Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler

25 responses to “Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

  1. It is fascinating to track how standards change, especially when so many would like to see them rolled back. John Dickson Carr’s amazing HE WHO WHISPERS features a surpringly sympathetic treatment of nymphomania …

    • Oh, interesting example, Sergio! Thanks for that; it shows exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. And you’re right about the interest some have in seeing standards rolled back. It makes me wonder what will happen.

  2. Col

    I don’t think I get too phased by gory or explicit. A few books I’ve read have gone over the top – Edward Lee’s The Bighead and they become more comedic than horrific, and lose their power. Less is more in a lot of cases.

    • You make a good point, Col. The more gory, explicit, etc., the less the power of the story. Sometimes those smaller doses are very much more effective than ‘overkill.’

  3. I agree with Col, that the less explicit is often more powerful. I’m not usually bothered by profanity, but I find that in films and books where every second word seems to be a swear word, it becomes very wearisome and meaningless almost.

    • You put that quite well, Marina Sofia. When those words are used too often, they do lose their potency. What happens then (at least in my view) is that the story itself (or, at least the scene) loses its power, too. Using explicitness only in carefully measured doses gives it that much more power when it’s needed.

  4. I hate explicit descriptions of sex in books – not because it shocks me, I’m not easily shocked. No, it’s because it bores me rigid! As do descriptions of any bodily functions, quite frankly. Funnily enough, I was thinking about why I react this way earlier today (while reading review after review all of which seemed to be mentioning graphic sex scenes), and came to the conclusion that actually I don’t want to read about the things that show that humans are basically animals, because we all know that already. What interests me are the things that differentiate us from other animals, and those are primarily the things of the mind, not the body. I suspect that’s why I’m not interested in graphic violence either – the motive interests me, the blood doesn’t.

    As for the tedious repetition of foul language, well, you’ve heard my views on that kind of lazy writing often enough, so I’ll maintain a tactful silence… 😉

    • Feel free to express your views at any time, FictionFan 😉 – And you do have a point. I once read a review (can’t honestly remember where or by whom at this point) that mentioned the language, and said that it suggested a lack of better vocabulary on the part of the author. I don’t know that I completely agree with that, but I do see the point of using language a little more skillfully. A few well-placed $*%# words here and there is one thing. But it’s different when every other word would be bleeped out on regular television.

      You also make an interesting point about sex, bodily functions and so on. All animals do those things; and, since humans are animals, too, so do we. But that really isn’t as interesting as what goes on in our minds. So, here again, I think it’s one thing to make a vague reference here and there to certain bodily functions, and some sex scenes can be well done. But an overdose? I don’t think it adds to a story. I really don’t.

  5. Believe it or not, I do have a barometer. Violence or gore for the sake of shocking the reader doesn’t fly with me. Same with sex. If it fits the story line, then fine, but if the author is trying to shock me, it’ll fall flat.

    • I like that barometer, Sue, because it gets at the central question: does it serve the story? If a scene of violence or sex or other explicitness is really essential to the story, that’s one thing (although I do admit I get my limit). If such a scene is in there to shock, or to prove the author can write such a scene, or to boost sales, then it takes away from the story.

  6. Give me sex (but not rape!) anytime over graphic, horrific violence almost always directed at women. Explicit language doesn’t bother me as long as it fits the character.

    • You’re not alone in that, Anne. I think a lot of people, if they had to choose, would choose explicit, consensual sex over horrific violence. And you make a well-taken point about languages. Some people really do use more profanity than others, so a lot of the way people speak has to do with their character traits.

  7. kathy d

    I would agree with much of this discussion. I don’t like gore or gratuitous violence nor rape or other sexual assaults against women. If that’s put in to shock the reader, I won’t read that book or others by that author.
    Consenting intimacy is one thing; violence against women another, or even misogynist portrayals of sexuality. Explicit, consensual relations is better than horrific violence, but it should be respectful towards women who are not objectified.
    And not too much profanity. It doesn’t bother me. People do curse in real life. But in books, the intent is clear with a few words.
    Good writing is preferable above all else, and the best writing does not need gratuitous violence, gore, extensive rape scenes. If a woman is attacked, then a writer should state it, but who needs gory details?
    I think of Outrage by Arnaldur Indridasson. Rape is at the heart of the book, but there are no long, drawn-out descriptions. It’s a fact. Move on and solve the murder mystery.
    Also, Tana French’s The Trespasser is an excellent book. It does not overdo the violence, even when describing the murder.

    • You have a well-taken point, Kathy, about profanity. People do use it in real life, so including it in a story, depending on the character, is believable. But there’s definitely such a thing as too much. And it’s true: too many extensive descriptions take away from the story, and don’t add anything in terms of engagement or interest. If I see a story is like that, I tend not to read it.

  8. I would think that sex, like anything else, should fit the emotional intensity of the novel. Even in the noir novels and films of the 50’s, the violence was mostly implied rather than reveled in – as was the sex.

    Each reader is only willing to experience a certain level of emotion in a novel or a film – and that is part of genre and the brand. Authors must be mindful of this.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Almost Iowa. I like the way you put it, too: implied, rather than reveled in. And that makes a major difference in the impact of a novel. As you say, the context of the novel has a lot to do with the amount of sex, violence and so on that is in it.

  9. I’m of the suggestive but not shown crowd. I don’t think things should be censored, but it’s just something I prefer not to read. Which is weird because I read romance. However, I prefer the less explicit ones.

  10. Margot, one of the reasons I like Jack Higgins’ crime and espionage thrillers is because there is no profanity or explicit sex. In fact, some of his heroes, including ex-IRA hitmen, are hopeless romantics but it rarely goes beyond that point. And yet, writers like Higgins and Jeffrey Archer went on to become bestselling authors who are read to this day.

    • You make such a well-taken point, Prashant! There are certainly authors (and Higgins and Archer are two) who are well able to tell a compelling story, but don’t wallow in gore, explicit sex, or a lot of profanity. I’m glad you mentioned them.

  11. Really horrible descriptions of violence are the dealbreaker for me. Most other things it depends on context, and how good the writing is. But gruesome violence is not for me.

    • Nor me, Moira – at all. As you say, context is really important in determining whether sex, profanity, etc. fit the story. If they don’t, they pull me out of that story. If they do, and they’re done well, they can contribute to character development and so on. It really is a ‘context’ thing.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 4/3/17 – Where Genres Collide

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