Writing the Unwriteable

So what’s your book about then? It’s the obvious question, once you’ve fessed up to what you spend a large chunk of your time doing. There are several options here. You can keep it vague, although you run the risk of sounding pretentious: It’s about gender identity. You can make it very specific, more about the actual style: It’s a dual narrative, looking at the same event from a male and female perspective. Or, the more blunt reply (which probably gets everyone looking terribly uncomfortable): It’s about rape.

There is, as always, a wider issue here. To what extent should literature be exploring these areas of life? And if they are, what is the author’s moral responsibility when it comes to shaping a plot, or characters, that explore such a violent and unpleasant aspect of human nature? I read two very different books recently to get a sense of how others have handled it.

In the first, instance, both books make the issue the central point of their plot, the lens through which the entire narrative is viewed. Having only recently been aware of the term ‘fridging’ (a plot device whereby you rape/murder the wife/girlfriend/mother/little sister of the hero to drive him forward on his quest) I nonetheless was fully of the opinion that these things shouldn’t be used as a throwaway item or a trick to push a story forward. However, should it be ‘true’? Lucky by Alice Sebold is a true account of her experience as a young woman in college. But that isn’t necessarily what makes it a great book. Shadows of Truth by Angie Robinson is a fictional account of a woman who looks back on a violent attack in her past. But that isn’t necessarily what makes it a terrible book. No matter the content or factual accuracy, what makes something interesting and compelling is often the same.

Novels about unpleasant things tend to walk a line between horror and depravity and hope and recovery. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, in a way that doesn’t have your reader so disgusted they put it down, or so drowned in the cliche of human triumph over adversity that they also put it down. And it still needs to be, a story. Sebold’s novel is not a simple memoir, she’s shaped the narrative order of events so that it is absorbing. Her description is delightful and evocative, but not to the extent where we find ourselves plodding through every single emotion with her. We feel her pain and frustration, there is a clear sense of narrative tension built up, but it isn’t all laid out for us to examine. That leaves nothing for the reader to discover, and so loses our interest. Which I think, fundamentally, is where Shadows of Truth falls down. The feelings and thoughts of every character are laid bare so openly that there is nothing left to feel for them. As an example: “I was surprised to hear that she lived below the poverty level, but was astounded by her gratitude to be an employee of the farm co-op.” I had no empathy, no interest or desire to find out what happens (I knew from the first part anyway). Interesting to note that I also knew what was going to happen in Lucky, as it told me on the back of the book, but I was absolutely captivated, desperate to know how her story ended, how she got through the struggle, because the writer painted her story with loose and articulate brush strokes, rather than stating feelings and intentions baldly.

Cliches are a writer’s worst friend. In the first instance, when you write a scene, it’s incredibly hard not to use them. When you read back over your scene, you suddenly realise that the wind is howling, the birds are chirping and the person is fighting for breath. Our first thoughts will undoubtedly be our least creative. It’s taught me how important it is to revisit description and ideas until they have a sense of uniqueness to this character or this situation. Which I just didn’t get from Shadows of Truth. The characters are hopeless cliches: a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, endures a terrible sexual ordeal, becomes a sex worker until she finds God and meets a banker husband. The banker that has chiseled features and doesn’t need a personality because he’s strong and a man so doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. A rough cop from the tough side of the street whose been in the job for years, all gruff and haunted by that one case,  a confirmed bachelor who doesn’t need anyone. Or does he? Not only that, but there were no surprises. I knew that she would have her terribly tempting time where she wasn’t sure she could make it, and she’d hit rock bottom. It was like writing by numbers. Don’t get me wrong, getting to the end of a novel in itself is an achievement, but a decent editor should have picked up on these glaring cliches of character, plot and expression. I don’t think the only reason Lucky isn’t a cliche is because it ‘really happened.’ She was a young co-ed student, a virgin, raped by an older black man in a deserted tunnel, with an uptight family. The possibility of something stayed and recognisable would have been all too easy to produce from the bare bones of this narrative. It’s the techniques used to present the story to us that makes it compelling. I am a firm believer that any story can be engaging, if it is well written.

I have received criticism for worrying too much about where my characters are looking, what they’re thinking, how they’re doing it. When you are so immersed in the scene, it can be very hard to pull yourself out and think about what is needed in order to get a sense of place and feeling, but without spelling it out. After reading Angie Robinson’s book, I can see why. Here are a few examples: “Robert shrugged and smirked,” “I glared at his eyes,” “I mumbled under my breath as I watched his car turn the corner,” “a smile of satisfaction crept across my face,” “my lips quivered at the thought.” Apart from the fact that, in first person, there’s no way you would actually think about how a smile is creeping across your face, it is too exact, too precise, too measured, which takes away from any sense of emotion in the scene. Compare that to Sebold: “I felt like I had as a child. The adults in the room were not getting along and it was up to me to be a good girl enough to drain the tension from the room.” So much more subtle and interesting, because it leaves the reader to bring to the scene their experiences of being a child, of what it is like when there is tension in a room, without needing to plod through each emotion.

In both books, the overall message is, primarily, one of hope. That the women involved in some way ‘get over’ what happened to them and find a way forward after it happened. Here too, is tricky territory. The idea that a woman is somehow stronger or better, has become a more resilient version of herself, is dangerous. Are we implying that without being raped she wouldn’t have discovered this? While Shadows of  Truth was quite simplistic – I have been through something difficult and now I help others, Lucky allowed the aftermath to be far more complex – it changed me in ways I didn’t realise for many years afterwards. When a traumatic event is used to shape a narrative, an overly neat ending could end up trivialising the event itself, implying that there are neat solutions to complex problems. For, after all, the novelist is creating a story, and stories need endings.

In answer to my initial question, yes. I think books should be revealing unpleasant things about human nature, exploring sides of ourselves we would rather not admit existed. If we only experience them in literature rather than in real life we are indeed lucky, but this way we can try to better understand those who have had an experience like this, to better understand ourselves and every other person that lives on this planet. It’s not a startling discovery to find that those who read books often are more empathetic than those who don’t. As to how well you achieve your aim, that’s up to the writer.

So, it is possible to write a very successful and interesting book about rape. It is possible to write a mediocre book about rape. Where, I wonder, will my book fit on this scale?

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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