Every now and then I come across a story or novel the content of which makes me uncomfortable. For instance, recently I read some stories by Ottessa Moshfegh and immediately got a sense of danger from her writing. I got the sense that nothing was off limits for this writer. I’m probably thinking most of her short story “Disgust” when I say this, which was published in The Paris Review.
Other writers whose work shakes me up include Akhil Sharma (especially his novel An Obedient Father), Aravind Adiga, Garth Greenwell.
It even makes me uncomfortable to say what makes me uncomfortable but let me list some things so this is not too vague: explicit sex, extreme profanity, bestiality. Many people will agree with my (partial) list though personality and culture will clearly come into it. For example, I grew up in India in the conservative seventies through nineties when no one talked openly about anything and this background helped determine my attitudes.
The work of the authors I mentioned above includes some or all of the things on my list. But sometimes a piece of writing may cause discomfort for unobvious reasons because, say, it reflects sentiments different from those that are accepted, through unsociable or unlikeable or just strange characters.
If I’m reading something that disturbs me, I might put away the book or I might keep reading. Either way the writer has managed to startle me to attention. His or her work has become hard to forget. I wondered: what makes/enables writers to write in a way that causes discomfort? What makes a writer tackle difficult, off-putting material? Is it a desire to shock the reader? Is it a desire to gain interest? Is it a desire to be honest?
Suddenly this feels like a huge topic. I offer some thoughts briefly.
It depends on the work. “Disgust” and some of Sharma’s An Obedient Father may well reflect the writers’ desire to tread uncharted territory. I sense the writers’ delight in writing provocatively. Other such work may stem from the writer’s desire to be true to his or her self or past. Writers are always being told to make their writing truthful and one aspect of being truthful might be to not flinch from what causes discomfort.
I thought of my own writing in this light. Is my language made unnaturally prim because I don’t like to use bad words? Is the work made empty because I don’t venture into difficult places? I don’t ask these questions to fake things, of course, but to know whether my attitudes affect, maybe dilute, my work.
One area in which I try to bring this thinking to bear is how I depict grief. People cry a lot in my stories. It gets one’s attention to see someone cry, doesn’t it? It’s the very point of crying. I have been using my reflections on discomfort to push my “crying episodes” further perhaps to the point of causing discomfort.
Fun stuff, no?
-Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow