Episode 144: Writers & Taboos

On May 15th, Kasie and Rex took on the topic of taboo subjects in literature. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day(s)

Taboo Topics in Literature


  • What it means to be taboo
  • History of taboo-ness in writing
  • The purpose and benefits of taboo topics in literature
  • How to do it
Photo by Isabela Catu00e3o on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Last week as we were doing the show, Rex had with him a volume of work that was essentially an erotica graphic novel. Knowing what a huge romance fan I am, he offered to share the volume with me but I’m not a picture fan — I hardly understand them, truthfully, and so it didn’t really interest me. That said, we had some off-air discussion around the appropriateness of bringing such books along. Pretty sure he said he was taking it to Mother’s Day brunch the next day with his wife’s grandma.

And that brings us to Taboo. The concept of topics that are forbidden. Originally, though, the term referred to concepts that were both holy and forbidden. Let’s unpack that.

Basically, the topic is set apart, meaning it’s not fit for discussion among polite or common company. In the old days, this might have been done by setting a religious symbol on it and declaring it fit only for the higher-educated minds or the more “in the know” clergy to review. The first known use of the term was in 1777 during which religious taboos might have included forbidding the consumption of certain kinds of meat, forbidding work on the Sabbath, things like that. In some cases, taboos were simply in poor taste, in others, they were actual crimes.

Fast forward to today and this link of an article discussion 9 things that were taboo that are no longer:

  1. Visible bra straps
  2. Girls making the first move (lookin’ at you, Sadie Hawkins)
  3. Living together before marriage
  4. Keeping your maiden name
  5. Asking a woman her age
  6. Phone calls after 9 p.m.
  7. Women wearing pants
  8. Tattoos
  9. Being anything other than heterosexual

So what does this have to do with literature? Well, literature can be a catalyst for change. It can address taboo topics and bring them into the mainstream.

Segment 2

This article in the New York Times talks about taboo topics in literature and, more specifically, if there are any left. What we’ve seen so far:

  • Pedophilia – Lolita
  • Pregnant out of wedlock (and by the minister, too!) – The Scarlet Letter
  • Incest – V.C. Andrews took that on in Flowers in the Attic
  • Cannibalism – what else is Zombie fiction but a fantasy about eating human brains?
  • Cross-species mating – Beauty and the Beast, Princess and the Frog — snooze
  • Sexual deviance – Fifty Shades of Grey, amiright?

So where is the taboo restriction coming from? Are publishers, agents, or literary critics warning that a book shouldn’t cross specific lines lest it be rejected or panned?

There are places on this planet where writers are hunted, tortured, exiled, and killed for questioning political leaders, denouncing socialist governments, exposing drug kingpins, or failing to pay duty or respect to religious fanatics. Consider Salman Rushdie’s fatwa over The Satanic Verses and the number of bloggers who persist in criticizing the Chinese government while hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

So why do writers do it? Why risk such lengths to examine and expose taboos?

Are taboo topics taken on for shock value? To see how far you can push the reader? To determine how long the reader will stay on this journey with you?

Segment 3

Where are we seeing most of the taboos these days?

This article talks about the ones showing up in YA:

  • Religion 
  • Incurable illness (hello, The Fault in Our Stars)
  • Self-harm
  • Abuse or violence
  • Sex (the act itself, true love and what comes with it)
  • Homosexuality (frequently limited to sterotypes)

Some of the risks of taking on taboo topics is, of course, inauthentic portrayal of those topics. Do you have a religious zealot? Does he look like every TV evangelist? Do you have a gay man? Is he your heroine’s cool but non-threatening best friend?

I think as we move more into a tribal society, we are doing a disservice to these taboos by reducing them to their common denominators. All characters deserve a rich and textured background, motivation, and journey. So setting a character in place simply to fulfill a taboo is disingenuous.

That said, there are also entire genres that are taboo. Remember, this is in the vein of taboo being something forbidden, something we shouldn’t want to look at or read. So let’s talk about those, too:

  • Erotica – sexual promiscuity, experimentation, multiple-partners
  • Horror – predators, vulnerability, meanness and violence
  • Political – think Mein Kampf, (found this book Deep Democracy labeled as political satire erotica. Ummm…) but also divorce, blackface, child pornography, and all the other transgressions that bring politicians down (this link)

And then there’s the taboos inside the genre, such as writing historical fiction and sensationalizing slavery (Gone With the Wind), or dark romance suggesting abusive relationships can be consensual.

This article talks about the literary taboo of the political and the personal intersecting in historical fiction. Great examples follow, but essentially he’s saying that as writers take on the BIG stuff — WWII, Nazis, etc. — they frequently put it in context with a personal struggle that mirrors or at least microcosms the bigger issue.

Segment 4

Okay, so how do you do it? How do you step into the taboo and own it?

Kasie’s experience is in profanity, drinking, and suicide. Rex has some experience with Satanic rituals, murder, and child abuse. Both of us have tread water in the sexuality / consent / deviance realms.

Above all, the story should be authentic. It should feel like the natural vocabulary, activity, and plot progression. If the behavior is rooted in the authentic experience of the characters, then the taboos will feel expected.

Second, if you haven’t done it yourself, find someone who has to check the accuracy of it. I did this with fight scenes in my books. I’ve never punched anyone, so …

If you can’t find someone who’s done it, read some other accounts of it and get a sense of how it’s been handled by other authors. Part of my revulsion over The Kite Runner was the sexual violence among children. I knew there were headlines around children preying upon other children, even in a sexual way, but I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of it. Was it taboo? Absolutely. Was it necessary in the book? Eh. I’m not sure.
Which leads me to suggestion #3 — determine whether the taboo inclusion is a significant and necessary part of the story. Above all, you want to be telling a good story. So does this have to happen to make the story good? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Can the story work without it?

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