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Can Literature “Cross The Line?”

I hear this a lot: “I didn’t like [insert book] because it glorified [insert topic: extramarital sex, violence, drugs, etc].”

We all have different levels of comfort. That’s something we’ve talked about before. What happens, though, when we project our own discomfort about a certain topic onto the book we’re reading? So, when we read a novel that deals with a serious subject, we suddenly label said novel as “glorifying” that subject.

What does that even mean? And where’s the line? How does an author talk about a difficult topic, even in a graphic way, without being perceived as glorifying that subject?

I’m still not really sure what it means to “glorify” a topic, like violence. But, for what it’s worth, I would put movies more into the “glorifying” camp than literature. Some movies feel like they are violent just for the sake of being violent–and I guess that’s part of what people mean when they talk about this idea of glorifying. The rampant violence, in some cases, does nothing to advance the plot. It’s just kind of there–in order to get in the requisite number of decapitations and camera shots of splattering brains.

I can’t think of a book from this list that I would classify as one that glorifies a subject in a negative way. Don’t get me wrong–almost every book deals with depressing, and even graphic, subjects. But I don’t think they glorify it. They don’t make me prone to go out and do these things on my own. They don’t make me think these things are okay, or that the author is endorsing these things.

Even a book like Lolita, a book that, as you might know, I had an extremely difficult time getting past the subject matter–even with a book like that, I don’t think it was glorifying pedophilia. In the end, Humbert Humbert was pretty miserable from being such a pathetic, nasty man. The consequences are there, though they aren’t as satisfactory for a man as vile as Humbert Humbert, in my opinion.

But enough about what I think. What do you think?

If someone says, “that book glorifies violence (or any other topic),” what does that mean to you? Is there a line…and, if so, where is it?

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30 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting point about difficult themes in literature being mistaken as apparently glorifying the same said theme.

    Write a fiction novel, like I did, about the Antichrist and see what sort of comments you get…no, seriously, check out my latest blog post on the subject.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  2. That’s like saying Harry Potter “glorifies” witchcraft. I read the HP books (several times over) and I have yet to try and get on platform 9 3/4, or wear a cloak around trying to perform spells with the wand I purchased at the Wizarding World in Orlando. It’s just not true, though some books touch on, or are explicitly about subjects that make people uncomfortable, I think it starts important dialogues about those subjects rather than encouraging people to take part.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
    • I’ve heard the Harry Potter argument, and it’s probably the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard about a book. Some people need to get out more.

      Like

      March 22, 2013
  3. motherhoodandmiscellany #

    I have read some books that seem to me like they’re “glorifying” adultery, as if it’s so romantic and irresistible and sexy. I have actually stopped reading mid-book when I find this to be the case. I can’t think of a example of a book like this off hand, though the movie Bridges of Madison County comes to mind (I didn’t read the book because I disliked the movie so much). That’s the only topic I have found to at times be “glorified” in literature in such a way that it completely turns me off a book.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  4. Having been an English Lit. major, we are taught to read critically and research the authors lives. The authors typically have some type of intimate relationship with the theme(s) they write about. Depending on the professor we were encouraged to explore why we felt the book was offensive, and most often the reason being is that it didn’t fit into their personal moral values. When people say they find a particular book offensive, I ask why and find it’s outside of their moral values. So, I encourage them to push through and do a little research on the authors background. You never know what journey the character(s) will take and they may surprise you at the end with a moral shift more like your own.

    That’s usually my answer. Very academic for sure. But the bottom line literature is literature no matter how offended the reader gets. And I don’t feel that there is any literature out there that glorifies anything. It’s really our perception and our personal beliefs that keep us from enjoying good works.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  5. When I hear a book or movie “glorifies” something, it makes me thing the speaker is awfully insecure about something.

    Like when I wanted to watch Trainspotting as a teen and was told “it glorifies drug use.” I’m sorry WHAT? The movie (and the book) scared me from even thinking about trying heroin.

    I had this argument with a friend about Brokeback Mountain. She said the movie made her uncomfortable because it glories cheating, not because of the homosexuality. I call bullshit. Everyone in that movie ends up alone or dead. Is that glorified?

    Even in a book where cheating is romantic or works out, well, that happens in real life. All the time. People are bored with their lives, and of course an affair is going to be exciting and romantic. Why do you think it happens so often?

    Like

    March 22, 2013
    • Hey, you just told me the ending to Brokeback Mountain! Way to ruin it for me! Kidding, Kidding.

      Like

      March 22, 2013
    • Sorry about my post. I guess it is off topic but I just learned this and wanted to share. This was a very important book and author in my life as I studied Cultural Anthropology and later years as I was living in the Zambian bush and witnessing some very similar experiences.

      Like

      March 22, 2013
      • Yeah, heard about Achebe dying this morning. Terribly sad to hear.

        Like

        March 22, 2013
  6. I’ve been told the same about Harry Potter, and wasn’t allowed to carry it onto my school campus for that reason.

    I hate to do this, but Twilight always seems to fit my needs when illustrating a concept… So many girls have watched Twilight, all over the world, and have been exposed to the concept that Bella and Edward’s relationship is ‘healthy’ and ‘desirable’ and a ‘romance for the ages’. I think that’s where people get their misconceptions: if we’re exposed to an errant idea or theme that isn’t portrayed in a negative light, we have it in your mind and may further act on it.

    Of course, a book is an inanimate object. Our choices are our own, and that’s what a lot of people miss, I think.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  7. I think you’ve hit the nail where it lives, Robert. (just love it when I can mix metaphors) An excess of anything for the sake of excess would be glorification. If it doesn’t serve the work of art, it’s excess. That said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a line. There’s just the proverbial slippery slope.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  8. Violence seems to be one of the major things people are concerned about with “glorification.” A random example is the progression of Westerns: first Western book is “The Virginian” where the hero gets out of most problems by wit until one final “shoot out” where only one shot is fired. This is a long way away from the recent “Django Unchained” movie. If both are westerns with similar themes, why has violence become so much more popular? I’m torn as to whether that’s glorifying violence in a story where it’s not necessary, or whether it’s simply giving people what they already wanted to see.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  9. Art should disturb the comfortable
    and
    Comfort the disturbed

    Liked by 1 person

    March 22, 2013
  10. Yes, I think that “literature” can “glorify” a subject. I think the point is whether or not the artist is being honest or not. I’ve been reading Hubert Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. Very intense. Sex, drugs, and violence. However, the book realistically shows the result – misery. A bit like your comment re: Lolita. Humpert Humpert is miserable. If the book had shown him finding bliss through his behavior, I think that would have been “glorifying” his perversion.

    Like

    March 22, 2013
  11. The most pervasive and pernicious glorification I have encountered, both in literature and film, is the courage and sacrifice of combat, whether it is a massive and brutal war or whether it is two gunfighters on the streets of Dodge. Civilization has been forced to glorify dying and killing to assure a steady stream of delusional youth eager to be hacked to pieces over a political or more often economic dispute. Young people die so that others can maintain wealth and power. The ultimate sacrifice is a dangerous fiction.

    To keep this somewhat literary, read All Quiet of the Western Front and its sequel, The Road Back, both by Erich Maria Remarque.

    Like

    March 23, 2013
  12. I believe a book would glorify a concept if it portrays the characters achieving some satisfaction or happiness out of it. But even then, in the end, the choices are ours to make. We are sentient beings after all

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  13. To me, glorifying a topic means to celebrate it. If the character doing the action is a hero, and his actions are portrayed in a positive light, that’s glorifying something.
    There is a difference between explaining why a character says and does something and then rewarding the character for doing it. I think people want justice when they read a book or see a movie. We want bad guys to be punished. And so when the message in a work is “I know they say that this is bad BUT this is actually really fun/awesome to do AND you’ll get respect/honor/promotions/fame because of it” you’re glorifying it.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
    • I’m confused. If I write a novel about a major Wall Street banking concern that creates highly dubious and often criminal ways to increase their wealth at the expense of their clients (and the American taxpayers) I have to show that the modern-day robber barons are getting huge salaries and bonuses, living in palaces and luxury apartments around the world, maintaining yachts, jet planes, and numerous luxury automobiles, and seriously damaging the economy of this country, but II should conclude with the incarceration and severe punishment of these banksters lest I seem to glorify their actions.

      But that would make my novel a fantasy.

      Like

      March 25, 2013
      • I don’t think it’s about punishment or about justice being done as much as it is about reality. You are correct in saying that to bring all these people to justice would be writing a fantasy. It’s about being honest with the situation. If you give an accurate picture of what’s going on on Wall Street, it’s not going to seem glorified.

        Like

        March 26, 2013
        • If I honestly portray greed and lying and corruption and outright theft on Wall Street as resulting in enormous salaries, outlandish compensations, numerous perquisites associated with being rich and successful, and a life-style normally reserved for royalty, then I am not glorifying the banksters because I am only presenting an honest and accurate picture of the situation?

          Like

          March 26, 2013
          • If the only point of your novel is that some people are dishonest and get excessively rich and are highly esteemed for it, then I don’t see the reason behind writing it. But I wouldn’t necessarily say you were glorifying it. Life doesn’t always seem fair, and things like that happen. However, that’s just the small picture, and there are also consequences for living like that; not everyone gets away with it. The question is really what point you are making with a novel on this subject.

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            March 26, 2013
          • So glorification is based on the intent of the author and not the interpretation of the text?

            Like

            March 26, 2013
  14. I think “glorifying” something is about honesty and giving an accurate picture. I would agree that the film industry does far more of this than writers do, but that doesn’t always hold true. Some things are portrayed too romantically. I have always been a huge fan of Les Miserables; the show, the book, and now the movie. It would have been very easy to make the movie into this romanticized Paris of the early 1800’s, but for anyone who has seen the movie, the suffering and pain of the common people was portrayed quite bluntly. It wasn’t pretty to behold. Leaving out the nitty gritty, not accounting for the consequences of poor choices, showing only one side of the story. That’s what glorifying a subject means to me.

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  15. Literature cannot be offensive. It is the interpretation we bring to it that does the real damage by distorting the art itself. LOLITA, the story, the girl and her obsessive partner…none of it is real. It is fiction…it is the art of language. Reflect on it after the fact if you want. But Art and Beauty are not elements in some equation whose values need to be sussed out; rather, taken together, they are an experience simply to be taken in. Nabokov’s ride is an intense and fascinating account of intense obsession so adroitly delivered that is impossible to put the book down…assuming one approaches it as FICTION and suspends one’s provincialism.

    Like

    August 16, 2014
  16. Heloisa #

    Fuck Humbert. He’s a criminal, a motherfucker. I am a victim of a pedophile, incestuous father and I don’t see anyone, in any “Lolita” review, giving a shit about the girl’s character. It’s like she’s expendable, or a whore who knew what “seducing” is. It makes me angry because I was that same age, and my father said I “provoked” him, as if a 11 year-old knew what is “provoking”, and even so, as if this was an excuse to break the law. There is a reason why underage sex is prohibited: it’s based on the fact that there is no lawful consent. Pubescent girls (and boys) don’t know nearly enough, don’t have independence, autonomy, knowledge enough to rightfully consent to have sex with an older man (or woman). Young teenagers are vulnerable to exterior influences, this is the time where we need our parents to support us and protect us, to teach us to protect ourselves from predators and criminals, not the opposite.
    The older person is always wiser, more experienced, so there is no way Delores, in a real-life situation, would ever have ensnared Humber, consciously seducing him, because she doesn’t know what real, consensual, adult sex is like. She’s only had distorted ideas imposed on her by others, ideas she cannot righteously process and evaluate because she’s not old enough. The pubescent body is not made for sex, and also not the brain’s. It is an unbalanced power relationship in which the only one who’s hurt is the abused teen. Pedophiles don’t need our compassion or understanding. It’s of no use to get repentance after you’ve violated, abused, brain-washed, emotionally bribed a young girl who’s alone, vulnerable, and even calling it a “passion” is a disgusting euphemism. The right word is CRIME, pedophilia, and these men should be castrated and tortured, because only a victim of a pedophile knows how it is to have your innocence and childhood taken away from you, instead of you, yourself, making that choice. I didn’t get to make that choice.

    Like

    March 9, 2015

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