Objectionable content

by Pari

You’d think a traditional mystery writer would know how to keep her nose clean. And yet every book I write contains elements that someone, somewhere, finds objectionable.

Usually, I can anticipate the problem spots. In CLOVIS, I figured it would be the UFO theme, and, yes, the talking cat. "Is this a mystery or science fiction?" people wanted to know. "Is this another cutesy kitty book? " "Do you believe in UFOs?"

In BELEN, I knew I’d catch some flack about the religiosity vs spirituality theme. And guess what? The worst review I got for that book came from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Coincidence? I’m just sayin’ . . .

With THE SOCORRO BLAST, I thought people would object to the idea that our current national paranoia squirts out, in unbecoming ways, even in small towns. 

But . . .

An early ARC reader identified another potential problem. She wrote, "You realize, of course, the trouble you’re going to get into with the bulk of the organized Jewish community over this novel!"

Um, no, I hadn’t.

She went on with: "This is the first that I’ve seen a Jewish character telling it like it is, and ‘they’ are going to have a big fit! . . . expect the usual comments: anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew, etc. etc. . . ."

I was stunned.

Sure, Sasha has major issues with her cultural and religious identity. She’s absolutely merciless in her reaction to one of her nieces, so much so that the woman can seem like a caricature. And, it’s true that Sasha and her mother have a very difficult time respecting that her sister has embraced a much more conservative form of Judaism.

That’s the point of the book!
EVERYONE has prejudices and intolerances.
It’s also a fact that we’re often hardest on those nearest to us, those we’ve known the longest. All this emotional baggage we carry becomes magnified during family crises.

On the surface, SOCORRO is a traditional, amateur sleuth mystery.
It’s a fun and interesting read.
Many people will leave it just at that.

But the truth is, I want it to be more . . .
I want it to make readers think about our personal and societal biases/fears in this post-9/11 era. I hope SOCORRO has more depth, more potential for discussion, than my first two. So, I asked UNM Press to include reader questions at the back of the novel.

I’ve even gone one step further. My sister (who holds a PhD in education) and I developed a webquest project for college students and book clubs to explore these issues in depth. While the project is in its infancy, I planned it as a supplement to the book from the get-go.

You can probably imagine my first reaction to the warning from that kind mystery reader.
It was sorrow.
I’d missed the mark, gone too far.

Then I thought about what it means to be a writer. I thought about WHY I wrote THIS particular book. I looked at the letter from New Mexico’s First Lady, Barbara Richardson, that she sent along with her blurb. In it, she wrote: "I thought the manner in which you brought in the discussion of such issues as discrimination and racism was very thought-provoking. You make the reader aware of feelings that possibly lie very close to the surface of one’s own emotions."

Wow. Mission accomplished.

Now, I’m clear. I was true to Sasha’s character and her development. I was true to her story.

My questions today are:
1. Why do some fiction writers bother taking risks with subject matter in their works?
2. Do all writers do this on some level?
3. Why not play it safe, try to make everyone happy?
4. Can you think of any examples of writers who’ve taken risks, who’ve spotlighted something a particular group of people would rather not face?

This should be an interesting discussion . . .

THE SOCORRO BLAST goes on sale this Wednesday. I can’t tell you how excited I am!


14 thoughts on “Objectionable content

  1. Jim Winter

    My view is this: If a writer doesn’t manage to offend me at least twice in a 250 or higher book, someone wasn’t doing their job.

    Writing that does not offend at least a few people usually comes off as bland and dull.

    Which is more offensive that Carlin’s seven words.

  2. billie

    Agreed – if a book doesn’t provoke in some way(s) it’s holding back, I think.

    Congratulations on the release this week!

    The Fault Tree and Socorro Blast will be traveling together to my post box very soon.

  3. B.G. Ritts

    I read for pleasure, entertainment and escapism.

    However, if a book presents an underlying message, I believe the significance of that message will filter its way into awareness. A person with raised awareness is the first step toward correcting misconceptions.

    Congratulations on SOCORRO’s imminent release, Pari!

  4. pari noskin taichert

    Jim,I hope most readers agree with you. It’s really funny, the comments I got from the people who were so offended each started with a variation on: “I loved your prose, but . . . ” or “You’re a wonderful writer, but . . . ” Then came the boom. I just hope the offense doesn’t outweigh the interest.

    I guess we’ll just have to see.

    Billie,Thank you.I hope you enjoy it and CAN’T WAIT to read your reaction.

    B.G.,Thank you.I worked very hard NOT to CLOBBER people over the head with the underlying themes. But, so far, everyone has picked up on them.

    **** What’s fascinating to me about preliminary reactions to this book is that so many people are relating to it on a variety of levels.

    That comment from Barbara Richardson is spot-on. People are bringing their own stories to my book. It’s a very curious sensation.

  5. JT Ellison

    You know, Pari, I think there’s an element of judgment to these reactions. I’ve been noticing it time and again, when people don’t understand something, they immediately attack it.

    I’m reading Phillip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS right now. With the movie out, the hate and vitriol it spawned among the Christian groups, I was fascinated to see what the hubbub was about (another thought to consider.)

    Yes, there are witches, and prognostication, and vague mentions of the church supporting the Gobblers. But just like Harry Potter, the point is there is always a struggle, good versus evil. Just because a writer uses tools to get the point across — in this case daemons and fantastical lands — doesn’t mean they are wrong, or BAD. But people are afraid of the things they can’t understand.

    I know that once the book is out, your worries will be put to rest. If we don’t cause a reaction, we aren’t doing our jobs.

    And CONGRATS on the release!!! xo

  6. pari noskin taichert

    J.T.,I adore THE GOLDEN COMPASS (and like his other two in the trilogy, but not as much). Pullman brings up important ideas, yet it’s the story that matters — not a private agenda.

    I also think that there’s a hypersensitivity in some people, that their radar is on permanent alert, about certain issues.

    Thanks for the congrats, too. That feels good.

  7. Tammy Cravit

    Why don’t writers play it safe? Well, if we did, what would be the point of writing? And especially, what would be the point of writing mysteries?

    I look at it as axiomatic that you can’t please everyone. No matter what you write, you’re going to offend someone — either because you went too far, or because you didn’t go far enough. I know I don’t want my readers to think I chickened out and pulled punches for the sake of delivering inoffensive pablum, lest someone *gasp* dislike the book.

    I think we writers have a responsibility, almost a contract, with our readers. And part of the terms of that contract requires us to tell the truth as we see it. Our books don’t have to tell true stories, of course, but they do have to tell their characters’ stories with honesty and integrity. If we’re honest with our readers, they can feel free to disagree with our interpretation. But if we’re not honest with our readers, then why are we writing? And, more to the point, what are they getting out of the book?

    To me, the solution is to accept the fact that honesty will invariably offend *someone*, and to go forward from there.

    Congrats on the upcoming release! I can’t wait to read it!

  8. Allison Brennan

    I don’t consciously write any agenda items into my books. This may come from thirteen years working the Legislature where pretty much no one is right 100% of the time (or even 10%.) I read to be entertained, and I write because I want to entertain.

    However, there are a few little things that I’ve noticed come up time and again in my stories, and I’ve begun to recognize them as what I’ll call minor agenda items. For example, in my NO EVIL series the stories where in part about online safety–something I am very concerned about (as a mom.) So I probably get little digs in about the idiotic things people do on their MySpace pages (without actually saying it.)

    There’s also the common recurring theme of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, something I think we grapple with in our daily lives. Or, doing the right thing when we know it’ll piss people off.

    However, I noticed that in my short stories (I’ve only written two) I tend to have more of an “agenda” as each takes place in the California State Capitol and I take my observations and fictionalize them. In the KILLER YEAR story coming out, mine is about a real piece of legislation that was killed for political reasons. In my story, I made up a bunch of stuff (like, the Senate Pro Tem was never really taken hostage), but the core of the story is true: good, anti-crime legislation is killed all the time in committee (where most people don’t even hear about it) for political reasons and people (in this case children) die or are brutally injured because of it. Both bills I talked about in my story had been introduced, and killed, before they could become law and do any good.

    In the second short story it’s about infidelity in the Capitol.

    But because I don’t want to be partisan, I had in my first short story the hero a Democrat and in my second short story the hero a Republican 🙂

  9. Louise Ure

    I don’t think of it as risk taking at all, Pari. Rather, it’s bringing a character to life. And how else would you do that except to show how they think, how they feel, what they hate, what they care about?

    I’m happy to discover characters who I can identify with. But I’m equally happy to meet characters who are wildly different than anyone I know.

    That’s not a risk. It’s good writing.

  10. pari noskin taichert

    Tammy,Thank you and good advice. One of the things that same reader who alerted me to the potential issue asked me was, “If you knew how those people would react, would you have changed your work?”

    Nope.Point taken.

    Allison,Brahahahaha about the nonpartisanship.

    You know, I didn’t set out to have an agenda but noticed that there were always these bigger issues that I tended to focus on. With SOCORRO, the seed that started the book had to do with a disconcerting incident that could have been innocent or a not-so-subtle form of intelligence gathering. So, I found that the kernel already had the agenda in it.

    BTW: I can’t wait to read the anthology; it’s gonna be great.

    Louise,I like your take and might adopt it.

    As long as the character is believable within the context of the story, I’m usually okay with her/his POV.

  11. Tom

    Pari, is there a bookseller you’d especially like us to patronize?

    Louise and other ‘Rati, if you’re reading, same question; where would you most like us to buy?

  12. Louise Ure

    Speaking only for myself, I’d love to have readers contact those independent bookstores where I’m signing, and request a signed copy. It’s a nice payback for all their gracious hosting.

    (You can find most authors’ tour schedules on their websites.)

  13. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, Tom,That’s so nice! Thank you.

    I’m with Louise on that one — independent stores are wonderful and I’ve got several in the “Appearances” section on my website.

    New Mexico’s Borders stores are also throwing their support behind this book.

    And, I know for a fact that The Mystery Bookstore in L.A. ordered my books straight from UNM Press — because they called and asked me to autograph the copies and I went down to the warehouse to do it.

    I’ve also got a tour planned for the Pacific Northwest — probably in April — just have to firm up the dates.


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