A frequent underlying fascination in our culture for centuries (and longer, surely) has involved the topics of “sex, drugs and rock & roll”—namely that as a people, we are often fascinated by partying, the use of mind-altering substances and what results from it, and those things that surround sex and explicit encounters in all sorts of manners and instances.
Think it’s just Fifty Shades of Grey and modern publications that focus on the forbidden and “dark” subject matter of sex, drugs and partying?
The Story of O (aka Histoire d’O) by Anne Desclos (under the pen name Pauline Réageis) is an erotic novel that delves deeply into the ideas of female submission and S&M. It even involves issues that could be labeled “abusive” and unsavory. The book was published in 1954, and it was sued by the French government for obscenity charges (which were later dropped).
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is heralded as one of the best novels ever written. It focuses on the obsession and sexual relationship between a 12-year-old girl and much older man (who later becomes her stepfather). Published in 1955, this novel has dealt with a number of controversies, but remains beloved and called a classic by many.
The Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley chronicles the story of a couple mired in the depths of heroin addiction and the occult. Its main characters contemplate and even attempt suicide several times. They do increasingly dark things to access more drugs. The book was published in 1922.
The list goes on and on, with many other classics and well-known bestsellers addressing the issues of incestuous relationships, rape, adulterous affairs, abuse, suicidal thoughts, depression, addiction and erratic partying behavior.
Where does the appeal for “forbidden” subject matter in books come from?
Essentially, many would say that we’re drawn to forbidden subject matter in books because we are curious to experience things that we might never have the opportunity (or desire) to in real life. By reading a book about gratuitous sex, drug use and crazed partying, a person can vicariously explore these various topics, without putting themselves in harm’s way.
The other side of the appeal for these dark subjects is that often, readers are searching for understanding about terrible things they themselves might’ve undergone. Perhaps they’ve never felt the freedom to discuss their abuse, their rape, their drug addiction—but within the pages of a book, there’s the ability to commiserate with a character who is experiencing such a thing, and that feeling of such extreme isolation is diminished.
Often people dealing with an embarrassing compulsion or healing from a traumatic experience, will read about that very same subject matter in the pages of a book, and instantly feel less alone and misunderstood.
For many, reading about these dark experiences in fiction can be a sort of therapy—allowing a person to examine their own past hurts, and possibly seek help from outside sources to work through prior traumas.
So how do you incorporate these dark topics into your own fiction? And should you?
The main issue when it comes to incorporating dark and controversial content in your own fiction work is that it needs to contain truth.
In his book titled On Writing, Stephen King heralds truth-telling as the most important fact of writing fiction. Do not write about salacious subject matter just for shock value—the writing will fall flat, seem inauthentic, and reek of desperation. That’s not to say that you must personally engage in an affair before writing about one—but if and when you do write about one in your manuscript, you must write it with aching truth, not mincing words, not embellishing to sound fancy or extreme.
Your characters might be experiencing something totally outlandish and impossible in daily life, and that’s totally fine—but they must address it in a way that is unequivocally humanistic and relatable. Otherwise, you’ll lose the chance to truly reach and entrance your readers.
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