Too Repulsive?

Is it possible for writers to be just too repulsive? Do we live in danger of scaring off squeamish readers?

I ask this, after receiving a comment from a reader who said that she was ‘too repulsed’ by the opening of my story to read the whole thing.

After a couple of tantrums and moans, I decided to take that as a compliment – after all, the writing must have been a little effective.

But it got me thinking. Should we shy away from topics or descriptions that evoke that ‘eeewww!’ response?

A novel that evoked that response from me was Perfume, by Patrick Suskind. The protagonist of the story is so horribly repulsive, and the actions he takes and the effect it has on others is so extreme, that I found it to be an extremely uncomfortable read. And yet, I made it to the end and have never forgotten it.

The only book that contained something so repulsive that I had to put it down was Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk. One of the first stories involved vivid descriptions that I found myself incapable of reading. Despite this, the book’s success suggests there are other readers, with stronger stomachs, that are able to indulge is something that is, arguably, too repulsive.

Not to mention the texts that explore ‘repulsive’ issues like murder, rape, racism, incest, domestic violence or genocide (The Colour Purple, The Cement Garden, The Help, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, to name a few examples). The cultural importance of these texts cannot be understated. And it would appear that it is its ‘repulsive’ nature that makes them so significant.

My story was in no way comparable to these examples but, nevertheless, should any writer really shy away from repulsive topics? Brave writers make the right choices about their work, even if that means alienating a section of readers. Brave readers never put down a repulsive book.

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