Am I talking about the fun and exciting word game? Sort of, but not literally. In the game you have to describe something to get your partner to say a particular word but you aren’t allowed to use that word or any of a list of associated words. In writing are there any taboo subjects? Is there something you simply can’t write about?
Obviously different cultures have different taboos. For example in Thailand you aren’t allowed to criticise the royal family. This is both a cultural and legal taboo. In most countries you shouldn’t write about the abusive relationship between an adult and a child in any way but as an abhorrent deviation. But are these boundaries worth preserving just for the sake of preservation or is it an artist’s duty to deconstruct these taboos? A photographer in Australia recently (a couple of years ago now) released a photo series of nudes that resulted in protests both supporting his artistic merit and condemning him for perversion. The subject was a fourteen year old girl. None of the photos could be said to be sexually explicit as they involved heavy use of light and shadow and fairly neutral poses. But the question was raised of if perversion is in the eye of the beholder or if it is representable.
Art is often about challenging our perceptions. Sometimes it challenges our perception of colour, light and shade and at other times it challenges our distinction between real and unreal. Other times it asks us what is wrong with those things we all take for granted as wrong. More recently an artist inspired angry mutterings because his landscape portrait of Port Arther in Tasmania included a small, almost ghostly, image of Martin Bryant the infamous mass murderer of Port Arther. People raised their voices saying it glorified his actions, that it painted the town as somehow complicit in his actions. The artist said he included the image because, like it or not, the murderer has become a permanent mark on the landscape. We can’t just wash him away and pretend it never happened. The fact people got upset reinforced the requirement of the inclusion of the image. When you see the landscape painting you are supposed to be upset about that part of history. To ignore it is to disrespect the people who died.
Is a novel art enough?
So in writing a novel can we use topics that disgust, repel or horrify? Certainly horror novels do, but they use those topics as their source of plot. You are intended to be scared and you know it is evil. Is it possible to have a serial killer who dismembers his victims in a cold and clinical manner be the hero? Could we have a book where we quietly barrack for the cannibal psychopath? It seems we can because they made Darkly Dreaming Dexter into a TV show and Hannibal Lector starred in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. But what about the quieter, more insidious taboos? Sure, Lolita very daringly explored the topic of a teen fascination with an older man and vice versa but it was written to be a literary novel. I’m talking about genre fiction. Imagine an urban fantasy about a forty year old man and his desire for young boys. Now imagine he isn’t the villain but rather the hero (or anti-hero). could that be done? Maybe it could but I’m not sure I’d have the stomach to try. How would you present the main character and his desire in a way that the reader felt some sympathy for him so they wouldn’t just hope he was caught by the police and locked away forever?
Stepping back from the brink
Now I’ve got you thinking in dark directions try stepping back a tad. Pick a taboo less distasteful (to you) and see if you could think of a way to make a protagonist sympathetic and heroic while engaged in your chosen perversion. Maybe your hero could be eighteen and in love with a sixty year old woman or perhaps he gains power by eating parts of willing victims. You’d need a strong background and powerful reason for such a person to be the way they are. It seems too easy to just have a guy who is honourable, charming and classy without any real background as to why. If your hero has a dark streak, especially if it is a rather dark streak, you need to provide background and you need to work constantly to keep the reader from turning away is revulsion. That is art surely? I might try it some time.