When it comes to writing, I just hate rules. I particularly detest when the industry imposes arbitrary rules that limits my creativity. In an age where there are relatively few taboo subjects, those rules are tantamount to censorship. And yet they serve a purpose. Whether we follow or bypass them, they force us to improve our writing skills, to develop crafty ways in which to please this new form of censorship while retaining our personal style. Thus we become subtle writers.
Repression breeds good writers
Once in graduate school, a professor shocked our class by saying that political repression usually breeds the best writers. He used Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn as examples. In those Glasnost days, my teacher prophesied that no good writer could come from the freer atmosphere of the New Russia. Time has proven him right. I haven´t heard of any Russian literary masterpiece written after the fall of the former Soviet Union.
Moreover, Tom went on saying, and this time we had to agree, that all the genius of the Spanish Golden Age, whether it was reflected on Velasquez paintings or Calderon´s plays had seen the light under a climate of extreme social and political oppression. The Holy Office, the most dreadful censor that has ever existed, was in charge to approve or obstruct any form of artistic expression not only in the Iberian Peninsula but in its overseas empire as well.
The proof was that during their lifetime, Cervantes, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross ran into trouble with the Inquisition. So, how could Spain reach such artistic zenith during those heavily censored times? Every great artist had to work with what they have, to create code ways to express their true ideas, to skirt around dangerous subjects. In sum, they had to learn to be subtle.
|St Teresa and St John of the Cross|
Subtlety is something modern writers and scriptwriters no longer recognize. Despite constant whining about censorship, contemporary artistic expression has no boundaries, few taboo subjects and absolutely no nuance. It´s why we can hardly notice great films since their “greatness” is cloaked by profanity, gore and cascades of graphic sex. I am not saying writing or audiovisual entertainment should lack four-letter words, violence or sexual content, but the lack of delicacy that characterizes its usage diminishes its potential.
To torture or not to torture
Graphic violence has made me close a book several times, but I have to say it seldom happens when reading fiction. Depictions of torture, human experiments, and horrid ways of execution have made me ill, but only if I find them in history books. Violence in novels doesn’t have that same effect because we know it is fictional, and because good writers know how to use it.
As a child I used to shake all over with Isaac of York’s ordeal in Ivanhoe. The funny thing was that Isaac is never really tortured by the dastardly Norman Front de Boeuf. A fortunate and timely attack by Robin Hood´s Merry Men saves the Jew from being roasted alive, but Sir Walter Scott carefully depicts the torture instruments, the iron grill, the oil, the fire, making the reader as terrified as Isaac of what is about to happen in that torture chamber.
|Sir James Mason playing Isaac of York in Ivanhoe|
In The 25th Hour, Constant Virgil Gheorghiu portrays with crudeness the suffering of Rumanian people before, during and after World War II, but its strongest scene does not include physical violence. Nora West, the female protagonist, finds herself in an East Germany cell. When she bangs on the door demanding an explanation for her arrest, the jailer threatens her: next time she calls, she´ll be punished. Although he doesn´t specify what punishment expects her, Nora is terrified.
Unused to hardship or extreme fear, she crumbles apart. The author describes everything that goes through her head from the possible causes behind her arrest to the lice in the bed in the cell. Worse is to come, she needs to urinate but she can´t call the jailer to take her to the bathroom. With exquisite detail, the author describes her need to perform the bodily function: “She felt as if a hundred needles pierced her bladder and she couldn´t force her muscles to obey her.”
|Nora West in the Spanish edition of The 25th Hour|
When The Sunday Herald serialized the novel in 1951, the censor cut that piece considering it too strong for their readers. To me is much more powerful and painful than any torture scene, like the one Robert Crichton includes in his The Secret of Santa Vittoria.
After the fall of Mussolini, the village of Santa Vittoria elects Italo Bombolini, the town´s drunkard, as their mayor. When Germans invade Italy, Bombolini knows they´ll seize the wine the village produces. With the townspeople’s help, he hides over a million bottles of wine in a nearby cave. The Germans arrive and Captain von Prumm, the officer in charge, confiscates a couple of thousand bottles to send over to Germany.
|Anthony Quinn as Bombolini|
Then the S.S. turns up in Santa Vittoria. Furious because according to the pre-war statistics Santa Vittoria yields over a million bottles, they demand hostages to torture into giving away the wine´s whereabouts. Bombolini, who has been reading The Prince, devices a Machiavellian plan. He tells von Prumm that to avoid guilty feelings, they should select as hostages the fist two men that walk into to the town square. Previously, Bombolini has arranged so those men are Copa, the former mayor, and another of his Fascist cronies. The men are taken to the torture chamber and Crichton spends over a page depicting their torment:
“After that they did things with the blowtorch on Copa's body that cannot be written down. After the torch they cooled him with water. He was still conscious and they put the funnel in his mouth so that it went far down his throat and they bent his neck back and brought him to the point of drowning.”
When the time came to get Crichton’s novel to the silver screen, director Stanley Kramer was in a quandary. He wanted to sell his film as a comedy, so how could he balance that with a gruesome torture scene? (Moreover, 60’s sensibilities were not partial to such scene.)His solution was to reach out for subtlety.
Kramer had the camera focus not on the tortured men but on the villagers’ faces as screams are heard in the background. Like in a Greek tragedy, violence occurs off the stage, we don´t see the torture, and we don’t see the torturer or his victims. And yet it is a blood curdling scene (I am glad I found it in YouTube) with those sporadic shrieks of pain breaking perfect silence and the camera recording the reactions of both Bombolini‘s (Anthony Quinn) and von Prumm (Hardy Krueger.)
A reviewer once said that the torture scene was proof of Crichton´s masterful style. I agree, but I also feel that Stanley Kramer deserves some accolades for his timely self-censorship and skillful subtlety in directing a difficult scene. Too bad we cannot say the same about Rosemary Rogers.
Gifted with a fertile imagination and an almost elegant prose, Rosemary Rogers stood apart from the other bodice-ripper authors as the most “literary” of the lot, but she cramped her style with a taste for violence. Not only were her heroines incessantly raped, but her antiheroes were not immune to victimization either. With gusto, Rogers would subject her male protagonists to flogging, beatings, and stabbings. She reached heights of cruelty such as bounding them to cacti, slowly choking them with wet leather and staking them to the ground just to be covered with hungry ants. She even had he favorite macho hero Steve Morgan threatened with male rape. Rosemary Rogers was a good writer but she went too far. Too bad there was no censor around to curtail her sadistic imagination.
“And the earth moved…”
Over the years I have run into many books and films that could be perfect except for one flaw: excess. An overflowing of shocking material can cause mental indigestion and it’s a sign of artistic immaturity. A writer doesn´t have to return to Victorian literature inhibitions and leave the reader wondering how and when the heroine got pregnant, but a bit of self-censorship will force the writing to be more ingenious and subtle.
I don´t want to linger too much on the subject of explicit bedroom scenes , but I think the most arousing books and films are those that display restrain. A friend of mine once complained about the amount of euphemisms historical romance authors used for male genitalia. “Why can´t they just call it a penis?” she said. I explained that the word didn´t matter, much more important was what the penis did, something even authors forget. They shouldn’t focus on body parts or positions, but feelings and emotions.
Guy de Maupassant wrote fantastically sexy short stories and novels and yet he never had to use anatomical references or lewd language. He concentrated on atmosphere, sexual tension and feelings. Just describing the shrill provoked by a girl’s fist orgasm was much more exciting that spending two pages illustrating every action that brought about that shriek. Just think of Hemingway’s phrase "and the earth moved out and away from under them” in For Whom the Bells Toll. That immortal metaphor for an orgasm is all you need to realize that Robert and Maria are having a good time upon the Spanish ground.
|Robert and Maria before making the earth "move"|
Recently Regis reminded me that the word “impotence” is not used in The Sun Also Rises to explain the hero’s malady, yet every reader knows Jake is impotent, just as we know Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Doryan Gray is all about homosexuality. Sometimes a writer doesn´t need to state the obvious. However, the fact that the film version includes the word “impotent” was a major breakthrough in an industry that couldn´t use the word “virgin” (referring to a physical condition) until “The Moon is Blue" (1955) and the term “pregnant” until “A Summer Place” (1960.) Nowadays those words are so common in television and moving pictures that we don’t even notice them. It´s only the first time they are used that they cause the desired shock.
Norman Mailer´s epic war novel The Naked and the Dead presented the reader with a new verb: “to fug.”Mailer had to yield to his publisher´s advice not to use the “F” word since books that had previously used it (i.e. Joyce´s Ulysses and Lawrence´s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) had been banned in the US. But two years late, James Jones dared to actually use the “F” word (60 times) in From Here to Eternity.
Nowadays profanity is so widespread in fiction that I hear a good way to attract an agent is to begin a novel with a dialogue line that includes a “bad” word. I guess that after rating a dozen manuscripts that start with “F...k” or “S...t”, agents are probably immune to such novelties. The problem of overusing resources is that they become boring and predictable.
I remember the first “bad word” heard on national TV. It was uttered by Hawkeye Piece (Alan Alda) in the “M.A.S.H” episode “Guerilla My Dreams.”A M.A.S.H. fanatic, I still recall the electric current running down my spine when that “Son of a Bitch!” was hurled by Hawkeye to a Korean intelligence officer bent on torturing a patient. In the 80's, profanity was unknown in open television. Nowadays the S.O.B term is used even by children on the small screen and we scarcely bat an eyelash.
|"Guerrilla My Dreams"|
My father once gave me a great piece of advice. “Never use a four-letter word when you have a better term at hand. Extreme profanity is a sign of ignorance and lack of vocabulary.” Every time I watch “True Blood” I remember Dad’s advise because everyone in the show from sophisticated vampires to working-class shapeshifters suffer from a bad case of gutter-mouth. This applies to the heroine as well. Sookie Stackhouse in her books doesn´t curse as much as her television counterpart who comes across (excuse the non PC word) as the prototypical “white trash.”
I am tired of hearing that “explicit sex, gore and foul language sell.” How come extremely successful shows such as “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” do not use that cheap device? “Mad Men,” a show that is all about sex, keeps profanity to a minimum. In five seasons it has yet to show nudity or naked sweaty couples huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf about to blow away the homes of The Three Little Pigs.
After this tirade, I have to confess that I have been guilty of every fault I criticize in this post. I have written gory and sexually explicit scenes, and twice wiser-than-me Beta Readers have counseled me to erase an untimely “F” word. We are the product of what we see and read. How could we then circumvent the inevitable excesses of poor taste?
My advice is read, read and read. And watch your reaction to all that reading. Could you name novels (or films) where offensive subjects were skillfully and tastefully managed? Have you turned off the TV, walked off the movie house or closed a book because of a particular mishandling of delicate themes? In general, how do you feel about too much sex, violence and profanity in literature? Should we exercise self-censorship to balance the excess?