Columns > Published on June 27th, 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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