These Days, More Explicit Lit Is Often What’s Writ

It’s no revelation that a lot of recent literature is more frank, candid, and graphic than fiction of the distant past — with sex or violence often spelled out rather than implied. But while this blog post’s theme might be unoriginal, I’m going to give my take and then ask for yours.  🙂

Despite the queasiness that blunt treatment of sex or violence can elicit on occasion, I’m glad overall that recent lit tends to be more forthright. It’s real life, and it can be psychologically healthy to have things out in the open and straightforwardly addressed.

Of course, one hopes the explicit stuff is not too over the top, and that young readers aren’t exposed to it until they’re ready. And there’s a part of me that does prefer mature content being presented with some mystery and subtlety — which explains part of the appeal of classic novels. Heck, it can require a heap of writing skill to effectively hint at things rather than be totally direct.

I thought of this topic when juxtaposing two recently read books — Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) and Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy (2013) — published 160 years apart.

Gaskell’s novel, which mostly focuses on the older single women of a small English town, describes their relationships and an appalling railroad accident in relatively low-key ways. It’s not a boring book — Cranford is absorbing in it’s light-yet-serious fashion — but the content is all rather…decorous.

Of course, one can’t overgeneralize about long-ago literature. For instance, Emile Zola’s 1880 Nana novel was pretty racy for its time (probably no surprise that Zola was French  🙂 ), but even some 19th-century British novels were bursting with veiled yet not completely veiled passion — as any reader of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and several of George Eliot’s magnificent novels would tell you. (But the times forced Eliot, who never wed her longtime partner George Henry Lewes, to be discreet when depicting a key non-marital sexual relationship in 1859’s Adam Bede.)

On to Golden Boy. Tarttelin’s compelling novel speaks openly of sex and sexual identity: heterosexual, gay/lesbian, and intersexual — teen protagonist Max, while identifying as male, has both male and female genitalia. The book also features an exceptionally painful-to-read rape. But everything is in the service of the plot, and Golden Boy ends up being a memorable read from a very young author still in her 20s.

Like the 1853 Cranford, Tartellin’s 2013 novel is set in a small English town — but what a difference 160 years makes! Still, Golden Boy‘s technique of having the narration switch from character to character harks back more than eight decades to how William Faulkner structured As I Lay Dying (1930) — even as Golden Boy reminds me (while being its own original self) of two more recent novels: J.K. Rowling and her depiction of teens in The Casual Vacancy (2012), and Jeffrey Eugenides and his gender-confused protagonist in Middlesex (2002).

Lee Child’s twenty riveting Jack Reacher books, from 1997’s The Killing Floor to 2015’s Make Me, are examples of how frank displays of sexuality and vivid descriptions of violence are part and parcel of many modern thrillers, mysteries, etc. Heck, as violent as some pre-1900 novels might have been, most didn’t have quite the clinical detail of some of Reacher’s bone-crushing battles with the bad guys.

Other relatively recent novels with spasms of violence rendered in a way hard to imagine in most long-ago lit include Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-10), and Frank Bill’s Donnybrook (2013). Then again, things got rather graphic when two people were murdered by Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 classic Crime and Punishment.

Do you agree that modern literature tends to be more frank and candid? If so, what do you think of that? What are some examples of novels with fairly explicit depictions of sex or violence, and some examples of books that take a more subtle approach?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

68 thoughts on “These Days, More Explicit Lit Is Often What’s Writ

  1. Hi Dave two well known authors I could think of.
    The First one is John Irving never shy away from being descriptive either in violence or in personal lives. ” In One Person ” is a story of desires and memories , the author writes as William dean a well known novelist from his childhood when known as Billy. His first sexual encounter ( as descriptive more than you could think of ) was with the town librarian Ms. Frost who once was a town wrestler now a woman without any necessary surgeries. Grandfather was straight but loved to be a cross dresser..and so on…
    But the book was a great read and had so many humorous moments.

    Then Russel Banks ” Lost Memory of Skin” the author tried to find humanity in people branded for lifetime as sexual predator for all the right reasons. But this is about an youth ” Kid” lonely abandoned by father and mother who is busy with ever changing boyfriends.
    But also on people among us like a pedophile of a professor with wife and children but with a secret life targeting little girls .This is a difficult but well written book recommended by one patron and after 50 some pages I decided to finish it.

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  2. The Shock of the New is not just the title of a BBC series by Robert Hughes, it’s a vital ingredient in every formula of modernism. But modernism itself , among other things, is a formalizing of a formula which had been formerly, if less formally, employed.

    New gets old fast, and what shocked Grandpa barely provides a tingle to the grandkids. So the borders of what elicits shock are constantly expanding to accommodate the ever-shrinking capacity of the audience to be shocked.

    It’s hard for us to appreciate the power of art that yesterday drew gasps but today cannot draw a yawn. But whatever it is that holds shocking power now? Our mouths gape open predictably and obligingly.

    I would be pleased if this aspect of the modern were recognized for what it is: old stuff, even if, as I do not, one believes that the employment of the explicit in the service of renown is a 20th century development. After all, even dadaism is 100 years old. How modern can modernism be?

    The explicit attracts, especially that portion deemed too shocking for mention or illustration. Until that attraction fades– and why would it ever?– it will remain a reliable marketing strategy, often obscured by the breathless sincerity of a crusading ambition.

    I will not claim that Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford was written with shock value foremost in mind, but there, in that little book, is the transfiguring disruption of genteel small town English life, with its delicate proprieties and hyper-sensitivities to social class and relations. The Empire’s itinerary encroaches, taking young men into ships and strange lands, from which wonderful exoticisms like tea derive, and away from home. The train, which has come to a nearby, larger town, brings strangers as well as strange goods– and trains, like iron juggernauts, can also kill. Financial speculation, unfathomable to honest persons in Cranford, comes to town in the form of a failed bank. Fear of wandering thieves and/or foreigners for a time roils the company of women around whom the novel revolves, though not for any good reason beyond fear itself. Even the return of Peter, the prodigal brother thought forever lost, is not without its disruptive, though welcome, aspect, because he, like so many of the age, returns from India with money from faraway, which now will be visited on Cranford, forever changed. The world is too much with them now, and the old ways will vanish.

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  3. An excellent review of sex and violence in literature. I prefer somewhat of a middle ground, more explicit than in Victorian literature, yet not quite as explicit as some of the more recent books you mentioned. Amy Tan and Sue Monk Kidd are two who handle those topics openly, yet gently.

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    • Thanks, energywriter! I can see the appeal of a middle ground. I’m probably in that neighborhood, too, with some leaning toward frank/candid. But I’m not a fan of too explicit.

      I’ve read a couple of Amy Tan novels, but never Sue Monk Kidd. Is there a book or two by the latter you would most recommend?

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      • PP was more munstrous.

        Nowadaze, color me surprised that a certain retired QB has yet to open a restaurant called Peyton’s Place. A theme sorta spot, your waiter would tell you to go out for a long one, and if you caught his pass of your order, your food would arrive unbesmirched, though if you repeated the play over-often, you might become known as The Wide Receiver. If you did not catch your order, you might then earn a new name: Adolf De Flor.

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  4. Always interesting to compare current and past literature trends in relation to the culture they were produced by. Good topic, Dave. I don’t know that I would characterize modern literature as more frank and candid. Rather, I think I’d go with “differently frank and candid.” Literature tends to be somewhat ahead of its current popular culture in terms of both discourse and presentation. I’m sure that was the case 160 years ago, as well. I think it would be interesting to consider other “forms” of literature, which are so popular in our current visual culture. One definitely finds much frankness and candidness among the very visual content of our electronic literature, as well as in our written literature today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Gina, for the excellent food-for-thought comment! Some long-ago literature that seems kind of staid now was indeed once frank and candid for its time. A number of novels paid the price for that (at least initially) — Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” Melville’s “Pierre,” Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” etc. And great point about the candidness in the digital world!

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  5. Hi Dave, a most interesting topic and one that I’ve struggled with most of my reading life. I haven’t read “Cranford,” but I’ve seen a DVD made from it, and found it delightful. I’ve read many thrillers and mysteries from today’s writers and thought most of them had to have an obligatory sex or sexual violence scene in them, which I found to not be necessary for me to enjoy a book. One that I found very difficult to read was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” though I loved most of the trilogy I think I just prefer to not have everything spelled out explicitly for me. I still wonder about a scene in “Busman’s Honeymoon,” by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which she seems to imply that Lord Peter and Harriet Vane had a sexual encounter before they are married, but it’s not exactly clear. I’m not sure why it’s so much easier for me to read about violence, than sex and/or sexual violence. I can’t even begin to tell you how many murder mysteries I’ve read, but for the most part they have been ones where there is a puzzle to be solved. I suppose it’s why I always enjoyed the Golden Age of Mystery authors so much. One cares more about why and how a crime was committed, rather than who the victim and villain were, although that’s important as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kat Lib! I’m not a big fan of a novel having one or two sex or violence scenes included just for the sake of sales, to be momentarily “cool”/edgy/shocking, and so on. But if the sex or violence seems relevant or organic to the book, no problem. In the case of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its two equally riveting sequels, the explicit scenes seemed to fit in with the trilogy’s harsh nature — Lisbeth Salander’s abused/difficult life, the rampant corruption in high places, etc.

      Yes, in older literature, sex scenes are often implied, but one doesn’t always know for sure. Of course, a resulting pregnancy can offer a clue… 🙂

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  6. I’ll agree with Stuart on this. Yes, we get too much in novels sometimes, and I miss the older standards, particularly that novels are meant to tease the mind, to wake it up, to cause one to dream.

    Enjoy the week, everyone. The skies have cleared again. “Sunshine on my shoulders, makes me happy.” John Denver

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, hopewfaith! Different people definitely have different views on this. I don’t like literature that gets too blatant, but a certain amount of frankness works for me. Of course, there are also many wonderful novels (including a lot of the classics) that are more circumspect. The works of Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, L.M. Montgomery…

      Loved your eloquent line about how literature ideally is meant to “tease the mind, to wake it up, to cause one to dream.”

      Enjoy the week, too! Finally a little cooler…

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  7. Another thought provoking topic, Dave. I immediately thought of Shriver’s “We need to talk about Kevin” which had some very graphic parts, but due to the subject matter, I think they needed to be graphic.

    “A Song of Ice and Fire” has a lot of sex and violence, though I don’t remember the books being quite as graphic as the TV adaptation. And again, it’s sex and violence that works for the story.

    I found the exact opposite of too explicit in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. If I’m remembering right (and I’m really not convinced that I am) I wasn’t sure that Tess had been raped until after she’d had a baby. Not only did the sex not happen, the whole pregnancy and birth thing was just so vague. Though like I said, I could be mis-remembering, or thinking of another book. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan! My local library hasn’t had Lionel Shriver’s “Kevin,” but I’ve read her “So Much for That” and “Big Brother” — the first one fantastic and the second one very good. “So Much for That” did have a botched-surgery subplot I thought was too graphic; maybe Shriver handled “graphic-ness” better in “Kevin.” But, overall, I think she’s one of the best living authors.

      I STILL haven’t gotten to “A Song of Ice and Fire” — 🙂 — but those books and the TV series it inspired do seem like an Exhibit A for not being shy about depicting sex and violence.

      Yes, many 19th-century novels by Thomas Hardy and others were too low-key about showing certain things, but the authors of course had little choice.

      As you probably noticed, I discussed “Grand Days” somewhat in last week’s column. If you want to discuss that novel more, let me know!

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      • Dave, the mention of Lionel Shriver made me think of her book,”The Post-Birthday World.” It was quite difficult for me to read, because of so much graphic sex, but I think that was part of the premise of the book. It was how a decision on her birthday to either kiss a new lover or go back to her more staid, dependable lover would or could change her life drastically. She tells the story from two parallel universes. This has been done before, e.g., the movie “Sliders,” as well as the Star Trek episode about Tasha Yar (too complicated for me to go into), but it’s a fascinating concept — who among us hasn’t thought, if I did this instead of that, how would my life have been changed?

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        • “The Post-Birthday World” is definitely on my list, Kat Lib. From your description, it does seem like the depiction of sex was appropriate in that novel, and Lionel Shriver is such a good writer I trust most of her literary decisions.

          That scenario of a parallel universe/a small decision radically changing the future IS fascinating, whether in “Star Trek” (“The Next Generation” expertly did that several times) or in books.

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          • Dave, you are absolutely correct that the sex in “The Post-Birthday World” was germane to the entire premise and plot of that book (just as was the horrific sexual violence was germane to the plot of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”) It was somewhat amusing to me that when that novel came out, I was at a birthday party for an 18 year-old getting ready to go off to college. His aunt gave him the first book in the trilogy and his mother threw a fit over that, in essence taking the book away from him. I tried to explain to all of them that there was some disturbing sexual violence, but that an 18 year-old boy had probably seen just as or almost as bad things in other books and film. I feel sure this was probably the first book he bought himself afterwards, and I hope he used my check to buy it! 🙂 I know back then he was re-reading the entire “The Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan. I’m not sure if it’s the same or similar to “The Game of Thrones,” but I still found that to be impressive.

            P.S. Another caveat about “The Post-Birthday World,” is that you will find out much more than you ever wanted to know about the game “Snookers.”

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            • Kat Lib, I agree that there were virtually no false steps in Stieg Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.). Some harsh, very intense moments, but it all seemed as real as real can be (albeit a heightened reality). I definitely agree that an 18-year-old should be allowed to read it.

              Hmm…I’m almost scared to read “The Post-Birthday World.” 🙂

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  8. Interesting topic Dave . Explicit novel you say ? 50 shades of Grey popped into my mind. The series of that book broke all records to become the best sellers of all and never was on hardbound copies. All in paperbacks and after so may library patrons talked about it I tried and never was able to go beyond 50 pages , a bit yawn worthy.
    Then the movie , someone I knew went to see and witnesses lots of laughter in the theater. Then it was in HBO and let me tell you , a few minutes of it had the same effect on me.:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • bebe, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is an excellent example of a modern novel with explicit content! (I haven’t read it, but have of course heard a lot about it.) There’s just no way a book as “graphic” as that would have been widely published and widely read centuries ago, though I would imagine there was racy stuff back then that (in each case) was perhaps read by a small number of people.

      Greatly enjoyed your colorful comment about the content and different manifestations of the far-from-a-masterpiece “Grey.” 🙂

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      • That was a fair warning to you Dave..just pure trash with very poor writing and acting..belongs to garbage. There was an article somewhere how the series piling up in trash bin. Several patrons have said they have heard someone`s grandma or mom buying the book but did not hear them reading any. My hair stylist read them and loved them she is into all those with her husband ..oh my…

        Then “The Killing Floor” to 2015’s ” Make Me ” particularly the last one by Lee Child with a stunning ending which is unbelievable with creepy people .
        Which reminds me come October another book will be coming out by Mr. Child aw we know he publishes on in every fall.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s right, bebe — another Reacher novel will be out soon! Can’t wait! Lee Child is amazingly prolific — 21 books in less than 20 years, and they all range from very good to great. “Make Me” DID have quite an ending, and it was interesting throughout the book to see the signs of Reacher aging a bit.

          As for “Grey,” I guess some people relate to it and others toss it in the trash. Or maybe some people do both… 🙂

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  9. I’m not a fan of explicit violence in books, although I know it has its place in crime novels, and I steer clear of the sadistic serial killer genre.
    Outside that genre, I just finished A Little Life and found the descriptions of cutting and pedophiliac abuse to be stomach turning. I soldiered through (it was a REALLY long book) because so many had put it on their best book lists that I thought there would be some redeeming moment. There wasn’t. I didn’t think so many repeated graphic accounts were necessary to further the story. Maybe the author’s idea was I should suffer as much as the protagonist/victim. Or maybe I’m just a squeamish prude!

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    • I hear you, Betsy. If the violence gets too explicit, and it doesn’t seem to be in the service of the story, I’m outta there. Happened to me a few months ago with a James Patterson novel, the name of which escapes me. And, yes, modern crime lit almost demands a certain level of mayhem.

      Sorry “A Little Life” (which I haven’t read) was such a difficult experience. Repeatedly beating the reader over the head (so to speak) can definitely be counterproductive on the author’s part.

      Thanks for your excellent take on this.

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  10. What an interesting and “racy” topic, Dave! I don’t mind graphic descriptions of sex or violence like those that appear in the Jack Reacher series (be still, my heart). Those novels, although I don’t guess they will ever be called “classic” literature, surely are compelling reading!

    Simply to see how salacious they were, I read two novels that were considered scandalous in their day – “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1928; and “Lolita”, by Vladimir Nabokov was published in 1955. I read them when I was a teenager, and they were racy enough to make me blush, I’m sure, but by today’s standards they were tame. They may have been groundbreaking literature, but I don’t know if I would call them great literature.

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    • Thanks, lulabelle! Very interesting thoughts!

      Some “racy” books of many decades ago can definitely seem relatively tame today. I recently experienced that with another D.H. Lawrence novel, “Sons and Lovers,” which would be considered PG at most in 2016 but was almost X-rated a century ago.

      And, yes, as you know, I’m also a major fan of the Jack Reacher series. (I’ve now read 18 of the 20 books. 🙂 ) I think one reason the violence in it is almost palatable is because Reacher is kind of a fantasy character. Plus he often lashes out for legitimate revenge reasons — and feeling justly vengeful can be a very visceral/satisfying emotion.

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  11. We live in an era of truths and reality. There is little reason, beyond shielding explicit material from certain groups, to hide anything. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on the individual work being analysed though. Sometimes too much is too much and not enough can be……frustrating.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Stuart! Very well said! And a great point about how the acceptable level of candor can depend on the particular work — or author. One of many examples of that would be how the excellent, ultra-violent “Blood Meridian” by prose-master Cormac McCarthy might have been a mediocre, bloody, not-worth-reading western in the hands of a lesser writer.

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