When I wrote last week’s Friday Fiction story, I wanted to show that Lizzie had been abused as a child, but also that she had moved on from that and was growing into a strong independent woman, which is why I referenced her abuse obliquely, through Harry Potter and The Color Purple.
But those references themselves got me thinking. Both books deal with forms of child abuse. Harry is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs and is bullied by not only his cousin but also his adoptive parents. Celie’s abuse is much more extreme, she is raped and beaten by her father and – if I remember rightly – others.
And yet the difference between these two characters isn’t just in the level of their mistreatment, but in the way the authors treat that situation. The Harry Potter series is pretty light about it; the writing is aimed at children after all. And Harry is far from the first children’s hero to be ill-treated – the list of orphans, wicked step-mothers and overbearing fathers goes on and on. We like to see triumph over adversity, and kids like to see kids being independent. That’s why Disney heroes and heroines famously never have both parents alive.
Alice Walker is much more graphic and polemic about the abuse she deals with in The Color Purple and it makes for a very different novel; one that I think we can safely say will never be turned into a colourful musical animation. She was writing for adults, and she was writing (at least partly) to make a point.
As writers, we do need to consider our audience to some extent – there is no point putting extreme sex and violence into a novel you want to pitch to kids – but even when writing for grown ups, there are different ways to convey the same thing, and sometimes subtlety can be more powerful than graphic description.
It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood used to just show us the bedroom door closing or the gun being fired and now, increasingly, insists on boobs and bums, blood and bodies at every turn. I think the same may be true of the written word. I think both have their place, but I like it when writers have enough faith in both their own writing and their readers, to let us infer some of what goes on behind closed doors. Wandering back to the movie theatre for a moment, I found 12 Years A Slave incredibly moving, but if I had one criticism (apart from the terrible handling of the passage of time), it would be that I think the film overplayed its hand on the violence. Shocking and stunning are not synonyms.
How do you feel about explicit writing? Is it brave and powerful, or cheap and gratuitous?