This is probably one of those blogs I shouldn’t write, but impulsivity and I are old, old friends. (Remember that time I decided to wear only clothes from Wal-Mart for a year? Yeah.)
I get a lot of very generous feedback about my writing. Some of it in the form of reviews, some of it direct to my inbox. It’s the kind of feedback that keeps me going, writing the next book or story. It helps me put out the flames of self-doubt when they come shooting out of my brain, obliterating the words before they can take shape on the page. I won’t say that I can’t live without it, but it surely makes my work easier to put out there. You know. Welcoming arms and all.
I’ve never addressed a reviewer directly, and I won’t do it now. But there’s a thread that runs through some of the uglier criticism of my novels and stories that I think is worth mentioning and examining.
Vulgar is a word that’s commonly used. Lurid as well (though it was used in conjunction with entertainingly, which I rather liked). My favorite and most recent hint that all is not hunky dory in my world is the observation that I must have a sordid mind.
It does make me think. It makes me wonder if, indeed, there’s something off about my work and me. Sure, there are some pretty tough scenes in my books. But what is it that gets people so agitated about them that they must share the fact that they’ve been badly offended and condemn us both? Is it the sex? Is it the savage way bad people often treat others in my books? The occasionally graphic violence?
Vulgar is a particularly loaded word for me. If you grew up in the middle class in an upwardly mobile family, you know that to be vulgar is the worst of sins. Vulgarity implies and, in dictionary form, literally means in poor taste. Poor taste will hold you back, mark you as plebeian, call you out as lowborn. It’s a crock, of course. Some of the most twisted, cruelest, indeed most vulgar people I know were born with proverbial silver spoons in their mouths. That’s not to say that being crude won’t keep you out of the country club. It just means that people can be, you know, hypocrites.
Let’s look at sordid. Merriam-Webster offers: “marked by baseness or grossness.” I rather like the definition that Google gives: “involving ignoble actions and motives; arousing moral distaste and contempt.” To say that someone has a sordid mind is decidedly a big insult. Let’s back off from the personal attack that this implies. No one wants to be gross. I get that. But…really? If you’re talking “baseness and grossness” you’re talking pornography. And that’s a whole different world.
Pornography implies intent. Pornography is created to elicit a sexual response. (Or some other base reaction–I don’t know…Maybe food porn is meant to elicit salivation? That’s a stretch, I guess.) The intent is key. No one writes crime/horror/thriller/mystery/suspense stories with the specific intent to help someone (pardon the vulgarity) get their rocks off. Not. One. Writer. (Okay, I can’t speak for all–but I’m pretty sure.)
I hate it when someone is shocked by the graphic nature of some of the episodes of sex or violence in my work. I really do hate it. I’m not standing on a street corner selling naughty pictures to titillate people. I’m telling stories. I write stories about good people and bad people. People in grim situations who are trying to find a way to the other side of darkness. It says so right on my website: Writing from the dark side.
There are no warnings on the covers of my books, as there are on films. I don’t write books for children–and not even for teenagers. 17 is about the age at which a reader might be ready for my work. Though my daughter was reading it when she was 13, as I wrote it. She was a precocious reader, and, I must say, one of those people who is so full of light that it shines through her. Obviously it depends on the person. But the good news is that there are many ways to explore a book before one gets into reading it. For most books, there are plenty of descriptions online. The same for samples. Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble have extensive sample options for most of the books they sell. Read the first chapters. It’s pretty likely that you’ll get an idea of the tone of the book–and you’ll definitely know if it’s suitable for your child or teen or parent. Or ask a librarian. They’re smart people, and it’s their job to match people to the right books. If all else fails, drop a note to the author and ask. Really. No author wants a reader to regret buying or borrowing their book. They’d rather have you find another book that’s right for you. At least I know I would.
If the reader who fretted that I had a sordid mind had bothered to look at the first chapter of BLISS HOUSE, she would have noted that it is about a woman who is kidnapped and held as a sex slave. No, not as a fairytale princess in a castle, or a as concubine of a benevolent emperor. She is a sex slave to a an obvious sociopath. The reader could have saved herself a lot of discomfort.
Ironically enough, book reviews do matter. It’s pretty easy to tell which ones are b.s. and which are legit with a little careful reading. Here’s an excerpt of a review of my latest, BLISS HOUSE, from Bookreporter.com. Joe Hartlaub is no slouch when it comes to judging books:
“Be forewarned: BLISS HOUSE contains some harrowing material, particularly of a graphic sexual nature. Benedict, though, is never gratuitous in her presentation; one must simply accept that bad things, truly awful things, happen to good and bad people. And while Benedict can be explicit in her presentations, she is also a master of subtle contrasts and hints that suddenly fulfill the promise of the almost inaudible whispered threats that are dropped throughout the narrative.”
I love that he gets my work.
The dark side of human nature is not a pretty place. We all have it inside us. I don’t care if you’re a nanny, a pastor, a kindergarten teacher, a professor, a sales clerk. It’s built into us. Some people dwell in darkness their whole lives. Those are the people you want to stay away from–they’re dangerous. They suck out your soul and your happiness. But the people who pretend they live in the light 24/7 are dangerous too, because they’re lying to themselves, denying the reality of life. We have to visit the darkness from time to time to know how blessed the light is. In my life I’ve dwelt in the darkness, and have mostly left it behind. But I do visit. My characters visit it, fight against it. As humans, if we’re healthy, we grow from our dark places. We kick at the darkness and fight to stay in the light. Entropy is darkness, and entropy is deadly. Just like ignorance.
6 thoughts on “Rough Stuff: In Which I Discuss Being Accused of Having a Sordid Mind”
I am compelled to reply…. There is a difference between something that is gratuitous in a work of fiction and something that is necessary and required for the development of character and what pushes the plot forward. Granted, that is the writer in me. The artist. The person that knows sometimes I have to do write things that I might otherwise be uncomfortable with for the sake of telling a story that “feels real”. Nothing worse than having a contrived plot or characters that don’t resonate.
I love your last paragraph in this blog post. Darkness is part of life. Its why there is a glass half empty and a glass half full. Sometimes it just has to be one or the other. Its not in how we view life, but in how we see certain things, knowing there is a darkness. Knowing that maybe our glass is half full, but someone might have one that is half empty.
I have a very biased opinion of the work because I do know the author, but I thank you for the the visit into the darkness via your fiction. It makes the light all that much sweeter and isn’t that what its all about? Having our writing touch people in a meaningful way. I remember the first time I read your first book and thought, I want to be able to write like that. To invoke that kind of emotion.
Okay, mush over now. I’m going back to the dark side as my character right now feels the need to hurt her neighbor in unspeakable ways….
Like the previous commenter, I have a different perspective than the reviewer because I consider Laura among my dearest friends AND because as a writer I know the difference between writing meant to depict the horrifying nature of people, the darkness of some souls, and writing meant to objectify that same darkness. Laura would never objectify the vulgar, obscene and disturbing, but she does depict it with skill and class.
I agree that most likely this reader should have looked at the genre, the blurbs, or the first chapter, but you some people choose willful ignorance and then blame the work. In days gone by, they are the ones who would have killed the messenger for bringing bad news rather than acknowledging that how they were affected by the work reflects on them, not the writer.
Now I REALLY can’t wait to read Bliss House. Damn deadlines.
What I find intolerable is that this kind of review is left anonymously. I grew up in the newspaper business at a time when no paper EVER printed articles that were not signed by the author, including letters to the editor. I don’t mind negative opinions, but sign your name so I can judge the validity of your comments. (Is this what they fear–that their total lack of expertise or possibly malicious intent will be exposed?) I honestly believe reviews should not be posted unless signed. Good or bad. It would cut down on a whole lot of meanness and inaccuracy. I, too, know Laura, and I can attest that while her mind is clever and filled with twisty plots, it is not sordid.