Through my life as a reader I’ve realised that I really enjoy what I would call “dark reads”. By that I don’t necessarily mean horror stories, but rather books dealing with topics that are a bit more difficult to read about: rape, grooming, etc. to name a few. Decadence, in general, is something that has always appealed to me in storytelling. However, I’ve come to notice that there is a very the fine line between writing about this topics and romanticising them, and that sometimes, that line is even crossed involuntarily.
A book I adored back in the day but that looking back I see definitely crossed that line is Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma. The incestuous relationship between the siblings might have been presented as wrong, but you were still expected to root for them. And in the end it had all the elements of a tragic love story.
Now, I’m a firm believer that literature is a fantastic way to explore different experiences from the safety and distance that it grants us. For this reason it’s not uncommon for people to like to read about these themes in fiction but condemn them very strongly in real life. But these themes should still be handled with care and respect.
However, do dark reads always need to condemn the theme they’re talking about in the text? How much is it okay to show? Where should we draw the line? I know this is a very old debate that is nowhere near closed. Take Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, published in 1955 and there’s still debate over whether it was romanticising grooming. I think it’s mostly criticised—rightfully so, no book should be absent from criticism—because it shows the story from the predator’s point of view, it wants you to empathise with him (yikes) and that’s a very uncomfortable position to be in. Obviously we won’t solve all these questions here, but I think it’s still worth thinking about them.
There is also the fact that I always think of this from my very own personal point of view. I know—as in, it’s set in stone in my mind—that these things are wrong and disgusting and no matter how many books I read—even if they’re romanticising the topic at hand—will change my mind. But, what if one of this stories falls into the wrong hands? What if a teenager picks up a book romanticising pedophilia and it shapes their view of relationships? That’s a lot of responsibility to think about as a writer, but I believe it’s vital to keep it in mind.
Some books that, in my opinion, do a good job of condemning the topics they deal with are:
- Sadie by Courtney Summers (TW: pedophilia, sexual abuse, drug abuse, murder)
- My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (TW: pedophilia, grooming, emotional manipulation)
- People Kill People by Ellen Hopkins (TW: gun violence, racism, rape, murder)
- Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott (TW: abduction, pedophilia, rape, violence)
Finally, I can understand why some people would hate these stories, after all, their subject matter is revolting and repulsive. For me—and many others—it’s a way to read about horrific topics from a safe distance. Like TV psychologist Honey Langcaster-James said “there is an element of reassurance in being able to experience [horror and fear] from a removed perspective”.
What are your thoughts on this topic? I have a feeling this is a polarising debate, so I’m really interested in reading some other perspectives. Also, have you read any of the books I mentioned? If so, did you enjoy them?