately graphic to get the point across the psychopathic behaviour. But the details he goes into I found disturbing, and part of me is concerned how he was able to imagine and come up with that. I should stop now or I’m going to go onto an even bigger rant.

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        1. Rant away! I have been on the fence about this book. It is so often listed as a must read, but I have encountered so many readers like yourself who say the very same. I have no intention of picking it up right now. Not sure if I ever will. Part of me wants to try but the other feels I will be put off completely.

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          1. To be honest I would flip through it until you see a graphic scene and skim it because there are lots and they get pretty bad. If you can handle maybe give it a go. I also found all the characters to be complete garbage people, there is no one to root for.

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