Wow, this won the poll in a landslide. So:
What Are the Taboos in Fantasy Today?
They shift with the times. Is the writer ever really free to write about ANYTHING?
Sharyn November (m), John Grant, Tom Doherty, Steven Erikson, Lucienne Diver
November (sdn) is Editorial Director of the YA line Firebird. Grant is a novelist and co-authored the Encyclopedia of Fantasy with John Clute. Doherty is in charge of Tor and Forge (I'm not sure of his precise title). Erikson writes the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Diver is a genre fiction agent.
November started by asking what taboos had been breached in the last few years.
Erikson: all of them. The first line of Jeff Carlson's The Plague War is about sympathetic cannibals.
And then people started talking about fictional treatment of taboos generally, not specific recent examples:
Diver: if writers are going to break taboos, they are risking backlash from readers and the people the publisher is going to sell the book to; they lessen their chances for selling the book, so be extremely careful & aware.
Doherty: there are exceptions to everything, but by and large breaking taboos will restrict your distribution. For instance, many people won't handle books about child abuse, no matter how well handled. If writers have commercial rather than artistic goals, they should be aware of the community where the books are being placed.
Example: Wal-Mart believes that buyers shouldn't have too close a relationship with a supplier, so publishers may well be selling to someone who last month did luggage! They have no basic knowledge of books, and don't want to be criticized. Wal-Mart is often the only store in small communities. So, is it necessary?
Grant: "do I want to play it safe, or do I want to write the book that should be written?" Then I think a comment about how authors should be writing about child abuse, judging by the next remarks.
Doherty: it's not a problem in anything BUT that the book may reach a smaller market; that doesn't mean don't do it, just be a realist.
As far as child abuse: there are very many ways that writers can approach it, and in some very good novels, the abuser is sympathetic; and the more an author does that, the less commercially acceptable the book is.
Diver: is the book really about breaking taboos? If it's just being shocking or outrageous for their own sake, probably it's already been done, and also that's not the way to go about it from a writing POV. Also, there is a difference between taboos & conventions.
November: in the children's & YA market, there's a lot that writers used to be able to do that they can't any more, which is very interesting. For instance, in the 1970s Norma Klein wrote a book about a character who had an affair with her biology teacher in which they got married & had a baby. Today there is a lot of sensationalism, in the reinvented problem novel; the genre is a lot bleaker than it's been.
She's often asked, "What can't I do?" in the YA genre? No explicit sex. (It's not only hard to write and she doesn't like reading it, but often it doesn't move the book forward.) But books can have non-explicit sex, drug use—if they also have morality (which is not necessary in adult books), and cursing. Also gay and lesbian characters; you know that a taboo no longer exists when it's not interesting, when gay and lesbian characters are just unremarked, and the genre is getting there.
Erikson: there are gay characters all through his books. At the same time, there are characters doing rephrensible things, and he's not particularly interested in making them sympathetic. But he's surprised that writers can't do things, he thought they just treated topics fairly with consequences and let the readers decide.
November: as long as they are honest consequences and the writer doesn't make up a fairy-tale ending. One last thing about kids: when she read fiction as a teenager, she always thought it was true: so the ending can't be tacked-on.
Doherty: great genius can take great liberties.
Diver: re: YA publishing: it's more aware now, maybe, cynical & subversive; don't sugar-coat things or pretty them up.
November: she prefers books not to have a bleak ending, because nothing's worse than finishing a book and wanting to slit your wrists.
Erikson: "it's even worse when you're the writer".
November: are there different genre taboos?
Erikson: doesn't think so; everyone's writing about the human condition anyway. Interested in moral/cultural relativism. (November: that's changed.) Erikson: yes, I want to be absolutist and make judgments. For example, female genital mutilation: I'll give the cultural background and so forth, but also someone will show up and kill the character off!
[Which, actually, is what anthropology does these days, at least according to the Urban Fantasy panel right after this. Well, not the killing people off.]
November: interesting comparison: there are a few books about FGM from perspective of the girl or an outsider; a friend did a book for 8-12 year olds. Writers can do it if they're very delicate.
Diver: she handles many genres. In romance, there are still lines: no bestiality, no animal forms (at most, the characters run off into the woods). Someone: not two wolves? Diver: you won't see that in a romance novel, you just won't. She does have an author that's broken that taboo, and for good reason, but generally not.
Doherty: from a publishing POV, different audiences have elevated consciousness to different things; in a romance novel, there will be more consciousness of women's issues, because the majority of the market is female. The science fiction audience is still male-dominated, and "men will probably not be as conscious of *pause* subtleties."
November: "I think I'm a man."
November: any taboos broken that you wish hadn't been?
Diver: rapists being sympathetic.
Grant: it's the job of a writer to see if it can be done. To a writer, nothing should be taboo. Whether it goes further than the writer's desktop, that's a different matter.
Doherty: re: rapists being sympathetic: said something about copycats, but I'm not sure what.
November: what about new taboos? Examples: ways of depicting "ethnic" characters & of looking at women. Then there are logical taboos, things that don't make sense (implicitly, I think, that audiences are no longer willing to overlook).
someone: would it be hard to promote Gone with the Wind today?
Doherty: yes, it would be attacked immediately upon publication today.
November: Valley of the Dolls is only still successful because readers are looking on it very ironically.
November: (I think directly to Doherty): are there any taboos you've encouraged writers to breach because you think it's a good idea?
Doherty: *long silence* Don't think so. They think first of the story, and they're not a pulpit that preaches with fiction. But different editors have different priorities, and the freedom to express themselves with what they acquire, so it would vary among/between them what they considered supporting for purposes other than story.
November: she's interested in publishing houses with their own agenda, like religious houses. "So I bought [a book from one], but I still remain Jewish." It's intersting to watch authors play with the agenda, where the story is secondary, like Mormom YA.
Diver: it's almost taboo to have a political or religious agenda, in mainstream publishing, because (readership, politics, society? I lost my noun here) is so polarized and limited. You can be sneaky about it, or have different characters with different POVs.
Grant: he did think of that when panel was introduced. For instance, in the Vietnam era, writers had responses. Today U.S. fantasy & science fiction "seems to be incapable of responding"—also said something about "a coherent response"—even though movies, graphic novels are, and the Brits seem to be.
Erikson: think responses are as polarized among writers too. Much military sf is "fairly fascistic".
November: true, but there's nothing worse than walking into someone's political agenda and watching the story go to hell. That's just bad story all the way around.
Audience member: what about "can" versus "should"? Is there a reason why there should be a good book addressing cannibalism?
Doherty: at what point do you limit expression? Try to make informed, hopefully responsible judgments, thinking first of the story, then "do no harm".
November: added, jokingly, that's what fanfiction is for! People are writing this stuff all the time, just not getting published. Mentions male pregnancy stories: "uh, rock on, I guess!" Okay, they're writing and being read, rest of us don't have to.
Same audience member: is having a venue the important thing, or getting mass market exposure?
Audience member: no sex at all in YAs?
November: just not explicit sex.
Audience member: what about retroactively changing books because of change of taboos? For instance, the Dr. Doolittle books now have an introduction by the author's grandson saying that he decided to make changes because he thought the author would've have wanted it that way.
November: this comes up a lot in children's books. She would rather have an introduction explaining the context. A book is a document that exists in time. Example: Ellen Klages' The Green Glass Sea is set in the 1940s, and she's gotten letters because it had characters smoking (and none that said anything about using "negro").
Audience member: isn't there a movement towards books being universal across time, which could be a reason for politics not being discussed? Doesn't 1984 seem dated now?
Erikson: doesn't think it matters. If issues are relevant to the story, they should be included, no matter when the story takes place [I am extrapolating this sentence slightly from my cryptic notes].
Doherty: we will see Iraq dealt with in fiction. Much of the good stuff on Vietnam came out much latter.
November: she's always leery of anything that comes out right away.
Grant: disagreed at length about 1984 being dated.
Audience member: there are no different taboos across genres? Don't genres create taboos? Question: does speculative fiction have a responsibility to break taboos? [I'm not sure I fully understood this question at the time.]
Doherty: sf gives you more freedom.
November: sf helps you avoid didacticism when dealing with complex moral issues. In mainstream fiction, if you have an evil person, and you say "you must kill them," that comes off as didactic; in genre fiction, you can kill them!
Diver: also, a fantasy world puts things at an emotional remove that a reader can deal with.
Tamora Pierce (tammypierce) from the audience: re: whether American writers are addressing political issues: there is a decided trend in YA in dark-goverments and anti-authoritarian sentiment.
November: she thinks that started a long time ago, with Watergate—a lot of books about censorship at that point—this is the extreme flowering of it.
Diver: there's always a certain level of authority = bad in YA generally.
Pierce: yes, but now it's stepped up considerably.
Audience member: are there uniquely American taboos?
Diver: there are possibly fewer; except in films, where blood is okay but sex isn't; she has far less trouble with sexual orientation here than in overseas markets.
Grant: in response: "Speechless!"
Audience: are there any genre conventions that have the weight of taboo?
Diver: there are very compartmentalized genre conventions, which are breaking down but are still there; she thinks readers care less about labels and pigeonholes than marketers & bookstores and such.
November: see The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for takes on genre conventions.
Diver: or Chalker's River of the Dancing Gods.
November: there are certain subjects writers can't be funny about, even though it's not realistic. "Even crackheads make jokes". That is a taboo.
Audience member: in your recent experience, have you encountered books that you actually refrained from doing something with because of a taboo?
November: no. There was a book with bestiality, but the book wasn't very good (though someone actually published it).
Diver: there have been books in which the breaking of a taboo turned her off, but she didn't pass on the book because of the taboo itself [I think].
Doherty: can't imagine not publishing a book if they wanted to, though might offer less money for it.
Grant: in the early 1970s, couldn't do a book for young kids about pigeons pooping on people's heads.
November: that's not a taboo any more!
Audience member: I've thought of two genre-specific taboos. In science fiction, there's a taboo against anti-intellectualism (November: then it wouldn't be sf!); Blindsight is a notable exception. In fantasy & YA, there's a taboo against portraying conformity as good.
November: WHAT? See the House system in Harry Potter; lip service is being paid to non-conformity there, but there are unexamined problems with the setup [I'm paraphrasing liberally]
Audience member: has there been any market research to show that there really are lower sales for things that break taboos?
Doherty: judgments are being made on experience; there's almost nothing publishers see in a year that's totally unique, and decisions are based on these similarities.
November: publshing is such gut-instinct business at heart; if sales could be predicted then we'd all be bazillionaries.
Doherty: it's easy to do market-research on Coke, but to do it on a hardcover that's having 5,000 copies printed? There are limited resources, and it's not economically possible to intelligent statistical research.
And then we were out of time.
Anyone got any more taboos to offer? I'm sure there are, but the nature of the things is that it's hard for me to think of them.