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.
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?