The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Writing A Controversial Novel

Well since, out of curiosity, I’ve started reading a pivotal novel in the history of artistic freedom in Britain (D.H.Lawrence’s once-banned 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, which eventually led to the end of book censorship in Britain during the 1960s), I thought that I’d talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing a “controversial” book.

One traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel is that it will be remembered a lot more easily than a less controversial novel will. After all, if a novel pushes a boundary or breaks a rule for the first time, then it’ll become part of literary history – especially if it results in more creative freedom for other authors as a result. Going back to “Lady Chatterley”, ordinary mainstream modern fiction in the UK owes a lot to the freedoms that were afforded by the interpretation of the law in the trial surrounding its reprinting in 1960. Without this trial, modern British fiction would still be stifled by some extremely puritanical censorship rules.

On the downside, this fame or posterity is something that often only arrives years or decades later, with the author often suffering disproportionate retribution in the meantime. If you read a basic overview of D.H.Lawrence’s life, you’ll see that he was widely derided during his lifetime and actually had to spend quite a few years in exile. And this was before social media was invented! He only became a respected literary figure several years after his death. So, yes, writing a memorably controversial novel won’t usually result in anything good for years after publication.

Another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that it instantly gave the novel a certain level of interest or rebellious cachet that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was once a banned book, I probably wouldn’t have been curious about reading what is essentially a rather dated and slow-paced literary novel which often isn’t really that much more risquΓ© than similar scenes from an average modern romance or urban fantasy novel or even a 1980s horror novel. But, because it was banned once, this novel instantly seems a lot more interesting than it actually is.

On the downside, we currently live in an age where controversy is commonly seen as an emphatically bad thing, rather than anything “cool” or “rebellious”. So, this might actually decrease your readership in this modern age.

Yet another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that people read a lot more in the past. So, a controversial novel was more of an important thing back then. For example, although it was never banned in the UK, there was apparently quite a famous long-running discussion of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in the letters page of a major newspaper during the 1960s. So, traditionally, controversial novels tended to actually provoke major discussions and to actually matter to people. After all, this is where the word “controversial” comes from – something that provokes conversation.

On the downside, this won’t really happen today. Yes, people still read books, but films, the internet, videogames etc… are much more popular entertainment mediums. Books only get major press coverage when they are massive bestsellers and/or prize-winning literary novels. Even then, this doesn’t happen all that often.

So, even the idea of a book causing a major large-scale controversy seems laughably quaint these days. And this change is probably a good thing. Because books are an old medium where the battles over creative freedom have long since been fought and won, because books are a medium that require time and effort to read and because they are no longer seen an “ordinary” entertainment medium (and, instead are seen as “high-brow” in comparison to TV, film, games, the internet etc..), it is very difficult for a book to cause more than a small level of controversy these days.

So, writing a seriously controversial novel is not only a lot more difficult these days but, even if you manage it, then you probably won’t enjoy the results.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

The Practical Advantages And Disadvantages Of Risque Cover Art

First of all, I should start by saying that this article will be focusing entirely on practical matters. So, if you’re expecting a call for censorship, then you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re actually expecting to see any risque cover art in this article, you’ll also be disappointed. That said, let’s get on with the article….

Anyway, I ended up thinking about the paradoxical subject of risque cover art recently after finding two creative works that use this type of cover art.

In addition to the horror/thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, I also ended up buying a MP3 of “Future Club” by Perturbator a while before writing this article ( a song that comes from a record with fairly “Not safe for work” cover art). Naturally, this made me think about both the practical advantages and disadvantages of this style of cover art.

I’ll start by listing the advantages, then I’ll talk about the disadvantages. So, let’s get started…

The Advantages:
First of all, risque cover art is attention-grabbing. Even if the cover art isn’t your kind of “thing”, then it still stands out from the crowd and gets your attention.

After all, this style of cover art usually breaks some kind of social taboo about nudity or whatever, so it is going to be something that people will notice. Yet, it’s usually just mild or suggestive enough not to fall foul of any rules that might restrict it’s display. It’s a similar principle to the famous “French Connection UK” marketing campaign from the 1990s. So, when done well, this can also make a creative work more memorable too.

Secondly, risque cover art can make prospective readers, viewers, players or listeners feel like they’re doing something a little bit “rebellious” by looking at something with this style of cover art. Needless to say, making your audience feel like rebels is a good way of building a fanbase.

Thirdly, risque cover art traditionally served as a kind of content warning/critic filter. In other words, people who disliked the cover art would just try to ignore the thing in question (although, as I’ll explain later, this also has disadvantages). This was a way for things with risque cover art to ensure that they were only experienced by people who actually wanted to experience them. This traditionally resulted in these things having a more devoted and loyal fanbase. Of course, in this age of social media and instant controversy, this technique doesn’t really work any more.

And, yes, although controversy has traditionally served as a form of free advertising in pre-social media times, it isn’t a wise strategy to use these days. Not only is controversy seen as more of a “bad” thing than it used to be, it’s increased frequency these days means it has less “shock value” than it once did and – of course- due to the invention of social media, responses from people who dislike controversial things have also gone from strongly-worded, but polite, letters to the local paper to more vitriolic, threatening etc… online messages.

So, in short, the practical advantages of risque cover art are that it grabs the audience’s attention, it makes a creative work more memorable, it makes the audience feel like rebels and it used to lead to a more devoted fanbase whilst also serving as a form of free advertising, via controversy. Now, let’s talk about….

The Disadvantages: The first disadvantage is that audiences are more cynical, and this can work against you. Because risque cover art is such a well-known way of getting attention, most of your potential audience will be wise to it. As such, they’ll probably think that you’re trying to make a low-quality creative work look more appealing. Of course, if your creative work is actually good, then this expectation can work against you.

For example, the two creative works I mentioned at the beginning of this article are really brilliant. Even if they didn’t have risque cover art, they would still be brilliant. But, because they use this type of cover art, they don’t seem as sophisticated (at first glance) as they actually are.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d enjoyed other books by the same author and had previously heard the song on Youtube, I’d have probably just rolled my eyes and thought “If they need to use nudity to sell this, then it probably isn’t very good” if I saw them on a shop shelf. So, risque cover art can lose as many sales as it gains.

Secondly, whilst risque cover art might make your audience feel like rebels, it also limits where and when they can enjoy the things you create. Simply put, it’s frowned upon to read, carry, watch etc.. these kinds of things in public. Likewise, it may put less extroverted members of your audience (who might really love the thing you’ve made) off of buying the thing in question, because of the embarrassment or nervousness involved.

For example, although I wasn’t impressed by the quality of the sample chapters I’ve read there’s a very good reason why the UK paperback cover art for E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is a deliberately bland picture of a grey necktie. If it was a more graphic picture, then it probably wouldn’t be a bestseller because many people would be too embarrassed to buy it or read it in public.

Finally, risque cover art limits your audience and can shut out some potential fans. Different types of risque images appeal to different people. So, you’re limiting your audience.

So, yes, there are also some fairly hefty disadvantages to using this style of cover art too. In short, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of whether you should use this style of cover art. In some contexts, it can work really well. In other contexts, it can be a terrible idea. So, use your own judgement.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Today’s Art (5th October 2017)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the second comic in “Damania Resized”, a new webcomic mini series (with extra panels!) πŸ™‚ Plus, in case you missed it, here’s the first comic.

If you’re interested, you can find links to lots of my other comics here).

And, yes, the first three panels of this comic were inspired by the fact that I happened to watch “Robocop 2” for the first time (it’s my new favourite “Robocop” film. Seriously, it’s hilarious!), re-read some “Judge Dredd” comics and listen to “Metal Inquisition” by Piledriver within 48 hours LOL!!

But, it’s amusing to think that all thee of these things were (or tried to be) controversial when they were originally released. You’d think people would have learnt by now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, when VR gets popular, we see a repeat of the silly “violent videogames” controversies of the 1990s.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Resized - Virtually Banned" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Resized – Virtually Banned” By C. A. Brown

Find Your Own Definition Of Rebellion – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Find your own version of rebellion article

Although this article will hopefully eventually contain some useful advice about writing and art, I’d like to apologise in advance about writing yet another rambling opinion article rather than a “serious” advice article. If you just want to read the “advice” part of this article, then it’s probably worth skipping to the last few paragraphs.

I don’t know, I’ve been feeling uninspired over the past couple of days and – well, rambling opinion articles where a writer extrapolates universal “truths” from their own subjective thoughts are much easier to write than serious articles when you can’t think of anything constructive to say.

If you don’t believe me, then just look at the opinion pages of any modern… No, I won’t go there. It might offend a wide variety of opinion columnists on both sides of the political spectrum. It could cause a Twitterstorm. Hell, it could even cause a real controversy.

Of course, we have a very strange attitude towards controversy these days. Back when I was a kid in the 1990s and a teenager in the 00s, controversy was a good thing. If something was controversial, then it was usually worth trying to see, listen to or read.

Even if I didn’t really understand why something was controversial, I’d still try my hardest to experience controversial things. When I was a young teenager, I bought a second-hand copy of Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher” because I’d heard that it had been banned by the Government for a while. I never actually really read much of it because I quickly found that it was pretty boring, but just the fact that I owned a previously banned book was kind of a cool thing.

As a slightly older teenager, I videotaped the notorious “blasphemous” opera that was based on “Jerry Springer” when it was on TV and sat through the whole thing, despite the fact that it was basically a boring two-hour opera with a few surreal things and four-letter words in it.

Likewise, when I was a kid, I constantly (and with no success) pestered my parents to let me watch “South Park”, despite the fact that all of the show’s clever social satire would have probably gone completely over my head back then. It was controversial and “offensive”, therefore it deserved to be watched.

Hell, if a CD had one of those silly “explicit lyrics” stickers on it, then it was usually worth buying – even if it was total crap. Likewise, one of the many reasons why I enjoyed reading splatterpunk novels when I was a teenager was because they were the closest thing to the “previously banned” VHS and DVD re-releases of old 1980s “video nasties” that I wanted to buy but, unfortunately, looked too young to convincingly lie about my age to video shop owners.

Back then, controversy was cool. Controversy was rebellious. People had to try really hard to be controversial and, when they succeeded, their work would be well-recognised and get lots of free tabloid publicity.

These days though, standards have slipped somewhat. Not only is it very easy for something or someone to become controversial these days, but controversy is now seen as something that is terrible, rather than rebellious.

Call me naive but, for a brief while in the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed like people were becoming harder to shock. It seemed like, if someone disapproved of something, they’d either just ignore it or possibly say or write a few polite words of criticism, ridicule and/or disapproval.

For a while, it seemed like the world was going to take the same brillantly cynical attitude towards controversy as this hilariously sarcastic punk rock song does.

But, these days, it’s gone in the complete opposite direction. Whether it’s because of a few people on the right or a few people on the left, we’ve ended up in a situation where it’s both easier to rebel than ever before – but also undesirable to rebel.

It was then that I realised that I hardly ever produce anything rebellious these days.

But, of course, were I to “rebel” – my work would probably not be labelled as “rebellious” because we’ve lost the idea of what it is to rebel creatively. Or, rather, not enough of us have tried to find what it is.

You see, rebellion is a very subjective thing. One person’s idea of rebellion is another person’s idea of hyper-conformity. So, in many ways, the only way that you can rebel these days is to work out what you personally consider to be rebellious and then to create works of art and fiction that fit into your idea of rebellion.

For example, my own definition of rebellion is both liberal and conservative. Although I don’t want to go into detail (lest, ironically, I cause a controversy) I find some liberal ideas to be rebellious and I find some conservative ideas to be rebellious. Then, of course, there are ideas like free speech which I find rebellious, but both sides absolutely hate (albeit for different reasons and in different ways).

Your own definition of rebellion will, of course, be totally different. But, you’re never going to produce works of art and fiction that you think are cool until you’ve found it.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Violence And Storytelling

2015 Artwork Violence in fiction article sketch

Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer and/or video games for a while – there’s a reason for this and I’m not just rambling about a manufactured “shock value” videogame controversy from a couple of months ago just for the sake of it. Honest.

Anyway, quite a while back, I saw a trailer for a game which will probably get banned in the UK if it is ever released.

It’s a game called “Hatred” and the trailer for it can be seen near the beginning of this episode of “Nerd Alert” [WARNING: Contains graphic, disturbing and realistic violent imagery].

From the trailer, “Hatred” looks like it’s a game where you play as a thoroughly misanthropic, and completely nameless, guy who does nothing but go on a cold-blooded killing spree in a town somewhere.

But, why am I talking about a trailer for a game that I’ve never played? Well, it’s because it also raises a lot of interesting questions about appropriate ways of presenting violence in fiction.

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I’m anti-censorship and I have nothing against depictions of violence in prose fiction, film, television, comics, computer games or any other entertainment medium. So, this won’t be a Mary Whitehouse/Jack Thompson/ Anita Sarkeesian -style moral lecture about how “evil” modern media is.

I mean, I used to avidly read gruesome Splatterpunk novels when I was a teenager, “Doom II” is still my favourite computer game and I absolutely love “Game Of Thrones” too. So, I’d be a massive hypocrite if I criticised violent media for being violent.

Violence in fiction isn’t an inherently bad thing – in fact, it’s often an essential element of most types of stories. Whilst you can write completely non-violent fiction, it significantly limits your options and it means that you pretty much can’t write anything in the detective, thriller, historical fiction or horror genres. And, yes, these are some of my favourite genres.

However whilst fictional violence isn’t an inherently bad thing, how it is depicted and presented is an entirely different and much more complicated subject.

I’d argue that it’s generally seen as acceptable to present even the most extreme acts of violence in fiction provided that they occur within a context that most readers will see as both understandable and integral to the story. And that violent scenes in fiction are presented in a way that fits into your readers’ own personal moral frameworks.

For example, it’s generally accepted that it is ok to show the protagonist of your story using violence in self-defence or in order to prevent greater acts of violence.

In fact, most violent computer games and action movies are based around this exact premise – the main character has to fight against dangerous terrorists, monsters, aliens, demons, nazis, criminals etc.. who want to kill both the main character and everyone else.

This, incidentally, is one reason why the trailer for “Hatred” is so disturbing, since most of the characters who are attacked in it are completely defenceless and do not threaten the main character (or anyone else) in any way.

Likewise, you can show evil people doing horrific things – as long as this is both an important part of the plot of the story and that their actions are presented as horrifying, evil, darkly comedic, shocking and/or morally dubious in some way.

This doesn’t mean that you have to deliver a long moral lecture to your readers or even include any kind of “poetic justice” in your story, it just means that have to present extreme acts of violence in a way that doesn’t make them seem “good”, “cool” and/or “glamourous”.

This isn’t because, like some people will claim, glamourous depictions of horrific violence will “deprave and corrupt” your audience. Quite the opposite in fact.

Your readers are ordinary people who, like everyone, have a fairly strong sense of right and wrong. So, when something that they quite rightly see as abhorrent is presented in a “cool” or “glamourous” way, then it is going to disturb and repulse them.

In fact, it’ll probably make them stop reading out of sheer disgust or – at the very least – it’ll lower their opinion of the story. I mean, a great example of this is Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. It’s a darkly comedic novel set in 1980s America and the narrator is a rich businessman called Patrick Bateman who is also a deranged and sadistic serial killer.

I read this book when I was fourteen, because I’d heard that it was “controversial”.

At the time, all of the clever social satire and twisted humour in it went completely over my head and I just saw nothing but creepy narration and horrific acts of violence that even made a die-hard horror fan like myself cringe with disgust.

And, to give you some context, I’d gleefully read and enjoyed Shaun Hutson’s “Assassin” about a year earlier (and this is a horror novel that features a couple of scenes that are too disgusting to even summarise here – but they are, as you would expect, presented in a way which makes them seem horrific and evil).

Yes, I finished reading “American Psycho” out of sheer bloody-mindedness, but it didn’t make me think that violence was “ok” or anything like that. In fact, I still consider it to be one of the most disturbing books that I’ve ever read and not one that I ever want to re-read. Even more than a decade later.

And this is also why I think that, in purely dramatic terms, the “Hatred” game that I mentioned earlier depicts violence in an absolutely terrible way. I don’t think that this game should be banned, but at the same time, I don’t think that it’s going to sell very well either.

This is because, from the trailer at least, it presents cold-blooded murder in a very stylised and “cool” way. And this will, quite rightly, put most gamers off of buying or playing it because – like everyone else- we are essentially moral people.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Should You Try To Be Controversial?

2014 Artwork controversy sketch 2

(Since I’m British, I’ll be focusing on examples of controversies [and their effects] in Britain, mainland Europe and America – since I know more about these controversies and these cultures.)

It was Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe”, the works of the Maquis De Sade and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” that caused a scandal in the 19th century.

It was Tijuana Bibles and the “excesses” of the cinema that ruffled the feathers of 1920s America.

It was horror comics, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Bettie Page, The Rolling Stones and D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that sent gavels flying in the 1950s and 60s.

It was heavy metal and hip hop music, a banned poem by James Kirkup, Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher”, “video nasties”, a banned art film about a few nuns and many other things that caused a lot of outraged murmuring in the 1980s.

It was a banned song by the Pogues, a David Cronenburg film, violent videogames, “South Park” and other such things that grabbed tabloid headlines in the 1990s.

It was an opera about Jerry Springer, “South Park”, a TV show by Chris Morris and countless other things that provoked otherwise reasonable people to absolute fury in the early-mid 2000s.

And, in the present day, the recent controversies seem to surround depictions of certain timeless human activities on the internet, a few horror movies, pictures of the human body on the third pages of certain badly-written conservative newspapers and, of course, evil music videos that corrupt the youth!!!!11111

Controversy and moral panics are nothing new. But, should you (as an artist, writer or musician) try to be controversial?

Controversy is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a fast-track to instant fame and a place in history. But, on the other hand, it requires a lot of courage to be controversial, not to mention that something is also only truly shocking the first time that it happens.

After every controversy, western society matures slightly and gradually becomes a tiny bit more open-minded and tolerant. So, something which was controversial even ten or twenty years ago may just be fairly ordinary these days.

Something which was controversial or banned seventy to eighty years ago is, quite rightly, deemed quaintly amusing and suitable for most modern audiences. And, something which was controversial over a hundred years ago usually ends up being part of the respected and revered canon of Western art and literary history.

If it wasn’t for controversy, we would still probably be living in the middle ages. As much as some people may hate to admit it, we owe many of the social and technological advancements of modern western society to heresy, pornography, blasphemy, obscenity and indecency. And this is a good thing.

If you don’t believe me – then don’t buy anything over the internet or watch Youtube (which types of sites do you think pioneered online payments, video streaming etc..?). Don’t use anything that involves satellites in any way (after all, the sun revolves around the earth and heaven is directly above the earth, right?).

Don’t watch any film produced after 1939 (After all, Clark Gable used a rude word and things went downhill from there..). Don’t wear modern clothes. Don’t vote. Don’t use modern medicine in any way (you may imbalance the four humours of your body!). Don’t fall in love with someone you actually love (if they happen to be the same sex or gender as you are). Don’t listen to any type of music other than hymns and classical pieces. Don’t choose your own spiritual beliefs etc…

I’m sure you get the idea. Controversy is necessary for the development of a society. And it is the best way to get whatever you’ve made into the history books too.

But, if controversy and shock value fade over time, then your controversial work of art, fiction, music or drama must also be extremely well-made, because your work can’t last on shock value alone.

If whatever you make would be still be good even if it wasn’t shocking, then publish it. If it wouldn’t, then don’t.

In other words, shock value is not a proper substitute for talent. But it can compliment talent quite well.

In addition to this you must remember that, by it’s very nature, controversy causes reactions in people. People from many religions can conveniently forget the parts of their own scriptures about peace, love and/or forgiveness. Democratic governments can forget that free expression is the foundation of any democracy. Conservatives become even more conservative than they already were and even liberals can temporarily turn into conservatives.

Not to mention that there are, of course, trolls on the internet too.

In other words, there is less protection for people who use their right to free speech to create controversial things than there used to be.

Controversy isn’t for the faint-hearted and it can sometimes even be a dangerous game in legal terms too (eg: in Britian, the limits of free speech are more vague and restrictive than they are in America).

In addition to this, whatever controversial thing you create may possibly get banned. Thankfully, due to the internet, this is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else these days. Plus, as countless people have said over the years, being banned is paradoxically the best form of free publicity that anyone can get.

So, as I said earlier, controversy is a double-edged sword and shock value alone is no substitute for talent. I can’t really tell you whether or not you should be controversial, but it’s something you should always think carefully about beforehand.


Anyway, I hope that this article has been interesting πŸ™‚