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Thoughts on The Dark Matter

[...] allows the publishing of written depictions of sexually explicit scenes, but we do not allow pornographic images within the books, and we do not allow erotica that depicts minors engaged (willingly or unwillingly) in sexual acts with adults. Fictional scenes of rape, sadism or pedophilia are strongly discouraged, and they’re strictly prohibited if their purpose in the book is to arouse the reader. — Smashwords

I received an email from an author last week wanting my take on the above quote from the Smashwords Q&A section for publishers. My thoughts on it led to a lengthy email discussion with Mark Coker, the CEO and founder of Smashwords, and in light of our agreement on the subject, I wanted to talk a little bit this week about the dark matter and what this sort of standard boilerplate language means to a writer who writes Dark Fic, like myself. What is Dark Fic you ask? Well, it’s a broad term used to define the explicit written expression of subject matter that may be objectionable to some readers, including but not limited to those mentioned above. Sometimes it is called Transgressive Fiction, which by definition is:

a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social and/or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sex, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime.

Anne H. Soukhanov, a journalist for the The Atlantic Monthly, described transgressive fiction thus: A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge. Transgressional fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk, noir, and erotic fiction in its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers. But it differs in that protagonists often pursue means to better themselves and their surroundings—albeit unusual and extreme ones. Much transgressional fiction deals with searches for self-identity, inner peace and/or personal freedom. Unbound by usual restrictions of taste and literary convention, its proponents claim that transgressional fiction is capable of pungent social commentary.

So Dark Fic or Transgressive Fic is as old as the day is long and spans multiple genres including Literary Fiction. Think *American Psycho* by Ellis, which contains graphic sexual sadism and torture; *Opus Pistorum* by Miller, which contains extended scenes of child prostitution; and *The Story of the Eye* by Bataille, which chronicles the overtly sexual fetish relationship between two teens. These are but a few among many many others, and I think my favorite would have to be *Looking for Mr. Goodbar* by Judith Rossner. Often Dark Fic is confused with Horror, but it is not limited to the Horror genre. Dark Fic often refers to stories in which the plotlines introduce death, violence, betrayal, and or loss as major thematic elements, and often sexualized violence and fringe sexual expression/exploration can come into play in order to articulate and argue the story’s thesis. Just having such scenes in your work does not automatically violate the TOS and prevent you from publishing your story. Strongly discouraged is not the same as prohibited. Anais Nin often explored pedophilia and incest in her erotica, and *The Story of O* is considered a classic piece of literature in the Lit Erotica genre.

So what violates the terms of service language and what does not? Well, that depends on the publisher. Some publishers will not print certain content regardless of context and/or intent, no matter how integral it is to the story. Fortunately, this kind of censorship doesn’t happen all that often anymore, and it tends to be genre specific. Consult your country’s bi-laws if you are unsure. Horror, Thriller, and Crime drama writers have been free to explore the dark side of the human psyche without bounds for some time. Even Erotica — the likes of Anais Nin — takes a lingering, albeit uneasy, look at sexuality: its freedoms, its beauty, and its transgressions. Art has always been about the light, the dark, and the shadows or grey areas in between. Literary works are beset with controversial subject matter, and some writers come at it aggressively and some take a subtle approach. To each his own; every story begs a different angle and a different approach. The difference between art and obscenity is in the approach, and there certainly isn’t a clear line to delineate one from the other.

And that is why this is a difficult subject to address: the language or legalese can be vague and in reality it’s all about context versus content, meaning: the context a scene is written in, specifically, the context the author intends it to be read in is the defining criteria. It’s not about the story, the scene, or the explicit nature of the words, it’s all about context and intent. For the purposes of this discussion, we can use two key points in the Smashwords terms of service to guide us: Authors shall not publish works that:

· advocate hateful, discriminatory or racist views or actions toward others
· advocate illegal activities

Exploring dark subject matter in a literary sense is not the same thing as writing deviant pornography, although, the definition of deviant is debatable, but I like throwing the term “illegal” in there, because it seems to put an extra measure of clarity on the guideline. Again we can look at Context and Intent with specific reference to Advocacy. Example: If a horror or crime thriller is about a child rapist/pedophile — think Kevin Bacon in the Woodsman — and certain scenes need to be written to make the story whole so that the reader has a broader view and a deeper understanding of the characters, their motivations, and the world they live in, this is acceptable and does not violate the TOS. We have to look at context; then we can say, yes, the subject matter — child rape and pedophilia — is illegal, but we, the author, based on our approach, are not condoning it as acceptable behavior. Our thematic treatment of the subject matter is not advocacy. In our approach, we are clearly exploring the subject not advocating it.

However, should that same book be labeled erotica, the author will need to take care here since erotica is primarily written with the specific intent to titillate. Should we, the author, write such scenes gratuitously with the deliberate intent to appeal to and titillate such a reader, then that is unacceptable because it is advocating said illegal activity. See how switching genres can make a world of difference. Should a reader feel some sort of catharsis is a much different matter. People read and watch horror films for catharsis and to reconcile their feelings about violence. But I digress … back to the genres: Now if it be Literary fiction including Lit erotica — yes, there is such a thing and it’s primary function is to explore sexuality in an explicit/artistic fashion — exploring the rehabilitation and the subsequent redemption of a child rapist, then again, as long as the scenes are not gratuitous and offer greater depth of understanding to the reader, understanding that will affect the way the reader relates to the character and the theme of the story, the author is not condoning it contextually or thematically so it would not violate the terms of service.

As an example, the movie poster above is for the Danish film titled: *Naboer* or *Next Door* in English. It’s a psycho drama or thriller in which the main character has a certain repressed sexual proclivity, which manifests itself quite violently as the story progresses. There is only one sex scene in the entire film, but I can only liken it to *Fight Club*. It is brutally violent and subversive and yet it’s not gratuitous. Without the scene, the viewer would not understand the extreme nature of this character’s need and the level of his deteriorating self-control. The entire film would have fallen flat without it. Then we have the movie *History of Violence*, which lists in the opening that it contains a rape scene. It does in fact, even if the scene is between momentarily estranged husband and wife. As for literature, the Theme of Faulkner’s *Sanctuary* is also rape, and the book is considered his most controversial work. Hell, if I start listing literature, film, music, and art that has explicit controversial subject matter, this post would never end.

So, should you decide, as an artist, that moments of darkness are necessary and that the articulation of your theme would suffer without said “moments” then by all means do not censor yourself or your story. I have seen plenty of stories fall dead in the dishwater because the author held back. Just keep your mind on context and intent, take an artist’s approach, and be prepared to attach an adult content label to your work. Smashwords has an adult content filter; Lulu used to require that you keep your work “direct access” which supposedly made it unavailable in the marketplace; and as for Amazon, well, like most distributors, they just want the bibliographic data, specifically they want the appropriate reading age specified so they can filter it. For the exception of Antiquity, all my books are labelled 18+ and as adult content. Respect the TOS, do not mislabel your work in an effort to gain wider readership unless you can afford the legal ramifications.

Now, if you’re going the traditional route and your publisher or epublisher of choice says NO to certain content, then NO means NO, and they will use terminology appropriate to get that message across. Simon & Schuster withdrew their offer to publish Ellis’ American Psycho. It was subsequently released by Vintage later and was censored and in some cases banned in a few countries. But that’s traditional publishing … Indie publishing has a unique advantage as it innately allows unbounded freedom of expression, just be careful with your explorations … the line is there, and any artist worth their salt knows where it is. Transgressive fiction has literary merit, and by it’s very nature does not violate the rules of advocacy. No one scene can be judged out of context. However, an author should know and respect their publishers guidelines and the law.

I want to thank Mark Coker of Smashwords for the lively discussion we had on the subject. The term Indie is all about freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. So if you have a question about your work, get clarification.

Cross-posted by Cheryl Anne Gardner from The Pod People Blog

Edited to add: Dark Fic has many different meanings across many different genres of fiction and is not restricted to sexual content. Dark fic also applies to settings and the psychological state of the characters. For the purposes of this discussion, the term Dark Fic has been used in a limited fashion to specifically address the use of transgressive content and themes in literature as it applies to TOS and content guidelines.