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Writers and Self-Censorship

In the last few weeks I've been puzzling out a defence for the latest thing I've written. It's not bad writing. But it's BAD writing. For erotica writers, there are rules within rules for what you aren't supposed to write, what you shouldn't eroticize, subjects that you shouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Non-erotic writers always get surprised by this, but take my word for it, the practice of self-censorship is alive and well within the erotica writers community.

No under-age sex. This means that everyone has to discover their sexuality at the age of 18 or 21, unless they are in the UK, where it is slightly closer to reality.

No incest. The days when Anais Nin could write about bonking her father are long gone.

No sex with animals, unless they are werewolves. And only then IF the werewolf is in its human for at the time. There goes all the doggy style fun.

No snuff, unless it's vampires. And then, of course, one can always 'turn' the victim before the final breath is drawn.

No non-consensual sex. No rape, no force, no blackmail. Well, you can write about rape, but it can't be erotic from anyone's point of view.

Of course, there are writers for whom none of the above holds any interest. But there are others who don't touch on any of these subjects for fear they will be accused of advocating or legitimizing them in reality. And it goes without mentioning that there is no hope of getting them published.

And in practicing this self-censorship, we are acting as parents to our readers - keeping them away from things that might damage them. Why? Because inducing arousal in the midst of ugliness is a cardinal sin.

I often wonder at murder mystery writers. Aren't we, as readers, getting a vicarious thrill from the murder, even as we have the gorgeous feeling of having justice served in the end? And yet no one asks if mystery writers advocate murder.

And I remember my ex-husband, who used to devour Sven Hassel books with a glassy-eyed relish, hypnotised by the graphic descriptions of carnage on the Eastern Front. Many protest that underlying the thousands of lines of hideous violence is an anti-war message. But I have to tell you, I've got to wonder. It seemed to me it was more concerned with a vicarious sense of masculine camaraderie while you had blood and shit dripping off your tattered uniform.

And then there is all the exquisite Schadenfreude induced by limpid tragedies and most supermarket checkout tabloids.

Why do we fear the circumstances under which we induce sexual arousal in fiction when we happily induce so many other types of arousal with impunity?

11 Comment count
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Morality may possibly have something to do with it....

Dear Remittance girl,

From your blog one is unsure as to wheter you are advocating non-censorship concerning these taboo subjects or are just asking the world out there why we actually do not indulge in writing about such evils as rape,incest etc.... I think maybe it might have soemthing to do with 'Right' and 'Wrong' i.e. 'Morality', although I think the word morality has become a dirty word these days and so old fashion (according to some)....

Certain things are 'Universally' wrong and the above ceratinly are so....if somebody gets aroused by watching rape, incest, snuff movies does not make it right to 'erotocize' about it and bring it into the mainstrain and justify it. The people who eroticize about such heinous acts lack all sense of morality and of boundaries that we all must adhere to and respect...otherwise you get chaos as all and sundry can do whatever they desire irrespect of the fact that they are encrouching on another's liberty, life and consent....

Responsible censorship is not a bad thing, in fact it is a hallmark of being civilized, and being respectful of the Other which is essential for society.....

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No Sex Please, We're Writers

If an author censors their characters, then their characters are not authentic.

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Hmmmmmm... hiding behind your characters?

Hi Mr. Estey,

 Thanks for your interesting comment. I have read this point of view many times, but it suggests that you are channelling rather than writing - that you don't craft your characters, they are coming from outside you.

 Personally, I think it's a combination of both. 

 And then, there is always the issue of what you do to your characters, plot wise. Do you kill off the bad ones? Do you make'em pay for their sins?

Should evil go unpunished in fiction? It often does in real life. But fiction is that fine balancing of the suspension of disbelief.  

Are we storytellers or moral arbiters?


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I'd say characters are a

I'd say characters are a combination. I create them as vehicles to relate my story and philosophy, but once they are on the page they do as they wish. I can not foretell their interactions each morning I return to their lives.

I live in Nova Scotia. What part of Canada did you come from?

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Toronto but now Ho Chi Minh City

I was born in Canada, but I haven't been back for many years. I've spent the last 11 in Vietnam

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Thanks for your response Mr.

Thanks for your response Mr. Shah, Here's my quandary, I'm not discussing of actual acts, I'm speaking of written fiction - which has been full of immoral acts since the Old Testament, and probably before it. I agree with you. Certain things - many things in fact - are universally wrong.

Should we just stop writing about anything bad?

Unfortunately that is going to cut down severely on your ability to create conflict in fiction, which is going to make it pretty boring. After all...someone may actually find your villain attractive if you write him/her too well; if you make him/her complex and problematic. Of course, we could solve this by making all our bad guys cardboard cut-outs.

 Also, it appears I am one of those people who you feel lacks all sense of morality, or at least I do as you define it.

Here's the difference. I just write about stuff. There are a whole load of people around the world who actually DO bad stuff.

So...if I lack ALL sense of morality, does that put the actual rapist, murderers, child-traffickers, etc. into the minus range? Do they lack ALL sense of morality to the power of....let's say...10?

The problem with your reaction is that it doesn't address the issue. We are, as humans, fascinated by the darker sides of our nature. My premise is that fiction is a safe place to examine it.

Certainly NOT examining it hasn't helped, since even in countries practicing the most restrictive forms of censorship, there are still all those ugly things in reality.

 And, despite your concern, I'm pretty sure that no piece of fiction was ever responsible for "encrouching on another's liberty, life and consent". If something offends you, you just don't read it.

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excellent post, remittance girl

I must say, you're responses to the posted comments are spot on!!!

I've heard many authors argue that their characters have it their own way once they've been created. I personally find that a little frightening. Like creating a golem and breathing life into it, it's a little too godlike. Writing is a powerful tool - it changes the world - but let's get real. Channeling v. writing - this is a very excellent way to put it.

And in terms of an author's moral obligations - that's an argument that's been around since there were authors and has much traction in the US, along with the rating system for movies, television, etc. Your blog today - and the responses to it - along with James' (to which you posted a comment as did I) deal with some of the fundamental issues that surround writing and to which the author must attend - self-censorship and responsibility, societal censorship, and revealing the self in fiction. For me, they are also among the most interesting issues to read about.

There are many out there who will consider any erotic writing to be bad; no need to worry how bad. But there is far less to fear from any erotic fiction than the websites to which pedophiles are drawn, for example. Classic erotica - from DeSade, to the man and his maid, to O and Miller and Nin all have elements that are BAD.

There isn't much writing out there that can compare to, say, any television episode of CSI in which the 'bad guy' is a necrophiliac or a serial killer of seductively lovely young girls - complete with much on-screen discussion and suggestive photos.

Erotica has a purpose. It also has a specific place in the bookstore, like self-help, sci-fi, mystery, literary fiction. You can always walk around the section.


Great author photo, by the way.

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Hi Evelyn

Thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

It's interesting that you consider De Sade as classic erotica. I've always seen him as much more of a political writer. (And personally, I find the brutality and lack of cohesive plotting in his writing hard to get through).

I think a better case here is Nabokov's Lolita. (Hell, I wish I were one quarter the writer he was). The subject matter is terribly uncomfortable. It examines an issue that is probably quite common - a man's sexual feelings for an inappropriately young girl and it does it through his point of view - which both fascinates and horrifies.

The question is - are we richer, or poorer, for having a piece of writing like this in the cannon of Western literature? Does it function to ask us to examine our darker urges and set boundaries, or does it give permission?

For me this is the important discussion. Straight-up, nonliterary erotica is not problematic. It's the well-written, multi-layered stuff that people find the most confronting and contentious, because it can't be dismissed as having no lasting value. But what is that value?

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Lacan: Kant avec Sade

Fascinating discussion, and thanks for your post on my blog.  I would start with formalizing the discussion via Lacan's now classic (at least in some circles anyway!) essay "Kant avec Sade" in Ecrits.  Lacan's initial formulation is that it is not really possible to redeem BAD erotica (to use your term) without sacrificing morality itself, thus Kant and Sade are flip sides of the same coin.  Alenka Zupancic has written brilliantly on this in a book called The Ethics of the Real, to illustrate that there are no ethics of the real because the real exists beyond the symbolic, which is to say beyond reason.  It all turns on a meditation on Kant's argument that no man would willing sleep with a woman if he had to die the next morning as a result.  All of this is to say that BAD EROTICA will remain BAD so long as BAD and GOOD remain in play.  It can't be redeemed but it might force a change in the real and then a change in the symbolic so that good and bad itself get changed.  But you know this already--you appreciate Sade for the politics!

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Mr. Biberman

Dear, dear, Mr. Biberman,

Thank you for sending me to such interesting places! I did find a portion of the Lacan essay you mention online :

Not terribly satisfying in its translation or the fact that great chunks are left out, but as much as I can do considering I'm stuck in a country with no libraries or bookstores of any value.

I'm trying to understand the way Lacan is framing this. I don't see any 'jouissance' in "Philosophy in the Bedroom." I read Sade using sex as a stick with which to beat the church and the elite (ad nauseum). And it says more, to me, about Sade's inability to keep his own interiorized Catholicism out of his bedroom. Far from being free of its strictures, he is so bound by them that he must attack them over and over. Whereas one suspects that a good many Frenchman dutifully said their prayers on Sunday, considered the duty done and dispensed with, and then had a far better time with their wives.

But, in all honesty, I think Sade is just a bad example. Even taken at face value, the mechanical sex of Sade is more porn than erotica - it is absolutely free of any real humanity. And that makes it easy for the reader to gain distance. For me Nabokov stands as a far greater challenge, because he mixes the abhorrent with humanity.

I'm not sure any fictional writing (erotic or otherwise) that raises our blood in the face of a fictional transgression, cruelty or brutality has any business shopping for redemption. If it did, it wouldn't be problematic and it wouldn't afford us the possibility of walking away from the text puzzling over how it relates to us.

But perhaps the problem is that I'm not maintaining this discussion at your philosophical level. I haven't read enough Lacan (who I find very, very challenging indeed) or much Freud. I have a hard time forgiving Kant for his ultimate lapse back into religious superstition, although I understand the times required it.

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very much at my level if not above

I think you are right about Nabokov, and probably about Sade too.  You should read more Freud and Lacan--I am fairly certain you can put it to better use than most professionals.  There is a great story about Lacan making love to a woman in the back seat of a cab--and the next day the cabbie comes to Lacan asking to be analyzed.