"What's celebrity sex, Dad?" It was my 7-year-old son, who had been looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. He mispronounced "celebrity" but spoke the word "sex" as if he had been using it all his life. "Celebrity six," I said, abruptly closing my AOL screen. "It's a game famous people play in teams of three," I said, as I ushered him out of my office and downstairs into what I assumed was the safety of the living room. ...Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). There's a fair amount of Siegel's analysis with which I disagree, from his assertions about the socially liberating "power" of crass sexual discourse to his praise of "Miley Cyrus's brilliant, purposeful, repeated travesties of her wholesome image" to the fact that he still seems to be using America Online in the twenty-first century. But Siegel gets one thing absolutely right: "Once you spell it all out, the tension between temptation and taboo disappears." In other words, overt explicitness robs raw content of its power -- and that matters a great deal for narrative writers.
And so it went on this typical weekend. The eff-word popped out of TV programs we thought were friendly enough to have on while the children played in the next room. Ads depicting all but naked couples beckoned to them from the mainstream magazines scattered around the house. The kids peered over my shoulder as I perused my email inbox, their curiosity piqued by the endless stream of solicitations having to do with one aspect or another of sex, sex, sex!
When did the culture become so coarse? It's a question that quickly gets you branded as either an unsophisticated rube or some angry culture warrior. But I swear on my hard drive that I'm neither.
"Fiction goes after understanding by creating characters who subtly embody values, then testing the truth of those values through drama," crime writer J. Mark Bertrand states, paraphrasing from John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. One of the dramatic paths most authors will want to take at some point is the via negativa, the negative way that shows readers how not to go. To do that, we'll need to portray Bad People doing Bad Things (and sometimes Very Bad People doing Truly Awful Things should you prefer to pen noir and horror as I do). But that doesn't mean we need to normalize their transgressions. We shouldn't rob wrongdoings of their impact, because their wrongness is the very reason we include them in the first place. (That and verisimilitude, which is an entirely different discussion.) A single startling obscenity, the play of light on a knife blade, a quick flash of flushed skin -- such things have far more impact than all the twerking or torture porn in the world.
(Picture: CC 2013 by PVBroadz)