Unpalatable subject matter

Status
Not open for further replies.

Jay Aitch

Basic
Joined
Aug 29, 2014
Location
West Midlands, UK
Dear fellow Litopians,

I recently submitted two samples for Pop Up Submissions (one each in consecutive weeks) and wish to explore the reaction of the chat room to my first: the historical fantasy set in 16th century rural England. If people are willing ...

The heart-felt reactions of some of the chat room surrounded a core plot device that some deemed disgusting; the killing and eating of swans.

I recognise that by being so blunt in the blurb was both provocative and counter-productive. As a result the writing (which does need work) seemed to be overshadowed by the disgust expressed at the central conceit.

I must admit that I was surprised at the level of feeling expressed and wish to explanation, if I may.

The use of such an animal in the story is not a justification of hunting or indiscriminate consumption of animals. It is a means, by way of metaphor and representation, to explore the social injustice of Tudor society where the majority of humanity existed at below-subsistence living standards and more often that not starved to death. In contrast the ruling elite did indeed eat like kings and there was little, if nothing, that was not considered table fodder. There was laws that stated and enforced what an individual could eat depending on which societal class they belonged to.

The main protagonist, who is a pauper, develops super-powers after eating such socially forbidden food, and it is the nature of the food stuff in the context of the 16th century that holds the drama.

In developing the story, I found that in doing my research my own 21st sensibilities were vastly different to the 16th century mindset. The choice of what one eats is one that is only open to the affluent developed countries even today. In choosing swans as a plot device I did not intend to cause offence or provoke disgust, but to make a powerful statement about injustice. The cause of social justice being both universal and timeless.

I hope this explains my choices, and I would delighted to discuss it further with anyone who holds a different opinion.

Indeed, I would appreciate any comments or suggestions on how to "sell" such a story to a 21st century audience where many have a knee-jerk reaction to such unpalatable subject matter.

Thank you everyone.
 
I would appreciate any comments or suggestions on how to "sell" such a story to a 21st century audience where many have a knee-jerk reaction to such unpalatable subject matter.
Difficult, isn't it. Stuff that used to be 'normal', is now unacceptable. I think where animals (and kids for that matter) are concerned we are just going to need to tread carefully in this day and age. It just is what it is.

I don't think you necessarily need to re-write or re-look at the topic / story. Like you say it was part of those times. I don't know how your story reads re: the swan thing, and how you handled it, so I can't comment, but the only thing I would say is: maybe re-look at the way you present it initially. Sensitive stuff like this is much easier later in a novel where the world is set up, the characters are built and their motivations established. I don't fully remember your sub, but in a situation like a pop-up, all the readers hear is that the story is partly about eating swans. During a submission, eating swans is kinda out of context, and hence more 'shocking'.

I read a book a while a go (Chalkman, I think it was) where a dog is poisoned. In the context of the novel it worked for the story. Yes, it still bothered me tons because I'm soppy when it comes to animals, but my point is that, had I read in the blurb that this would happen, I would never have bought the book.

Maybe you need to dress it differently for the submission process and don't mentions the swans. Instead, mention the umbrella theme like you do in your post above:

The main protagonist, who is a pauper, develops super-powers after eating such socially forbidden food, and it is the nature of the food stuff in the context of the 16th century that holds the drama.

We don't need to know what the socially forbidden food is at this stage. That can come later on, as the story unfolds.

It is good that you had it in the pop up. It gave you a chance to road test your approach. Now you can tweak it. Potentially you could make a good point with your novel about how times have changed.
 
I'm astonished that anyone should object to eating swan or goose on principle, though for me it would depend on the species. I see nothing wrong with eating Mute Swans, and would certainly welcome the consumption of Canada Geese, but would draw the line at Bewicks and Whooper Swans and any migratory goose, simply on the grounds of the fragility of the rarer species. I believe we would do a favour to the environment by eating less farmed meat and more of the common wild species which used to be eaten regularly - rabbit, mallard duck, squirrel etc. Geese and Swans are difficult to kill, but with a little training can be killed humanely. Stick to your plot line! What fills me with disgust is plastic litter on our beaches.
 
I think @Barbara and @Kirsten have put their finger on it. Anyone with sensitivities about the killing and eating of animals, especially those animals which many (excepting @Richard Turner, perhaps!) would now consider taboo could well be put off reading the novel if they saw it as part of the blurb. Personally, if a blurb mentions that the plot involves the murder or disappearance of a child, I tend to avoid the book. But if a novel I'm already deep into contains that type of scenario, I will usually carry on with it.
 
Stay true to the story, Jim. Does it add clout to the story? Yes or no? Does it belong in the blurb, yes or no? The answer might be yes to the first, and no to the second.

The chat room often reacts to an idea, without it meaning they're giving the story the thumbs down because of it. We're just having fun with the idea. Actually, this is a hot potato right now....immigrant folks from Eastern Europe have been nicking swans off tow-paths apparently, to eat, which is illegal because as we know, only her Maj can partake of the swan burger. Do they nick them to eat or do they not? Can't say this...it's bigotry or something? Well, is it true, yes or no?

Immigrants may be behind swan attack, says RSPCA

Hot potatoes. Life is full of them, and so is history and therefore so must Art be. Historical fiction goes much further than the eating of swans. How about the human bonfires? I read a truly great classic The Man On A Donkey, about the Pilgrimage of Grace.

O.M.G. What Henry (also an orange one) ordered done to Robert Aske, the leader of that Pilgrimage, hung alive in chains so that it took him many days to die. But It really happened, and the writer does not shirk to show us what this must have been like for him, what it really meant.

This was not gratuitous unpleasantness on the writer's part. This was a tragic, formative incident in English history, fuelling the long and very bloody drive of this nation towards constitutional secularism. There is a deep resistance in the national psyche to any encroachment of religious power towards the heart of government, full stop, regardless of the faith in question...and the why of that resistance ...it's all here...in this novel and many others.

I may and do avoid certain types of story matter because I just can't face it. But if the story is good enough, someone will want to read it, no matter what happens to the swans.
 
Thank you everyone for your comments. They are reassuring to read. I do try to take care with the presentation of the issue, but has been mentioned already, the unpleasantness is (hopefully) relatable within context of the story.
 
Something to think about -- sometimes in chatrooms people seize on a distraction. The distraction will become the focus rather than the writing. Maybe they were tired. Or we were tired.

I don't have the greatest memory. I'm afraid the silliness around the swan made more of an impression than the story. I can't remember the story. Which might say more about my memory than your story.

You can correct me if I'm wrong but it sounds like you want to make the point that cuisine or what one eats is a demonstration of status and power. Your character gains supernatural power by eating such cuisine. Which makes the cuisine an even more powerful allegory I think. But... then that's what could have been in your blurb. Perhaps if you approach the theme or cuisine being an indication of status and power more directly there might be a different reaction.
 
Interesting ideas Amber, thank you. I originally dreamed up the concept of magic stemming from food ... which morphed into powers stemming from food ... and then the idea of a long-lived character whose experiences through history are informed by the evolution of diet ...
 
Interesting ideas Amber, thank you. I originally dreamed up the concept of magic stemming from food ... which morphed into powers stemming from food ... and then the idea of a long-lived character whose experiences through history are informed by the evolution of diet ...

Food is transformative... and in that way... magical.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Back
Top