Recently, I encountered an issue as fiction reader that has rarely happened. I can’t quite find the right word to match to my definition: obscenity? Poor taste? None of those quite fits my definition. Besides, I’ve encountered plenty of stories that were in questionable taste (flippant tone about suicide, for example) or obscene (too explicit descriptions of sex, more porn than literature).
Anyway, whatever the term is, here’s the definition:
Left me feeling yucky, slimy, and in dire need of a scrubbing down with a Brillo pad and bleach.
I’ll spare you the details of the story. It might be triggering for some of you. But I’ll say this: it was graphic on a topic that almost every culture finds taboo.
I’m not a prude. I read plenty of fiction that deals with tough subject matter, has foul language, has horrible, depraved characters, and depictions of sex (which I skip or skim or read, depending on the pertinence to the storyline or length or overall tone, whether it is intended to be titillating or not.)
Now, there have been books that I’ve stopped reading for all of the above reasons; they cross a line and will cause me problems later. I feel this kick in my gut that tells me to stop. The times when I haven’t paid attention to that kick are the times when my reading leaves me sickened or fearful of the dark shadows in my own bedroom at night, too scared to leave the safe bed. Even to go to the gym. Even to pee. And there are certain genres that I don’t bother reading, too: romance, erotica, horror, anything with vampires or demons.
So I pay attention to that gut-kicking instinct. (It’s the Holy Spirit, really.) But many times, I can handle that trifecta of “badness” (sex/language/violence) that a lot of my fellow pew-sitters can’t. As long as that’s the minority of my reading material—and I can skip the dicey parts—and view them through the lens of Scripture—then I try to make certain that it doesn’t influence my thinking.
Also, authorial tone is a big factor here, too. Does the author condone this? Do they use it gratuitously? Are they grappling with deep themes and showing a person in need of redemption?
I’m not squeamish.
When a story leaves me feeling slimy, there is a good reason for my feeling. In my time as a Ruminate reader, I’ve encountered two stories like this. Both were (as far as I could tell) well-written. And therein lay the dilemma: was it worth passing on to the higher up readers or casting a vote as a semi-finalist for a contest?
If this were personal reading, this would be easy; I’d toss the book in the trash, stuff it back on the library bookshelf, whatever.
But as a submission reader, I’m looking for merit, not declaring my style. And from experience, I know that my taste isn’t the same as everyone else’s. There’s a lot of well-written literary fiction that works for other people that I can’t bear to read, usually because it’s nauseatingly boring.
So did these works have enough literary merit to outweigh the yuck factor?
I went back to my feelings and logic. If I reacted to this story in this way, how would other readers react? Was this something that Ruminate readers would appreciate?
I can’t quite recall how I voted on the first story. I wish I could. The author was trying to grapple with the possibility of redemption and grace for even the worse, vilest people. I’m fairly certain I said no.
For the second, though, I know I voted no. I decided that the average Ruminate reader would not like it. They might react in much the same way I did: revulsion.
Here’s my question. If you were in my situation, what would you do?