An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.
For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.
Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger. When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed. Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.
Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.
On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’
There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’
For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).
This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.