When is it okay to upset people? And by “upset” I mean to make people think or question something, to be slightly distressed, or perturbed, or to make them feel upended in some way.
Since I began publishing I’ve talked to numerous authors whose opinions are confusing.
On the one hand, I’ve been told not to rock the boat, to be polite and “nice” to everyone, and give everything I read five stars. This is so I don’t upset anyone or “make enemies.” In other words to ensure I get good feedback and everything thinks I'm this great person I have to lie and plaster a shit-eating grin on my face. But sadly for them, I’ve never been one to follow the herd so this just isn’t possible for me to do. In writing (or life even) conformity should not be the name of the game. And yet I've also been told it's good to "upset" readers i.e. make them angry. I'll get to that in a second.
First, there is "don't upset everyone."
Everyone wants to look “supportive” while also trying to stand out as the best in their genre or whatever it is they are trying to do. This is so false and I refused to take part in it. Saying you don’t like someone’s writing and then pointing to obvious reasons such as huge info dumps that go on for 5-20 pages or more, endless highly detailed descriptions of a parking lot, describing 5 characters' appearances down to the color of underwear they have on, etc…or simply saying you didn’t care for it because of XYZ and you think they’ve written better. How is that being mean? You’re not insulting the person, you’re not even insulting their writing. You're giving them feedback to help them get better. Isn't this what writers are supposed to do? I learned quickly, that apparently not in this writing scene. I tried to be nice at first, but soon just got tired, was still labeled as mean despite trying to be nice and pretty much keeping my opinions to myself, and now have just mostly dropped out because I just can't be bothered. People don't want to hear it.
Maybe the problem is that people see writing as an art rather than a skill. This feels like a crutch most of the time. Why? Because if you say your writing is art then it is subjective and can be good no matter what. But if you say writing is a skill this implies you can get better, you have to work at it, you’re not perfect therefore everything you do is not a masterpiece and people can and should give you advice.
I for one was pleased to look at my writing from when I was 8 or 10 years old, 15, 20, 25, 30, and now and see I’ve gotten better over the decades. I have more control over my style. I’m not influenced by others unknowingly. I’m better at editing. I’m better at saying things with less. I can ruthlessly cut things out that don’t need to be there. I don’t feel the need to describe everything in my head because why not let the reader have some fun with it once in a while? They'll forget most of the details anyway.
The amazing and fun thing about writing is that you can ALWAYS get better. It’s a skill to which there is no end. But you only get better if you believe you can. If you think you’ve reached your height and you’re perfect, chances are your writing will become stagnant or you’ll simply default to “okay” and never move past that to something greater. This is often the case when authors write a few good books, reach fame, or get even 100 people telling them are the best thing since sliced bread. They slowly go downhill and you wonder what happened. Their first few books were so interesting, passionate, or flat-out good. It seems like money and success has a negative effect on both skills and art. When you have plenty of cash rolling in and everyone kissing your ass of course you’re never going to question whether or not you could improve some aspect of your writing. In the eyes of everyone, you’re perfect. So why change?
For a writer, this is a bad trait to have. Because good writing should always be evolving, changing, and more than one thing. You shouldn’t be able to put your finger on what makes it so compelling. It should be hard to classify as one thing or another. If you can’t think of a name for your writing style, that is a good sign. Don’t cut the corners and sand down the rough edges to fit into a genre box.
When writing stops evolving it becomes a boring dinosaur. If you notice everyone copying a style or aspect of writing, then it's time to change and go in the opposite direction. If you notice all of your books sound the same over the course of a few years, it's time to change. Yes, you can change without losing your voice. So many people are concerned about that. If you’re writing in your style, no matter what you write, it will sound like it came from you.
In an age of internet perfection, it’s okay to step back and realize you’re not perfect, your writing isn’t perfect and that’s totally cool. Writing as a craft or a skill can't be mastered. I thought most writers knew this, but apparently, they don’t. People claim they are open to critical feedback, but it’s very clear they are not. Apparently, if you remark on something it is considered negative and you should be burned at the stake for being an asshole.
Again, this is strange to me. Don’t they have peer editing in writing groups anymore? Oddly enough the best writing classes I took were in high school. We were required to give critical feedback on others’ writing, plus incorporate others’ critical feedback into our next draft in order to pass the class. If we said, “This is perfect!" "You’re a genius!” or “Even better than your last story!” etc…we failed.
That is because writers used to be taught they can always get better. Now someone decides to start writing and they rush to publish their first piece, all of their Facebook friends tell them they are a genius, and they love it! And so the ego trip begins. The moment an outsider says wait a second what if you did this? Or what about this? Everyone gets pissed at them for raining on the parade. How fucking strange is that? Get over yourselves. When did writers all become such a bunch of snowflakes? I miss the days when writers were drunk and belligerent and pushed the boundaries because polite society didn’t dare.
This brings me to my second thoughts about “upsetting” people. So in real life, when it comes to people’s egos we’re supposed to be polite, upbeat, and even downright liars if it means protecting someone’s fragile outlook and looking like the good guy. And yet I see writers all the time defending horrible shit they write by using the excuse “If it upsets someone I did my job” Seriously? What total bullshit. Do you think it’s hard to upset someone? All you have to say is that women don’t have penises and people lose their damn minds and send you death threats. It’s VERY easy to upset people these days.
I think we’re talking about different types of “upset.” People don’t get distraught or think deeply when they read books about child killing, endless torture, or Nazi rape. They just get irritated or pissed off. Not because it's making them question something but because there is enough misery in the fucking world. They wanted an actual book with a story. They don’t want to escape into such boring, trite, shallow shock porn. If you want to write misery porn go for it! Have fun! but don't try to repackage it as something it's not. That's why people get pissed off or "upset."
Most people pick up a book and see that it’s horror then soon realize it’s just misery for misery’s sake. The victim is only a victim. The victim always loses, The asshole killer or whatever always gets away with it. It is not a story but a vignette of human failure that serves no purpose. That is why people are “upset.” Not because you made them stop and think about brutal rape, but because you think they are stupid. That people should gobble up whatever you tell them to and not get pissed that you’re exploiting human tragedy and calling it “horror.” Then to add insult to injury authors will follow up with half-asses excuses about "expressing themselves through art" and “this is what frightens me as a (insert identity label here)” or “This is to show that (insert whatever here) is bad.” Yeah, we know rape is bad, so why fill 10 pages with extremely detailed rape and that is it. No story. No nothing. Just bullshit. If the book is just a rape scene how does that say rape is bad? Doesn't it just glorify it? It does nothing to show it is bad. We know it is bad because obviously, rape is fucking bad. You have nothing original to say.
The real horror is how lazy horror writers have become these days. Readers aren’t shocked, they are bored. They are tired. They just wanted a fucking actual book to escape into instead they got something they could have read in the newspaper.
It seems many horror authors rely on cliches or they are simply trying to outdo one another when it comes to gross stuff. Just tell a fucking story. Instead, we get sometimes not even 100 pages of just endless descriptions of torture, rape, and incest, all in an attempt to cover up that there is no plot, no creativity, and the idea that no fucking original thought went into this book that someone paid for.
What the fuck writers? There is so much going on in the world today that deserves some kind of comment, an honest reaction, an actual fucking opinion. Yet writers who claim to be “artists” are afraid to address it in the name of political correctness. I’ll have to give the extreme trans movement a little credit in that they are very passionate and not afraid to speak out and “upset” people if they feel the need to.
Why create if you’re going to be spineless? Yes, there is a time and place for cozy, feel-good stories. But most horror authors aren’t writing cozy feel-good stories. They claim they want their writing to shock and upset people, yet they revert to these boring, overused tropes in the hope they can repackage it as something that it isn’t.
Then they congratulate themselves when someone complains. SERIOUSLY? They are upset because they just spend $15 bucks on a book that was just snapshots of domestic violence in which there was no plot, no climax, and every character was either a victim or an asshole. They are shocked because they can’t believe someone spends their time endlessly writing the same bullshit over again and again and claiming they are pushing boundaries, blah blah fucking blah.
Boring. That is what should upset these so-called “artists” who claim they want to shake things up, push the limits, and all that nonsense. Get out of your comfort zone. Read widely and take those things and incorporate them into a genre or new style. If you love to write horror, fantastic, but take it somewhere new. For the love of Christ stop rehashing the 1980s-1990s horror cliches! As someone who lived through much of that IT SUCKED. It was good ONCE. Stop writing about campground killers! Masked killers! Genius killers! Fucking killers!
All the best horror writers from that period knew when to cut bait, or they simply just died. There is nothing left.
Horror as a genre is on its last legs. It’s been beaten, tortured, raped, hacked up, shot, cannibalized, and shit out into the modern horror scene which has nothing new or interesting to offer readers. I have looked and looked and looked......and looked. I want to love horror. I used to love horror. But now it makes me want to curl up under the sofa and eat my own hair.
The new writing scene isn’t about being good it’s about checking identity boxes. It’s about kissing ass. It’s about being polite and nice (really they want you to be meek.) It’s about mediocrity. And this is what upsets me.