On Transgression, Taboo Subjects, and Censorship

sculpture at Khajuraho Temple

Transgression, Rule-breaking and Paradoxes of the Human Condition

As a storyteller, I used to say my first mission was to entertain, and I have written many fun, little stories. But taboo subjects are, by far, more interesting to write.

Looking for ways to question, overturn assumptions, startle moral codes, and catch readers—and myself—off guard, I examine each work before I begin to decide how to best accomplish these things, for they have become the very point of most of my stories.

The Satanic CalveryFelicien Rops

My short fiction can be shocking, or controversial; my characters mean or ugly, but what entertains more than that which inspires fear, shock, denial, uncertainty, mystery, or gives us a glimpse at subjects we think we know (presented in a new way), or at worlds completely foreign to us?

I enjoy flipping expectations on their heads by the end of my tales, having led the reader through the dark and scary forest maze of transgression, into the safe clearing on the other side, sometimes with a new set of feelings and understanding of my subject.

Original writing is not born on the non-offensive-to-anyone-politically-correct middle ground, but always at the fringe. Taboo subjects make us think and can bring about changed minds. Or show us new worlds. Or close doors. It shows us who we, and others, really are. So why write a boring story when you can do all that?

Taboo Subjects and Themes, Creativity, and Censorship

Writing requires not only freedom but also the assumption of freedom. If a writer is afraid of the penalties of their creative choices, themes, or treatment of subjects, then their work will not be formed by their talent or creativity, but by fear.

When censorship hinders writing, it becomes the subject; the writing is stamped “censored or banned”, and that is how the world sees it forever. The censored work is believed to have earned and deserved censorship. The censor’s falsehood replaces the writer’s truth. Other’s beliefs and preferences control the writer, and the reader’s perception of the work is formed before it is read because of a label.

Now, I know writing need not only entertain. At its best, good writing is ground-breaking. Revolutionary. Writers should have no barriers to creativity, and no subject should be off-limits. Publishers must be braver; retailers and readers have a right not to buy or read things they have no interest in. Not to have their perspectives touched. But, again, how boring is that world?

That said, as a mom, I believe in controls over accessibility for minors and on clear labeling to inform, not incite judgment or condemn. That’s where it gets tricky.

The Free Expression Policy Project (a think tank on artistic and intellectual freedom) provides research and advocacy on free speech, copyright, and media democracy issues to protect the rights of writers and readers worldwide.

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