How Far is Too Far?

by Robert Gregory Browne

I read a lot of books. I read whole books and parts of books. I read
two and three books at a time. Walk around my house and you’re likely
to see a number of them cracked open and waiting for me to pick them up.

Recently I started a reading a new book, but suddenly had to quit.   I couldn’t go forward.  And I want to tell you why.

What follows is not meant to be a criticism of this particular book.
I haven’t read the whole thing, so how can I possibly criticize? I will
say this, however: the person who wrote it can write. I mean, REALLY
write.

And while what he’s writing would likely be characterized as
melodrama, there is nothing melodramatic about his writing. There is a
certain minimalist grace to his prose that I wish I could manage.

I was immediately swept up by his style, his tone and his story.
And, judging by the critical attention the book has gotten, I’d say
that I’m one of the few who actually stopped reading.

But now to the why.

I don’t want to risk giving anything away, so I’ll be fairly vague
about the storyline. But let me boil it down to its essence — at least
what I know of the story.

It’s about a man who has an affair and how that affair causes his
life to take a sudden and devastating wrong turn. It all hums along at
a good clip, keeping the reader intrigued. They meet, they flirt, they
fall in lust… Then there is an incident about forty or so pages into
the book that is so awful, so invasive, so repellent that I simply had
to put it down.

I can’t describe that incident to you.  But let’s just say you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

And as I set the book down, telling myself that I didn’t think I’d
continue reading, I had to ask why? (Yes, I’m getting to it.)

Was it because the incident in question was too intense? Too
graphic? No, I don’t think so. I’m not particularly bothered by graphic
scenes and, frankly, as far as graphic goes, my own mind did most of
the work — a sign that I’m dealing with a very good writer.

But here’s the thing: no matter what happens in the rest of the
book, no matter how happy the ending might be, no matter who lives or
dies, who kisses and makes up, who is rescued from evil —

– it’s all too late.

Because once the incident in question happens, nothing any of the
characters might do from that moment forward can change that fact. No
matter how wonderful everything turns out in the end — and I’m assuming
it will — there is nothing the author can do to erase that awful, awful
moment and somehow make it better.

Well, there is ONE thing the author could do. Probably what I would
do, if I were writing the book. A major twist could change everything —

— But I can’t count on that happening.
And because I was so devastated by that one act, that one scene, that
one irrevocable moment, I lost all desire to go forward, even if a major twist will change it all.  The damage has been done.

So I have to ask, how far is too far? 

While I’d never say we’re obligated as writers to make everything
smiley and happy — quite the opposite if you want to write readable
books — I do think that we take a huge risk when we treat a character
so brutally that the smiley happy moments can’t erase what we’ve done.

As I said, I think the author is a wonderful writer.  In fact, I just picked up another of his books.

But that one scene just killed it for me. Maybe I cared too much.
Maybe it’s because the writer has done his job. But it got to me and I
felt sick to my stomach and just didn’t want to go forward.

I won’t name the book here, because I don’t think it would be fair to the author.

But I’m curious to know if any of you have ever had a similar experience, where you felt the author had somehow crossed the line and you just couldn’t read any further?

30 thoughts on “How Far is Too Far?

  1. Al Guthrie

    If that’s the book I’m thinking of, then the scene in question is a con job. The narrator doesn’t find that out till later. Don’t know whether that makes any difference… And, no, the only thing that stops me reading a novel is bad writing. I can’t imagine putting a book down because I thought a scene was too harrowing.

    Reply
  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Too harrowing? No, I’m with Al on this one. But I do vividly remember putting a book by a very well-known author down becuase of a scene where a mentally disabled child was being brutally tormented by the supernatural bad guy. It was so obviously manipulative that I was disgusted. I’ve read plenty of other works by that author since then and loved them.

    Reply
  3. Zoe Sharp

    I’ve read Al’s books, and I can completely understand why he can’t imagine putting a book down because it’s too harrowing … 😉

    Mind you, Neil Plakcy, who’s a great writer of Hawaii-set gay police procedurals, once memorably said to my Other Half that he liked to write a three-way gay sex scene in every book that made straight men squirm. Erm, would that do it for you, Al?

    To me, anything that fits in the context of the story, if it’s well-written enough that it doesn’t jolt me out of the natural suspension of disbelief I have to maintain in order to read any kind of fiction, it’s fine.

    Graphic is perfectly acceptable. Gratuitous, on the other hand, is not. And gratuitous – however you chose to define it – can be a LOT milder than graphic.

    For example, a certain action hero slicing the web of skin between forefinger and thumb on the bad guys to stop them being able to fire a gun at him afterwards – fine. A couple of bad guys beating someone up and then, for no apparent purpose, sticking the blade of a knife down his thumbnail – well, the point of that one passed me by, somewhat.

    Yes, OK, in one of my early books, I have someone kneecapped. But there’s a point to it. A) He’s a very nasty piece of work, and B) he’s a classic car nut. They shoot him in the right knee so he can’t even drive an auto transmission …

    Hey, why are you backing away from me?

    Reply
  4. D.A. Davenport

    Once, with John Connelly’s Every Dead Thing. The opening murders were too sickening to me that I put it down for a few weeks. The images were so strong and haunting I had serious doubts about continuing. Once my stomach and imagination settled, I went back to it and was glad I did.

    And I agree with Al. The only thing that prevents me from reading on in a book is bad writing.

    Reply
  5. billie

    I put Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones down at least 20 times. But then picked it right back up b/c I couldn’t bear not to continue. She really tortured me with that book, which was gorgeously written but so hard for me to get through.

    I think probably we all have shadows or fears or lines not crossed that, when dovetailed with certain scenes in certain books, become so powerful they stop the rest of the “dream” of that story.

    As an aside, there was one book that became one of the most powerful triggers for morning sickness during my first pregnancy. If I even glimpsed the sight of the spine of the book sitting on the bookshelf, I became ill. I had previously read it with no ill effects, and there was nothing in it related to pregnancy or childbirth, etc., but for some unknown reason it had to be buried in a pile of books where I couldn’t see it during that time. I couldn’t even go into that room for most of the pregnancy. Even now, if I imagine its spine and title and author’s name, I remember the essence of morning sickness! But it never occurred to me to get rid of the book – I had read it and liked it!

    Very weird.

    Reply
  6. Ali

    I loved the book I think you mentioned and the repellent aspect intrigued me, as the fight back of the ‘Ordinary Joe’ made it cathartic – The film version was rubbish as the woman was miscast.

    Usually the only thing that would put me off would be bad writing, or an unintresting plot, stereotype characters.

    As for ‘repellant’ aspects, as long as not gratutous, I’d keep reading

    Ali

    Reply
  7. Rob Gregory Browne

    Normally, I’d agree with all of you. And knowing that it’s a con job certainly makes me feel better about it, but unfortunately, I don’t know this going in. All I know is that I’ve just witnessed an extremely heinous act and I just can’t continue.

    I’ve never had this happen to me before. Hell, I sat through the movie HIGH TENSION and didn’t blink, but the scene in this book just killed my desire to continue.

    Go figure.

    Reply
  8. Al

    Zoe: A three-way gay sex scene? As long as it’s well written and moves the plot forward, bring it on.

    Ali: I didn’t see the movie. Thought it best to stay away.

    Reply
  9. Zoe Sharp

    Al – perhaps you need to get out more?

    Neil is a great writer, and like you say, any kind of sex scene is OK if it’s done well. This seems to be one area where male and female writers really differ in their approach, IMHO. Women seem to concentrate more on the emotional side, whereas men are more interested in the mechanics …

    Reply
  10. ArkansasCyndi

    I do not know which book you are writing of but yes, I’ve quit many a book. Most were for bad writing. Some because the plot was too contrived. I can’t remember quiting a book because it was too violent or because of a certain scene. But I will confess that I have read about 50 pages into a book, decided it wasn’t worth my time, read the ending, and moved on. The fact the author and/or the book is “supposed to be good” or on the best seller list has no effect on my response.

    Reply
  11. Stacey Cochran

    This is a matter of taste. And it sounds like there’s an element of reader expectation involved in the example you gave, Rob.

    You weren’t expecting such a graphic scene, and so when it happens it’s so shocking as to be repulsive.

    I’m a firm believer that, with enough skill, a writer can pretty much cover any topic.

    Nothing’s off limits, given enough talent.

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Rob, I read the book in question and like you, was shaken by that scene. Not the graphic nature of it … but the fact that, for me, the author took too much pleasure it in. It ran twenty-two pages, if I remember correctly. And it didn’t need to.

    I finished the book, and the twists and turns redeemed it somewhat, but I’ll not forgive him for the gratuitous pleasure he seemed to take in that scene.

    Our imaginations are often so much worse than what an author can write. In this case, I got too much of a glimpse into what seemed like the author’s dark heart. Or maybe what I saw was just good writing.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    I’ve had plenty of books give me pause, but it was Charlie Huston’s CAUGHT STEALING that I put down and said NO! Of course, I picked it back up and was glad I did, because the character was so outraged at the same event I was, he spends the rest of the book seeking vengeance. But that was cruelty to an animal, not a person.

    Though I will admit to having my stomach turned the other night reading one of my all-time favorite authors. I actually put her book down and decided I couldn’t read it. I of course picked it back up, but at that one moment, I was grossed out. THAT’S hard to do.

    Zoe had it right on the money — “Graphic is perfectly acceptable. Gratuitous, on the other hand, is not.” That’s my feeling as well, in my reading and in my writing.

    Reply
  14. pari noskin taichert

    Let’s start with the fact that I had nightmares for years about “Bambi.”

    Yes, there have been a few books I’ve put down because they were just too hardcore, too cruel for me. I don’t revel in seeing man’s inhumanity to man — so, torture scenes rarely play well for me, unless I can see past them.

    No, not everything has to have a smiley face — I read a lot that doesn’t — but my stomach has gotten quite a bit weaker since I had children.

    Two other points:1. Neil Plakcy IS a great writer.2. The variety of crime fiction is its strength; there’s room for all of us readers — but there’s no room for lousy writing.

    Reply
  15. JDRhoades

    JT, there was plenty of cruelty to people in CAUGHT STEALING as well. I ended up having to put that book down a lot, too. But, like you, I always picked it back up again. That book was INTENSE.

    I obviously need to get Zoe’s kneecapping book.

    Reply
  16. Stacey Cochran

    Louise wrote: “I’ll not forgive him for the gratuitous pleasure he seemed to take in that scene.”

    I think this really gets at the heart of the matter. If the writer seems to delight in something disgusting, it’ll turn off most readers.

    If, on the other hand, the scene is rendered with compassion for the victim (as is the case in The Lovely Bones), it totally changes the way most people will respond.

    You can describe the most taboo scene in the world, and if it is completely driven with compassion, the result would be tragedy… the kind we generally applaud.

    It’s all about compassion, folks.

    Reply
  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I stopped reading Stephen King for several years after CUJO – I thought it was completely unfair of him to kill the child even though he had his monster words.

    And yet PET SEMATERY was and remains one of my all-time favortie books, and it kills a child even more brutally. There was just something NOT FAIR about how it happened in CUJO, and I’ve met quite a few people who felt the same way about that particular book. I should go back and reread and figure out now what it is that so bothers me.

    Really interesting topic!

    Reply
  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise as usual nails it: “I’ll not forgive him for the gratuitous pleasure he seemed to take in that scene.”

    I will very, very rarely read books written by men that deal with rape, unless it’s an honest book about a man who is raped.

    I’m revolted by the pleasure some authors get out of scenes like that, and I’m even more revolted thinking of the pleasure some readers will be getting out of it. I won’t subsidize it and I don’t want it in my head.

    Reply
  19. Neil Plakcy

    Thanks for the kind comments from Zoe & Pari. Just to clarify: the sex scene doesn’t necessarily have to be a three-way to make straight men go eek!

    I still remember reading one of Dana Stabenow’s books in which she killed off a main character, and I was so upset I put the book down, finally just skimming to see how the mystery worked out.

    I understand her motivation in writing such a strong scene, and it’s a tribute to her skill at making us care about her characters that the scene had so much power for me. But as a reader, I still didn’t like it.

    Reply
  20. Dana King

    I came close to walking away from a book once; would have, had I not promised to review it.

    I can see circumstances where I could not continue; if the protagonist was engaged in abusing a child, for example. Or, to use Louis’e example above, if the author seems to take too much delight from the description of such an act. I’m pretty open-minded, but everyone has their standards.

    Reply
  21. Becky LeJeune

    I agree with the bad writing comments, that is one offense that will cause me to put down a book and never pick it up, or finish it but not try the author again. I will avoid certain books if I know that they deal with a topic that I don’t want to read with. I admit, I am a HUGE Stephen King fan and went into Gerald’s Game knowing full well that it was something I wouldn’t normally read, I never have finished it and probably never will.

    Now, High Tension. I also sat through that, cringing and wishing I could walk out of the theater. I will never live down picking that horrible movie!

    Reply
  22. Richard Cooper

    I’ve seen things on TV news programs that make me switch channels immediately, but can usually finish a novel if the graphic scenes are well written, with compassion, as some of you noted above. And, like many of you, it’s particularly hard to remain objective when innocent women or children or animals are being tortured on the page. But what does it say about us when we cheer the bad guy getting mangled and tortured, getting his just desserts? There was a time when even sympathetic characters had to be killed off if they were “guilty” of a “crime” such as sex out of wedlock–society and readers at large expected “justice” for “sinning.”

    Reply
  23. Allison Brennan

    Well I’m intrigued. I haven’t put a book down for any reason other than boredom, which is usually caused by me not caring one iota about the characters. I might not LIKE something in the book, but if I’m engaged I have to find out what happened.

    I’m with you 100% on CUJO, Alex. I don’t think I’ll read it again, either. And I love Stephen King. (I’ll admit, I started INSOMNIA and didn’t finish it because it kept putting me to sleep . . . hence the “boredom” rule.) I recently picked up DUMA KEY and can’t wait for some downtime to read it.

    Reply
  24. John Dishon

    @Stacey,

    I disagree that compassion has to be shown towards the victim. That’s not always true to real life. Often times there is no compassion.

    That’s why Unforgiven is such a great movie, because there is no compassion for anyone. There are no good guys, and like Clint Eastwood’s character says “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

    If you want your writing to have that element of truth in it, sometimes you can’t hold back. Some can’t handle that and some can. I’d really like this mystery book to be named though, because I want to read it.

    Reply
  25. toni

    Not having a clue what book it is, I’m curious if the scene in questioned is written from the POV of the person who did take pleasure from whatever the heinous act was? Or from the observer / narrative character / protagonist?

    I long ago recognized that certain issues were going to bother me more than others, but it’s the writing that will either hold me there, compelling me to witness the crime or make me abandon the book. I want the author to be truthful about it, and I don’t want anyone to shy away from what they think is necessary to convey the story. Necessary vs. Gratuitous. Unfortunately, that scale is not a one-size-fits-all, so a writer just has to go with the truth as they see it.

    Reply
  26. Jeanne Ketterer

    I’ve set aside books (to say ‘put down’ seems to be killing it) with grat. violence/sex bec it’s boring, lazy writing.

    I didn’t get through Cujo, also.

    And now I want to know the title of this book. Someone pls email me off list.

    Jeanne

    Reply
  27. Allison Brennan

    I like Toni’s comment–the writer has to go with the truth as they see it. As people here know because I’ve talked about it before, I get dinged for being too violent and/or having too much sex. To me, the violence and the sex comes from the story and characters. If I close the door I lose valuable characterization. If the violence is off-page, I lose a valuable connection with the reader. But at the same time, there are some things that I don’t tackle on page because for me, personally, I can’t. The death of a child, for instance. I have written stories that investigated child murders, but I never showed them on the page. I killed a cat in KILLING FEAR, but it had to be done–if the killer HADN’T done it, it would have been out of character. If that makes sense. It also set up a major revelation later in the book, so it was character-crucial AND plot-crucial.

    Which goes back to being gratuitous. If it works in the story, I’ll buy into anything.

    Reply
  28. Woodstock

    I’ve only had one experience with abandoning a well-written book. I’m one of those readers who often check the last few pages to find out what happens. It doesn’t spoil my reading pleasure, I’ve always done it, and I think the habit has its roots in my childhood when I was impatient and couldn’t wait. Anyway, I had a well written book, skillfully translated, suspenseful and with a very very dark story line. About two thirds of the way along, I peeked. So I knew where we were going. It wasn’t going to be pleasant. And I quite plainly did not want to know how the author was going to take me from the middle of the story to the end. So I shut the pages and took it back to the library. Thinking about that experience, I think it was more a function of my own sensibilities and involvement with the characters than any decision by the author on events in the telling of the story.

    This is a very interesting discussion!

    Reply
  29. Stacey Cochran

    John,

    Unforgiven is a great example, and one of my all-time favorite movies. The only reason the final scene works is because of the justice that Clint’s character serves in retaliation for the murder of his friend.

    It’s the very fact that Clint’s character has this deep respect and love for Morgan’s character that the audience accepts Clint’s cold-blooded killing of everyone in the bar.

    Also, Clint and Morgan begin their journey in the film as the result of a prostitute’s being cut up, and their motivation is at least somewhat informed by a sense of righting the wrong done to her… a sense of compassion.

    SC

    Reply
  30. Nancy Martin

    The rape of a child. I haven’t read any John Grisham novel after the first few pages of A TIME TO KILL. That’s my line in the sand.

    But Neil Plakcy? He needs to write faster!

    Reply

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