The yuck factor in fiction

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.

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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?

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20 thoughts on “The yuck factor in fiction

  1. I’m not a big fiction reader, but whether a fiction book or a movie, I find that “too much info” ruins it. Somehow the romantic or scary or horrible aspect is actually LESSENED for me by describing/showing too much. I think it is much better when more is left to the imagination of the reader or watcher.

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    1. I agree. Though sometimes, as a fiction writer, I’ve found it necessary to show some horrible things . . . just not in excruciating detail. Usually I try to find those “telling details” that convey whatever needs to be conveyed rather than give blow-by-blow descriptions. Finding that “just right” balance between too much detail and too little (which can lead to whitewashing evil, if the author isn’t careful) is very difficult. After I talked with the fiction editor, she said that sometimes they’ve been able to work with the author to edit a piece for publication if it’s extremely strong (and, I suspect, the yuck isn’t too pervasive in the piece).

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  2. A big, fat NO!
    Like you I steer clear of romance, erotica, horror, vampires, demons and much more. Especially “madness”, mental hospitals, graphic details of mental illness, etc. I’ve lived it and don’t want more of it. (My memoir has some sections about my hospitalizations, but I did not want to go into major detail and it wasn’t necessary to the story I wanted to tell – there are enough books like that available as it as.)

    I’m sure that “Ruminate” has tons of slime-free submissions and, while I understand your not wishing to force your taste on readers (which shows how great an editor you are) I still think our world needs less slime as opposed to more.
    Simplistic?
    Yes.
    Unfair?
    Maybe.
    But there you have it!

    Great post!!!!!!

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    1. Dyane, thanks for weighing in. As I told Laura in the comment above, my editor’s advice was that if there was enough merit to the story AND the worst of the explicit/yucky stuff could be toned down (with the author’s help/willingness) then I could consider passing it on as a “maybe.” I don’t think that was the case with either story; the yuck factor was too pervasive throughout and too deeply entrenched in the authors’ worldviews. In my experience on a writing review site, a lot of authors don’t want anyone to tell them that their “babies” are too . . . whatever, and are unwilling to change it. ‘But it’s in there for a REASON! I’m showing the depravity of the world!!’ Sure, but the world has enough evil in it. Besides, look at the classic novels; Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, and a whole host of others dealt with horrible people and terrible crimes, yet the authors don’t resort to yuck.

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  3. Great post Laura.. brings up some great questions.. why do we need/ want to read that kind of yucky.. I certainly don’t and absolutely will not.. we do need to show the world that a story does not have to resort to sex or other sick in order to sell. Great points!!!

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    1. Vicki, good for you for knowing what you won’t read. A lot of people don’t bother to think about it at all, and end up being influenced by some horrible things, and that includes Christians.

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  4. I think you made the right call. I have to be careful what I read, watch or listen to (because I listen to the radio and audiobooks a lot). I also find it fluctuates, because sometimes something is triggering but not other times. When I went through EMDR I could only cope with children’s books and bland fiction. I bought and watched the entire Anne of Green Gables series and then the Road to Avonlea! Even the bible was triggering. I couldn’t read the gospels because I couldn’t cope with the crucifixion. And the Old Testament was way too much for me. There are ways of writing about horribleness without the gore. Less is more. If it’s too much it becomes voyeuristic.

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    1. Sandy, I was thinking about you while I wrote this. I wanted to be VERY careful in how I described what was so awful in these stories because I didn’t want anyone to be triggered. I was also hesitant to even pass it on to my editors because I don’t know if any of them might be triggered; I still don’t know them well enough.

      P.S.: I can definitely see how the Bible could be triggering. There’s some very rough stuff in there. I’m glad you knew that you should stick to the bland and safe; I’m not a big fan of “safe” fiction, but there’s a definite useful purpose to it. 🙂

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  5. I thought your point in one of the comments above is important, Laura: finding the right balance between giving too little detail and therefore seeming to gloss over evil, and giving too much detail so that the reader is potentially traumatized. And as you say, audience is really important; the people submitting to Ruminate should be familiar with the journal and have a sense about what is normally published there; they shouldn’t be trying to “challenge” Ruminate readers in some inappropriate way. I’ve subscribed to Ruminate for a few years now and have never read anything in it that was sickeningly explicit, though there’s certainly been some difficult subject matter.

    As for just our own personal reading, I think we do all have different tastes and comfort levels. Many of the characters in my stories are lower-middle-class people and they swear and curse. I myself do not swear and curse, nor do my family and friends. But these people do. My brother read one of my stories and wondered what had happened to his sweet little sister. 🙂 But I’m OK with “language.” Some readers find profanity disturbing, tempting, and/or offensive. So I think we all have to listen to that inner voice, that “kick in the gut” to tell us what WE, personally, should not write or read.

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    1. I just wanted to clarify my comment above, because it sounds like I’m implying that all lower-middle-class people swear & curse while those in “higher” classes don’t (which of course isn’t true). I just mean that that’s the kind of people MY fictional characters sometimes are.

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    2. Thanks for weighing in, Jeannie, as you’re familiar with Ruminate and what content it publishes. I’m constantly shaking my head in bewilderment at some of the submissions; the authors obviously know nothing about Ruminate, or they’d know that a “erotic story with spice” (for example) wouldn’t be appropriate. Yet they submit anyway. It’s particularly strange in the contests where people are spending money to enter their work. You’d think they’d do some research before handing over twenty bucks!

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  6. Is it story driven, or is it meant for cheap thrills? And, even though the subject matter may not be Christian, if you are a Christian you have a responsibility to your readers and to God. I hope if I ever get published I won’t offend or corrupt someone. Now, of course, you can offend with a political opinion or just because something horrible in the world is happening and certain people don’t want to hear it. But that is another story. Dreadful things happen every moment of every day in this world.

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    1. In these two cases, I think the authors could make the case that it was story-driven, but whether it was a story that needed to be told is a different issue. In one, I think that the if the author could’ve found a way to tone down (waaay down) and remove much of the yuck, then the story could’ve been compelling and show that grace is available to even the worst of offenders. In the other, well, I didn’t think the story showed any potential for grace in its fictional world.

      Pretty much any story that deals with reality has the potential to offend someone. (Certain of Jesus’ parables offended the Pharisees!) It’s a question of offending the right people–those who are too complacent–and not corrupting the vulnerable. I’ll be the first to tell folks that my current WIP (about a sex trafficking survivor) is not for those who have been abused. It’s for those who want to pretend this horror isn’t happening and pretend that recovering from sex trafficking is as easy as escaping the situation. It isn’t.

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  7. Interesting comments which struck home very strongly. I am an avid reader of very old to very modern literature, but I find I just stop reading out of disappointment at the too graphic content, often in books others extol as riveting.
    Gratuitous anything stops me reading on. Ugly sex, graphic cruelty, anything spiritually off course and iPad books deleted, or once, a book so heavily evil…it was palpable in the very air I breathed….burned.
    A thing I never thought I would do as I love my books!
    Any topic can be valid for an author, but the handling of issues certainly needs the ‘yuck’ factor radar turned on high.
    Love your posts, thanks to Tim for pointing me to your work.

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    1. I’ve burned a book, too, which sounds appalling but it really was that horrible! As a writer, I know I have to be on alert for what’s enough/too much in handling difficult topics (which seem to be topics that I gravitate toward in my writing, considering that my previous novels have included suicide, rape, sex trafficking, cutting . . .!) Thanks for reading, Ruth.

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