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?

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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 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.