Nudity. Graphic violence. Rape. Sex. Mass killings. Pedophilia. Extremely harsh language. Dark humor.

No, this isn’t a list of my favorite things, just a few examples of what we see in movies, read in books and hear in music. It’s an undeniable fact that the shock factor is a good way to get butts in seats, books off of shelves and music churning through headphones. It’s certainly not unusual to be shocked, appalled, disgusted, and mad as hell at an author, or rather at what an author writes.

But how far is too far?

How much is too much?

And are writers allowed a “get out of jail free” card for the actions of their characters? After all, if their main character is a murderer, the reader shouldn’t be surprised when that character slams a dull pencil into his disabled mother’s eye…right? If one of the characters in a book is a drug addict, then the reader has no right to be upset with that character is willing to give up their body to everyone they pass in a dirty alley in exchange for drugs…right? Neither does the reader have a right to be upset if the author chooses to go into great detail when describing how that character earns their drugs.

Where is the dividing line between sensationalism and true art when it comes to writing? There’s always been a debate about whether or not paintings of nude people is art or pornography, but I want to put the focus on writing.

I remember back in ’09 that I read a book by Samuel R. Delany called “Hogg.” If you know anything about the book, then you know it’s become extremely well known for its depictions of gay sex, incest, murder, and a full laundry list of taboo subjects. I honestly couldn’t make it through the book. It really wasn’t that I couldn’t stomach the content, just that I couldn’t grasp the story. It might be one of those books you have to stick with in order to fully enjoy, but to me it simply got too repetitive. So did Mr. Delany write “Hogg” because he truly had a story in his head, or did he write it to give people and critics something to talk about? Were his book sales dipping and he needed a way to inject some adrenaline back into his career using any unsavory means necessary?

I can’t help but wonder if I were to write the next “50 Shades of Grey” if that would get publishers and agents interested in me. Interested not because of the story, but because of the subject matter and the potential dollar signs. We all know that the publishing industry is a business, and just like any other business money is most often the biggest factor when deciding whether to go left, right or stay in the same position.

I realize that I’ve posed several questions here and I have yet to provide you with a concrete answer as to whether or not I think the shock factor should be justified or vilified. In some cases, I think going for the reader’s throat is a good way to make them aware, get them talking about things that they’d much rather sweep under their tidy societal rug. I also think going after the reader’s throat can at times be a cheap and lazy trick to keep them interested, to move the story along when you’ve run out of ideas. Cheap and lazy, but still effective.

It’s also quite possible that the author had no idea that they were writing material that might be considered shocking. What makes you uncomfortable might not even make them bat an eye, and what they find disgusting you might call everyday life. So it’s only really shocking if you aren’t familiar with it.

What’s the most shocking thing that you’ve ever read and why was it so jarring to you?

Next post: Writing for fans you don’t yet have. Good idea, or waste of time?