Eating Babies: Boundaries for Writers in Fiction

Following our discussion on the Unprintable podcast about transgressive fiction, I decided to make a list of things we should never, ever write about. Here it is:

  • Eating babies
  • Rape
  • Gangbanging
  • Pedophilia
  • Gratuitously killing pets
  • Sex between old people

Then I made a list of examples of (more or less) mainstream literature where each of these can be found:

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Kiss the Girls by James Patterson
  • Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The End of Alice by AM Homes
  • Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (and yes, direwolves do count as pets: Rickon calls his ‘Shaggydog’ ffs)

And if you've spotted that the second list is one item shorter than the first, that's because I couldn't think of a book daring enough to talk about sex between seniors. Perhaps this, above all other transgressions, is the unbreakable cultural taboo.

Yet we’re all aware, or should be, as writers, that no holds barred is not a good plan for our attempts at fiction. Transgression is tempting, because we’re all desperate to get our readers’ attention, but transgression for the sake of shock value doesn’t turn the page, it closes the book. Here is when and why transgression works.

Eating Babies: OK when the story demands it

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy presents us with a grim vision of a world post-nuclear apocalypse. Perpetually on the brink of starvation, the father and son of his story attempt to retain their humanity when almost everyone else has locked their moral compass in a dark place and thrown away the key. McCarthy’s landscape is utterly blasted and desolate, so when the pair spot another group, the fact that one of the women is pregnant offers the reader a moment of hope. We’re allowed to believe that maybe, just maybe, the destruction wrought on the planet is beginning to heal itself, that new life is about to return.

Do I need to tell you what happens to the baby? The Road is not a story about hope. It’s a story about carrying on when there is no hope. The transgression works because McCarthy’s aim isn’t to shock, but to remain faithful to the world he has created.

Rape: OK when it is integral to the plot

Since Silence of the Lambs, the main problem faced by all authors of serial killer fiction has been how to create a monster more heinous than Hannibal Lecter. Fortunately for the book-farm-factory that is James Patterson, the one area Lecter’s creator Thomas Harris left unexploited was sex-crime. Harris’ killers may torture, eat and wear their victims as couture, but they generally don’t stoop to anything as mundane as fucking them. Patterson was quick to exploit this loophole in Kiss the Girls which features not one, but two serial rapist-killers, and he is not shy about creating scenes which lay out in loving detail exactly what happens to the victims.

Plenty of people hated Patterson’s female-rape-slave trope, with particular objections being leveled at the anal-violation-by-snake scene, but Kiss the Girls gets away with its violence by taking a clear moral stance. Tying up women and sticking snakes up their rectum is wrong and bad and perpetrators of such actions will be hunted down and killed by muscular black detectives. Rape works in fiction if the act is a crime and the story is about catching the bad people.

Gangbanging: OK when you are writing satire

But if Kiss the Girls stays this side of acceptability by using rape to stir our sense of moral outrage, how do you justify a whole novel structured around a porn star having serial sex?

In Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk, porn star Cassie Wright aims to break the world record for on-camera sex by entertaining six hundred men, one after the other. And if that sounds about as erotic as watching poultry being deboned on the Chick-Fil-A production line, then you’ve got the point. Satire takes the unacceptable and puts it under a microscope, increasing the magnification until we’re not even sure what we’re seeing anymore. Push the limits far enough, like Burroughs or Palahniuk or Acker and fiction can drag us from disgust into hilarity.

Pedophilia: OK when it challenges our lazy assumptions

Writing about eating babies is OK. Writing about having huge quantities of sex is OK. But what if your story is about having sex with children?

Not OK, surely?

Michiko Kakutani, reviewer in chief for The New York Times, had this to say about AM Homes’ The End of Alice: ‘a willfully dirty book glossed with intellectual pretensions, a doggedly repellent piece of pornography, devoid of authentic emotion and filled with gratuitous and calculatedly disgusting scenes.’

That would be a vote for ‘Not OK’ then.

What got Kakutani so riled up is that The End of Alice is about a convicted child rapist swapping tips with a college girl over her plan to seduce a 12 year old boy. Homes had this to say about her novel: ‘it goes back to accountability…the unnamed character… confronts the reader, saying if he (and by “he,” meaning not just himself, but others like him, pedophiles) are in jail then why do these things keep happening. Until WE as a society learn to better deal not only with those who DO abuse children, but also with what kind of history sets a person up to become an abuser, until WE do a better job, then I think we are guilty as well.’

It's easy to pretend that child molesters are someone else's problem. Shove a topic under the carpet and it will fester, unexplored. Writing about perversion is OK if you aim to elucidate, rather than to titillate.

Killing pets: OK when it motivates the action (GoT SPOILERS!)

Post-Red Wedding, we are all now aware that beneath George RR Martin’s grandfatherly exterior beats the cold heart of a man on a mission to make us cry. But the direwolves, we whimper, as Robb Stark hits the flagstones. Did Martin really have to kill Lady and Grey Wind too?

It’s an accepted rule of storytelling that the dog lives. Martin breaks the rule, not with abandon, but to clearly delineate who is on which side of the straight and narrow line that separates Those We Root For from Those We Would Like to Cast into a Pit of Snakes.

The death of Lady made us all hate Joffrey with a special passion. Forcing Eddard Stark to kill his daughter’s pet was a particularly cruel twist, not least because it did a nifty bit of character building, revealing Ned to be the kind of obtusely loyal man who would confront Cersei Lannister when he learns her incestuous secret, thereby condemning himself to death, rather than hightailing it back to Winterfell with his kids, like almost anyone else would do.

Ditto the death of Grey Wind. Killing Robb and Catelyn does not put the Freys in a good light, but having them kill Robb’s direwolf makes us fervently want every last Frey to be expunged from the surface of Westeros. Whatever Martin has in store for them, it isn’t pleasant.

Also, the close link between the direwolves and their owners suggests that Sansa, now without her wolf, might be a marked girl. You read it here first…

Sex Between Seniors: OK when you sell a gadzillion books

Fine, so I lied. There is one example of a mainstream book which describes two pensioners in flagrante. It is, of course, The DaVinci Code, which goes to show that when you are Dan Brown, even writing about wrinkly sex is OK.

Choosing when or if to push the boundaries in your writing is highly personal. There are no rules, only your judgment and what works in one novel might easily not work in another. But if you can ask yourself why you want to include edgy material and the answer is that it supports the reader or the story then you will probably find it works. If it’s about your own desire to shock, then it probably won’t.

Unless you’re Dan Brown. Then you can include anything you want.

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Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things June 27, 2013 - 9:35am


Razvan Teodor Coloja's picture
Razvan Teodor Coloja June 27, 2013 - 9:36am

Writing shouldn't be walled-in by ideas that are considered by many as being taboos. There should be no limits and no subject frail enough to be touched.

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things June 27, 2013 - 9:59am

"Should be" differs from reality.


You're definitely free to write what you want. You can write a book that does nothing but repeat the word "penis" fifty-thousand times. 

The article isn't telling you what you can't do. It's suggesting that if you violate these taboos just because you think you're an edgy writer and want to fit the part, then you're unlikely to succeed. You really have to be creative to sell taboo.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 27, 2013 - 10:14am

The difference between 'sensitive issues' and 'taboos' is interesting. Racism is a bad thing which is addressed by lots of fiction, but people don't think of it as a taboo. Perhaps they used to. Difference is society was (is?) dealing with racism at many levels, so the fact it made its way into fiction could be seen as a part of a larger movement. Not so with eating babies: that's just grossness. So far as we know, there is not a nationwide systemic institution of baby-eating with which we must contend. Including it in fiction doesn't address any problem, it just portrays something ugly.

Elderly intercourse: is it really taboo, or just undesirable? There are many things about which people are uninterested in reading, and not necessarily because they are taboo.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading June 27, 2013 - 10:35am

Nobody should take Kakutani seriously. She is, paradoxically, the anus AND the shit of literary criticism.

Also, eating babies was already going strong when Jonathan Swift was rocking his pen. McCarhty's book is nowhere near as "subversive" as A Modest Proposal. And I guess it wasn't meant to be.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 27, 2013 - 10:47am

@Fylh --- I agree about Swift/McCarthy. Though the content may disturb some readers, I simply can't believe The Road was meant to "subvert" anything. I read Swift in high school. The Road did not shock me.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On June 27, 2013 - 10:53am

If I remember correctly, there's technically no "on-screen" baby-eating in The Road, but the suggestion(s) of. What the father sees in the woods though is a horrible image that will never leave me. That said, McCarthy does far worse to children in my opinion in Blood Meridian.

DaveShepherd's picture
DaveShepherd from Calgary is reading No Country for Old Men June 27, 2013 - 11:08am

Haven't read it in a long time, but I'd imagine Stephen King's "Insomnia" features sex between seniors. "It" covers the gangbang, "The Dead Zone" opens with a gratuitious pet killing, "Gerald's Game" opens just after an almost-rape and I suspect (though I haven't read it in a loooong time) "Rose Madder" has more to say on that issue as well. "It" has child eating, though I don't remember if it's depicted or not. I doubt it. 

I don't recall anything that covers pedophilia from Stephen King, though I'm surprised "Lolita" wasn't mentioned. 

Anyway. It all comes down to: if you're going to break a rule, do it well.

ohnochastity's picture
ohnochastity June 27, 2013 - 2:36pm

Pedophilia, Lolita.  That's all I could think about with this article.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 27, 2013 - 4:36pm

I think Nick Sparks deals with senior citizen sex in one, if not more, of his books. I've only read one of his books, The Notebook, and there was a fade to black sex scene between the main couple in the nursing home.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast June 28, 2013 - 1:01am

@SammyB - another reason not to read 'The Notebook'? ;)

Actually one of my kids *loves* Sparks' books and I'm a sucker for schmalz (as you will discover if you listen to the latest podcast) so I'll probably succumb to ol' Nick at some point.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes June 28, 2013 - 7:05am

That's quite a list! What if a character did the opposite in one case -- defended to the utmost the rights of pets -- but was full on transgressive with another -- took delight in elderly sex? *With a demented glint he takes up his pencil.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading June 30, 2013 - 7:28am

I think it was in 2005 that some astute readers realized the minute you market fiction as "transgressive" you have entered a paradox so terrilbe and destructive that the only way out is joining a religion.

Lustrado's picture
Lustrado from Vancouver July 11, 2013 - 11:21pm

Senior citizens also bump uglies in Love In the Time of Cholera, sags and all.

Kaz I Lay Dying's picture
Kaz I Lay Dying from 'Mercuh is reading 1491 July 20, 2013 - 3:29pm

I don't think stories with rape have to be about catching the bad guy, because that really doesn't happen that often with real life rape. I think the only limitation on rape should be that it's not okay it's glorified or portrayed as not actually rape (though this is apparently socially acceptable: I've read a number of stories with heroines who aren't enthused with the idea of having sex with a certain guy, but they have to because of ~tradition~ or whatever, and their evolution into a "strong lady" starts when they learn how to take some control/do some fun tricks in bed).