Do you ever wish novels came with warning labels?
Something like: WARNING! This book could plant images in your mind that will disgust you and haunt you forever.
As a writer, I hate the very idea. I don’t want anyone passing up a book because of a label that might not apply to everyone. As a reader, I’ve sometimes wish I’d had a little warning about the content of a novel.
Ironically, this happens most often when I’m reading a book by a favorite author, and it’s usually my own fault. If I love an author’s work, I avoid most reviews of a new book so the story won’t be spoiled for me, but that also means I’m not prepared if it contains horrific scenes that I’ll find revolting. I’m talking about scenes in which the torture of women is described graphically and at length. I’m talking about similar scenes involving animals. And scenes in which children are abused or molested in any way.
Like all mystery readers, I have no problem with ordinary murder. People are murdered all the time. It’s part of the world we live in, and as a storytelling device that allows for the exploration of human motives and society, it is unsurpassed. As a writer, I try to make murder scenes realistic, and that may involve unpleasant details about the state of the body. I can usually read such things, and write them, then put them out of my mind.
Some images, though, won’t go away, and I’d rather not put them into my head in the first place. I avoided reading one Minette Walters novel – although I admire Walters enormously – because I was told it contained descriptions of animal abuse. When I came upon a scene about a cat being tortured in a Robert Crais novel, I had to skip it. The whole point of the scene was to show that Joe Pike had a compassionate heart underneath his silent, forbidding exterior, and I had already seen that demonstrated many times in previous Crais novels.
My most recent “I wish I hadn’t read that” experience was with Nevada Barr’s new book, Burn. (If you plan to read it and don’t appreciate spoilers, you may depart now.) I looked at one review in advance, but it didn’t raise any red flags for me. I listened to the unabridged audio of the book, and although the characters didn’t appeal to me I love Barr’s work and her protagonist, Anna Pigeon, and I never thought of abandoning the book.
I listened to most of Burn with no particular reaction one way or the other. I could tell it would turn out to be about the sexual enslavement of children, and I applauded Barr for tackling such an important and disturbing topic. Then, toward the end, I suddenly found myself listening to graphic descriptions of small children performing sex acts on men in a popular New Orleans establishment and being physically abused in other ways. I continued listening, or half-listening, thinking this part of the book was necessary to make the author’s point and would pass quickly. It continued for many pages, though, and I have only myself to blame for not quitting when I should have. Now the images vividly created by a gifted author are in my memory to stay, and I wish I had passed on that installment of the series.
After finishing the book, I read the reader reviews of Burn on Amazon and was shocked by the virulent tone of many of them. A lot of people seemed personally offended that Barr chose to write about children being used for sex by men. One person called the book “prurient” and implied that Barr was peddling pornography. As a writer, I have to be on Barr’s side (not that she will ever know or care about my opinion). I am opposed to official censorship. I hate the idea of any author being told what he or she may write about. Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and that’s a freedom we should all protect vigilantly – even when we don’t happen to like what’s being said or written.
As a reader, though, I have another right: to choose what I read and to pass up what doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe I’m a weakling, or oversensitive, but there are some things I don’t want to read about and plant in my mind forevermore. I don’t believe in censoring writers, but as a reader I practice a kind of self-censorship. And after my experience with Burn, I’ve decided that in the future I will have to read more reviews, and read them more carefully, before I read the actual books.
What about you? Are there certain topics that will always make you pass up a book? Do you ever wish you had clearer warnings about disturbing content in novels?