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The Controversial Writer

It takes slog to write an article, even more so a full length novel, but at this stage of the writing game you are in control. If you change your mind about something or are not sure of your facts you can scrub it and start afresh. When you are in your private world anything goes. I guess this is why many people put a protective arm round their work and don’t give in to requests by family and friends to “offer an opinion.”

Publishing for the world to grind its teeth on your words needs courage. Great courage. Especially if you are writing something that is likely to be deemed as controversial, a definition of which is: - of, relating to, or characteristic of controversy, or prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; polemical. In other words you take an opposing view from the mainstream.

Let’s say you write a book on Fairies in Icelandic Folklore. If your narrative is supporting them then you risk ridicule by most of the world who don’t believe in the supernatural. If you argue they don’t exist, you risk the wrath of many Icelanders who set up road blocks to protest against a new construction which might disturb them. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/icelanders-protest-road-would-disturb-fairies-180949359/

See, your writing will be controversial to somebody the moment you wave your ideas above the parapet. We all want our books to be noticed in this screaming marketplace and that’s where the trouble begins. Too much bad language, sadomasochism, abuse and violence, bits from other writers slipped in and awful writing will draw attention to your work but not in the way you might want. High content is the mantra for novelists at the moment and sod the writing style. High content can mean writing a story about LGBT issues from a strong religious point of view with the character stating that gay people can be “fixed,” or it can mean sharing with the world a different kind of love.  Just writing about gay relationships can drain the blood from the cheeks of some publishers. Not everyone is prepared to take the risk of upsetting their regular readership.

Even the memoir is not without risk. Not everybody has enough stories in their life to warrant mass readership so maybe a little embellishment here and there isn’t going to harm anyone. Let’s say I write about being captured in the Middle East and held hostage. It’s partially true as I was held against my will by my former husband but that isn’t as dramatic as being held by the Druze militia or Al Shabab.

 Do I ham it up for my reading public and hope I don’t get found out? Not me but others might. Controversy sells especially today when there are facts and “alternative facts”. Lying seems to be de rigeur.

A book like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is considered a brilliant piece of fiction although opinions differ on the quality of the writing. He blended facts with fiction thus rattling the cages of historians with its alleged swarm of inaccuracies. I swallowed the whole story as a truth which shows how gullible I am.

Many publishers steer clear of controversy as a) it is unlikely to appeal to a wide readership if they can’t relate to the issue and b) fear of bad publicity. Having said that is there no such a thing as bad publicity but book retailers are risk averse. They like books on their shelves that are tried and tested and have a following: crime, romance, thrillers, and cosy village sagas with a soupcon of naughtiness.

What does that mean for writers? Should we stick to what’s safe just to get a publishing deal or should we risk writing from the heart about what matters to us but dress it  down to make it more palatable?

Andrew Smith’s powerful  novel, The Speech, is fiction woven around the very real but controversial Enoch Powell, who in the author’s own words, is usually perceived as a two dimensional character. Instead he chose to flesh him out as more rounded and therefore believable, balancing weaknesses against his strengths without underplaying his evil rhetoric against immigrants.

 All characters no matter how heinous their actions and behaviour are multi- dimensional but readers who have knowledge of Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech would not want to recognise some of the MP’s finer qualities. A classics scholar with a brilliant mind, he was as quoted in his obituary as, “hated by many, loved by many, but never regarded with indifference.”

What makes The Speech such a compelling read is that we are drawn into the fictional lives of some characters from that era who were affected directly and indirectly by the harm executed by Powell. We experience and feel the harm he did by firing up racism and intolerance.  

I too have staked my claim as a controversial writer. The Cruelty of Lambs is about the uncomfortable subject of domestic abuse which maybe doesn’t affect the majority of people but, let’s face it, we all know or suspect somebody that might be a perpetrator or victim but we prefer to turn the sound up on the TV than worry why the shouting next door has suddenly stopped and the kids are crying. 

My new novel, The Future Can’t Wait also challenges controversial themes; mother-daughter estrangement, terrorism and psychic addiction. Published by Urbane Publications September 2017. Some of us feel a strong urge to bring truth into the open and hang the consequences.