There is a reference to rape in my first novel. I had pondered it a few times, worried about it, contemplated removing the reference. I can't help but revisit things and question their significance and relevance and whether they are justified or not. It’s one of the reasons I included the question as to whether Turner was anti-Welsh in my FAQ (my conclusion: no; it would have been a strange attitude for anyone to accuse me of; although I hate nationalism, I’ve lived in Wales since the 20th century and spent nearly half my life here.)
Over time I have pondered whether I should remove the reference to rape from Turner. Easily done, since it's only a few lines. Many readers might not even notice it, since it's a passing reference during one of the villain's speeches, an ominous scene that leads up to a torture (which also isn't shown). I don't think it's ever been mentioned in a review of Turner.
So why would I remove it? I think all elements of human experience have a place in fiction. The good and the bad. The sublime and the cruelly ugly. But painful things must not be treated lightly. That’s a key to it. For something like this I think there are key questions that need to be asked in order to determine if the reference to rape is justified in any way:
- Is it gratuitous?
- Is it just a lazy way to portray evil?
- Does it have any further relevance or significance to the work?
- Is it gratuitous? I don't think so. The rape isn't seen in the novel. Just referenced briefly by a character. In fact, there's the possibility that the villain was lying, just using it as another form of mental torture on the character they were with.
- Is it just a lazy way to portray evil? This stings slightly. There could be an element of that. I don’t think it's the main reason though. It turns out to be just one aspect of the extension of a corrupted world view that sees all life as having no value. If this was removed I don’t think the villain would seem any less evil, with his torture, murder, enslavement and abuse.
- Does it have any further relevance or significance to the work? I feel it does. One way to view the plot is male versus female. We have a malign patriarchy at the start; it is no wonder that women can be dehumanised in this way by those involved. At the end of the novel things switch and the patriarchy is overthrown by a strong woman (who I hope we’ll see more of in a sequel). So we have an (imperfect) male/female power subtext; therefore using an example of male abuse of dominance does seem at least partly justified.
Later: I finished the post then went to read what other people said on the subject. It's enlightening, and there are lots of sensible and humbling articles, where people speak about the topic with far more wisdom than I did. I should have read them first. I'll link to a few here, in the order that I read them.
- A post on the Scheherazade in Blue Jeans blog
- This is a Post About Literary Rape
- The Big R: How to Deal With Rape in Your Fiction
- Portrayals of Rape in Fiction: An Exploration of Where It’s Done Wrong or Right and Why
- Rape In Fiction (Or: “Oh, Game Of Thrones, Really?”)
- I’m Sick Of Rape In Fiction
- Writing About Rape