The other day I was on Goodreads, which I know, I know – authors should not look at their reviews there, or anywhere else – and there was a question a reader had posted in regards to my first book, SEX & VIOLENCE.
I should have walked away, but I didn’t. This was the question:
Are the sex scenes graphic?
The word “graphic” is so loaded. I had no idea what the questioner was getting at.
Was he or she worried that the content would provide too much information? Or was she hoping it would? Because for me, often when people call something “graphic” they really mean that such things provide a data-rich environment in which to learn about something.
Graphic means you’re getting the whole picture. You’re seeing everything close-up, in color, three-dimensions.
For this reason, in my experience, most things I really want to learn about and understand are best if they’re given to me in “graphic” terms.
But I’m guessing the questioner meant “graphic” as in “too detailed” or with the dreaded prefix “porno” or something else that shrinks away from sex as it might occur between actual people and their actual bodies. Lots of people shrink away from such things, or want to shrink away from them, only to find themselves riveted and unable to look away. And when it comes to YA literature, they imagine a kid seeing this riveting, data-rich thing and not being able to look away, either.
And then what happens? The adult has to talk to the kid about sex! Or something else complex and discomfiting.
Thus, the cascade of book-banning events ensues. The book is challenged. The book is not purchased for a library collection or a gift. The book is taken off a list of recommended or assigned reading. All the overt forms of censorship we’re sadly used to seeing occur.
But I think there’s also a form of censorship that we don’t see. This occurs on the part of writers fearing such blowback – is this too graphic? is that okay for kids to read? – and so when it comes to writing sex or anything else controversial, they step back. The scene fades to black. The scene pivots and becomes a summary. The scene gets edited out. The end result is the reader doesn’t get to see that writer’s honest view of the world.
As a writer of YA fiction, this kind of pre-censorship is just as troubling to me as more classic forms of censorship and book-banning. Not only does it underestimate our audience’s capacity and disrespect their ability to select material that has meaning for them, but it also encourages writers to create a kind of pre-chewed, palatable and safe menu for readers, instead of offering up what might be an original view on a difficult or complicated topic. It makes decisions for readers we’ve never met. It contracts the limitless world of literature and all its ways of providing comfort, escape, meaning and empathy. It puts black bars over all the really interesting, important parts we want to see. It stands between readers and what they want to learn.
One dictionary definition of “graphic” as an adjective: “giving a clear and effective picture; vivid.”
Which is just like I want my writing to be. Words that make pictures behind our eyes. Words that tell stories and create ambience. Words that offer meaning and emotion.
For this reason, I want to live in a world where I can comfortably say, “yes, my book is graphic” and not feel bad about it. Because we already live in such a world: all around us is the undeniable truth about life and it is vivid, clear, effective. I can open my eyes; I can also shut them. May we always let readers make that choice for themselves as well.
Carrie Mesrobian is an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her debut novel, SEX & VIOLENCE, was called one of the best books of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and was a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award for best debut young adult novel. Her second book, PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY, will be released October 2014. Visit Carrie online at www.carriemesrobian.com.