Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I got this email a few days ago:

Dear Sir:
I find your Book, Rusty Nail, despicable! You must be a very sick person to think up such garbage! Why would you think anyone would want to read such? The cover of your book, and the fly-leaf, give NO indication of such filth inside.
Your publisher should be ashamed to be that hard up for something to publish! He's as bad as O.J. Simpson's publisher!
Barnes and Noble should be ashamed to offer such a book for sale, and your publisher, and Barnes and Noble, should , at the VERY least, warn readers of the content!

With great regret! Carol A.


My first reaction was to laugh. While my books have bright, colorful, attractive covers, anyone reading the jacket flaps can easily find references to the filth--er--edgy stuff inside.

Coincidentally, a few days later people started bashing the violence in my books on a popular listserv, bemoaning the graphic violence.

I don't usually defend my writing. If a reader doesn't like something I wrote, the piece failed the reader. It's as simple as that. I'm not perched on their shoulder while they read, saying "This is why I wrote that scene and what I was trying to accomplish" so I see no reason to do it ex post facto.

But this made me curious, so I reread Rusty Nail (I hadn't read it since I turned it in, two years ago) and tried to see if I'd actually gone too far.

I hadn't. While bad things happen in Rusty Nail (snuff videos, torture, mutilation), they happen off-screen. There are no lingering depictions of violence, or even graphic descriptions of anything disturbing. When writing a violent scene, I adhere to 'less is more' and leave the gore up to the reader's imagination.

I am, however, confronted with a business dilemma. Do I want to alienate potential readers and risk sales?

There are two schools of thought here. The first says that safe, homogenous entertainment reaches a broader audience. The second says that unique visions and approaches might polarize an audience, leading to controversy, which leads to a slightly less broad but more passionate audience.

Let's get the integrity issue out of the way: I have very little. Writing is a job. It's a job I love, but I'm never so attached to any of my words that I'll refuse to change them, especially in the face of potential dollars.

So do I want to tone down the violence in my books? John Sandford did it in his Prey series. Ridley Pearson did it in his Lou Boldt series. Jeffrey Deaver did it. Spenser did it. Lots of authors mellow out.

But do they mellow out and then reach a larger audience? Or does the violence of the early books invite controversy, which leads to a larger audience? Does anyone besides me miss Lucas Davenport and Lou Boldt and Lincoln Rhyme chasing psychopaths? Did the serial killers make them bestsellers, or did they become bestsellers after they ditched the serial killers?

It's sort of a moot point. DIRTY MARTINI, coming out in 2007, has no serial killers and no blood. It still has (hopefully) scares, but not of the being stalked and sliced up kind.

What do you think? I know being talked about is always better than not being talked about, but would you rather be controversial re: Thomas Harris or Dan Brown, or universally loved re: Michael Connelly or Robert Crais?