Monday, January 21, 2013

Guest - Karen Duvall

Good morning! We're in a cold spell...the kind of weather where you just want to stay inside and stay warm no matter how bright and sunny the day is. A friend of mine just told me those kinds of days of bright sunshine and frigid temp's are 'fake sunshine' days because the temperatures counteract the brightness. I think she may be right, lol. So stay inside and stay warm and entertain yourselves with today's blog by author Karen Duvall.



Controversial Subjects in Stories: Good or Bad?

Controversy. It's a hot bed of opinions that are highly debatable. It's those subjects we're warned not to discuss in public because they can cause heated arguments, offend sensibilities and alienate our peers. If controversial conversation is taboo in most social circles, is it okay in fiction?

Controversial issues can lead to tension and ill will, but wow, what a great platform on which to build conflict, right? Stir a pot that's already boiling and it's sure to attract attention. Good or bad, there's one thing for certain: Controversial topics in fiction should be handled with care.

I recently read an interview with a Berkley editor ( who said a controversial story that dealt with politics or religion was a deal breaker for her. She didn't say why, but it's possible that Berkley feels a need to be cautious about taking sides on a controversial issue. It could open them to lawsuits, or at the very least the company's reputation is on the line. Neutrality is safe and good for business.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction can disguise controversy of a political or religious nature within the alien worlds and cultures they create. Fae politics are different from those of humans. Shapeshifter pack culture isn't real, but can feasibly be based on something familiar that readers can relate to. The agnostic alien society of planet X is a sharp contrast to the known religions of our world, but it's imaginary so that makes it more acceptable. However, the veil is often thin and may not completely hide the author's intention of broaching a subject that could make some readers bristle and grit their teeth to read.   

The point I'm making is that there are two sides to every issue, and if a writer chooses to tread the turbulent waters of controversy, it's wise to approach the concept with equality in mind. Writers may want to avoid taking a stand and using the topic of their story to soapbox their own opinions. Characters should be the ones to handle the debate in a way that makes each side sympathetic. It's intellectually stimulating to read a story where both sides are wrong and right, depending on which side of the fence you stand. The reader is allowed his or her own perception and will probably learn something from it. Now that's good storytelling.

As a reader, I adore smart books that explore controversial issues using both sides of a debate. For me, it's even better if they're science fiction or fantasy. Such books are not easy to find, however Amazon has a fairly good advance search option that uses key words to filter its findings. The proof is still in the pudding and unless a review discloses the author's unbiased approach to the issue, there's no way of knowing whether or not the book is a grand stand in disguise.

Even a controversial book written without bias can anger readers. Some readers are less open-minded than others, especially when it comes to issues that are close to their hearts. A woman sensitive to the abortion debate will be hard pressed to enjoy a story that explores pro life and pro choice because of her personal view. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but I'm an animal activist and I was midway through reading a story that described the torture of a dog at the hands of a serial killer. I set the book aside and I'll never attempt to read another book by that author. The image of that poor animal is forever burned into my brain. Was it wrong for the author to include animal cruelty in her book? Not necessarily. Did she lose readers as a result? Possibly. She most definitely lost me.

I recently read a manuscript, by an unpublished author, that dealt with the issue of illegal immigration. It was the best book, published or otherwise, that I've read in quite some time. He handled a controversial issue with equality and grace that included a tender romance between an illegal immigrant and the daughter of the sheriff trying to deport him. He couldn't find a publisher, possibly due to the political controversy at the story's core, so he's self-publishing it next month. I'm excited that this wonderful story will finally have the audience it deserves.

I would like to ask the readers of this blog how you feel about controversial issues explored through fiction. And writers, would you risk writing about it? Have you already? If so, what has your experience been like?

About Karen:
Karen Duvall lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. She's an award winning author published with Harlequin Luna and is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy romance series.

Twitter: @KarenDuvall



SUN STORM excerpt:

I stared out the hospital window at the heat-glazed street below, knowing I shouldn't be shocked to see brown lawns, charred rooftops and the sun-scorched branches of leafless trees in the middle of January. But I was. I'd never get used to a hot winter in Colorado.

Few people ventured outside in the daytime anymore. The risk of getting caught in a sun storm was greater now than ever before, and only a rare few survived the storm's lethal rain of radioactive sun sparks. Exposure killed you slowly with Sun Fever, or if you were lucky, it let you live with altered DNA that turned you into a freak. That's what had happened to me. The sun and I were connected now. I could predict when a storm was about to happen, and there was one coming this way.

I gripped the window blinds, my fingers like burning bands of iron as the premonition flowed through me. My entire body felt on fire from the inside out, and I wondered if exhaling hard enough would send flames dancing on my breath. But, no, I'd already tried that. The air from my lungs came out as red clouds of smoke instead.

I had a half hour to warn the town to take cover before the storm hit. It was time to sound the alarm.

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-- Lynda Again
    So...what do you think? Should our books include controversial issues? Tell us what you think.

    Have a Blessed Day!


Lynda K. Scott said...

Welcome Karen! Thanks for joining us! I once had an agent request one of my books (a mult-contest winner). But when she saw that the heroine was accused of cannibalism (eating her dead companions in a survival situation years and years earlier), she flat out said, "Ewww. No, thank you." Which was better than some other rejections (for other stories) I've received over the years, lol. But clearly, cannibalism pushed her buttons where it didn't seem to bother the contest judges or the agent I currently have.

Alexis Morgan said...

My very first published book dealt with a woman trying to help her young nephew who was getting involved with drugs. My editor told me that her beta reader returned the book having read only half of it and was upset they'd publish it. Obviously drug addiction hit some hot button with her. I do think that readers might be more accepting of "hot button" issues in fantasy/urban fantasy/science fiction that in stories that hit closer to their reality. Great topic!

Karen Duvall said...

That's interesting, Lynda. I never would have thought cannibalism would be controversial, but I suppose anything that makes an editor go "ewww" would be considered that way. :)

Alexis, adolescent drug addiction is likely a sensitive issue to a lot of people, but that's what makes it so dramatic in fiction. It's the wreck on the road that's shocking to see, but you're still drawn to watching it. The heroine in my novella SUN STORM has a kinetic power that makes her addicted to the sun sparks responsible for killing millions of people. She feels guilty that her survival depends on the cause of death for others. I used her addiction as part of her character arc.

Thanks so much for your comments!

Lynda K. Scott said...

Wow, Alexis. I've seen similar plots in lots of movies/TV shows/books. I wouldn't have thought that would be too controversial. But, yeah, hot buttons vary from person to person.

Karen, Sun Storm sounds fascinating! I love the idea of it and can see how it would affect the character easily. I might have to get the book when it comes out ;-)

Paty Jager said...

The last book of my spirit trilogy dealt with the U.S. Army and their treatment of the non-treaty Nez Perce. I used information from both sides to show the emotions and reasons from both sides and I hope while I had definite ideas on the whole thing, it won't offend anyone. I think knowing both sides of a situation helps a person make a knowledgeable decision on which side to take or what to believe.

But I can see where publishing houses would want to cater to the greater population and avoid law suits.

I agree writers of fantasy/paranormal and sci-fi can get away with it easier. Interesting post!

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Paty! Oh, that's a good hot topic, and so relatable to current politics regarding our U.S. military.

I recently read the first page of a very thought provoking unpublished YA novel from a teen terrorist's POV. I was intrigued and would enjoy reading a book like this, even from the enemy's perspective, just for a peak into how a terrorist might justify his muderous actions. I hope it gets published someday.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy controversial topics. Can't help you with editors, though. I tweeted.

Tricia Skinner said...

I'm very new to publishing. When my debut was in beta, I had a few people tell me they enjoyed it but they had a hard time with angels in Heaven being "bad guys." I don't think it matters how you sandwich something, there are topics people have wedged into their minds as only being a certain way. Anything apart form that is weird, scary, or possibly wrong.

I chuckled at the cannibalism mention above. I have a project with a cannibal hero and let me tell you, if you want to get an instant "eww" that's the topic to do it. Again, it doesn't matter the reasons for it, some people won't give you the time of day when they learn what you're writing.

In the end, I'm writing stories I'd love to read. If people can fall in love with zombie stories, women falling for half-animal men (shifters), and drinking blood is considered sexy, they can deal with cannibals. ;)

Karen Duvall said...

So true, Tricia. My Knight's Curse books are about angels and the knights born from an angel/human union. Some readers were like: "But that's not how angels operate. They don't do those things!" Maybe not in the bible, but in my fantasy world they do. Some white angels are bad, and some fallen angels are good... in the world I created. I love to defy convention in my stories.

It's so wonderful that authors have more publishing options now, and if a traditional publishing company won't take a risk, the writer can take it and still sell books. We can do anything! :)

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Interesting topic. I pretty much know what my hot button topics are and avoid books with those if possible.

But I also know the treatment of those topics varies widely. For me, mentioning a hot button topic garners a much different reaction than a graphic description. I'm very much aware of that as a writer too and try to walk that fine line because I do write about controversial topics--hopefully with balance and sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Science Fiction and Fantasy are an easier way to handle controversy because the reader can deal with any cognitive dissonance by dismissing the world. You find a lot of SF writers are controversial people to begin with. :)

Personally, I find it sad that some publishers or editors are afraid to publish an "issue" book. I think if it is handled well and the characters actions help to define the book then we need more, not less. There are plenty of books that are pure entertainment available to those who don't wish to face any controversy. But often, a well written issue book can introduce topics in a palatable way when there is good character development and an emotional tug of the reader.

Karen Duvall said...

Genene, you're so right about sensitivity and balance being key to approaching sensitive issues in fiction.

LOL, Maggie, about SF writers and you are absolutely right. I, too, am disheartened by publishers that shy away from controversy. I'm sure there are hundreds of manuscripts that get passed over for this very reason.