Worldcon panel – The eternal border

Here’s the next in my posts about some of the panels at the recent Worldcon. This time it’s a panel I attended as an audience member, as the subject interested me greatly. It was called The eternal border, and was all about whether or not there are taboos in dark fantasy. On the panel were Deborah Biancotti, Richard Harland, Catherynne M Valente and Jason Nahrung.

I classify my own stuff as dark fantasy more often than anything else and I certainly have very little respect for perceived taboos. I play with religious mythology with abandon and don’t personally think that anything is off-limits, within reason. But what classifies as being within reason? I was intrigued to hear what these people had to say on the subject.

There were a number of taboos suggested by the panel. The sexual taboos were obviously discussed the most. There seems to be a pervading unease about women writing about some things, which are ignored when written by a man. Cat Valente talked about how poly relationships are still a taboo, especially when discussed by women. She’s in a poly relationship herself, so it’s a subject close to her heart.

Incest is still taboo in writing, but is an important area to discuss. Especially consensual incest, which is apparently a subject considerably danced around. I would personally have no problem writing either of these subjects into a story if the story called for them.

Rape was another subject discussed. There was a question from the audience about whether or not books should be classified, with warnings on the cover such as “Contains rape scenes” to warn readers. This was roundly condemned by panel and audience alike. The whole purpose of a book is to be surprised and transported. We don’t want to know what happens. If you are a person carrying personal trauma from being raped or another similar event in your life, you don’t have to read it. As Cat Valente pointed out, you can see a rape scene coming long before you’ve read the whole thing. Close the book!

Other taboos discussed included mass trauma events like the 911 attacks in the US. It was considered that there is a “too soon” factor to discuss some of this stuff, but that, after the dust settles, it becomes necessary to address these things in fiction. Fiction writing is a great venue in which to have a dialogue about what’s important in our lives. SF writing, like all writing, is fundamentally about the people and what happens to them, so no subject should be off limits.

Or should it? An audience member (I think it was Kirstyn McDermott, Australian dark fiction author, but forgive me if I’m wrong) brought up an interesting point. She talked about how Neil Gaiman wanted to include a short story within the Sandman cycle of graphic novels about abortion. He wanted a poignant, non-judgemental story about the ghosts of aborted children coming back to people – not in a horror, haunting way, but something deeper. However, he apparently censored himself on this story, making it a personal taboo. Not because he thought it was something that shouldn’t be touched, but because he was scared the story would be taken up by the pro-life lobby and used politically and out of context. That was a great example of a taboo that should exist, but not because it’s a subject we can’t touch.

I really wish I’d taken notes, as there was a lot more discussed that I can’t remember in detail. I also wish the panel could have gone for longer, as it was great to listen to these people talk about a subject very relevant to my own writing. I was pleased that overall the opinion of all there seemed to be that, with a couple of exceptions like I’ve detailed above, there should be no taboos in writing. It’s important for people to have a dialogue with each other and doing that through fiction is an excellent method.

I’m also pleased because I don’t treat anything with kid gloves in my own writing and don’t intend to. I’m glad to think that it won’t make a pariah of me!


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9 thoughts on “Worldcon panel – The eternal border

  1. I don’t think there’s a “too soon” for anything — the only problem might be that if you don’t take time for some perspective to form the work might look foolish. For instance, someone writing about Sep 11th within days might have taken some of the conspiracy theories more seriously and written it into the story in a way that would cause the author much embarrassment today.

  2. I think that was part of the “too soon” thoughts of the panel. We get a certain perspective by waiting when something massive happens. Also, though, they were talking about it from an audience perspective – if the reading public think it’s too soon, they might not give a clear headed reading to the piece. If they’ve had a chance to get some space and reflect themselves then they’re likely to be a lot more open to other people’s ideas on the subject. Sorry, should have made that clearer in my post.

  3. But actually that brings up a few interesting point. It seems that having a panel at a writers conference about whether there are taboos (and what should be done about it) is almost like self-congratulatory signalling for open mindedness, I mean was there really any major disagreement? I just don’t see anyone saying there should be in which case it sounds almost like a discussion about whether writers should be creative or not.

    But on a broader perspective, all good writers self-censor and you might even say editing is a form of self-censorship. And anything any of us writes might not be interpreted well or “correctly” by the public.

    I guess it might have been a panel about what makes readers uncomfortable and what writers should be doing about it, in which case all those topics would rate fairly highly…

  4. Of course all writers edit, but whether they edit stuff out that they think might be controversial is questionable. Personally, I edit stuff out if it seems to be outside the story, but if it’s relevant it stays in, regardless of how taboo the content might be.

    Naturally, the discussion was largely a big agreement, but it was still valuable to hear where people’s value judgements lie.

    Also, small point, but it wasn’t a writers’ conference – It was Worldcon, more a fan event than a writing event, so hopefully it’s interesting for fans to hear how writers think.

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