Biting the Hand that Feeds Us: Handling Controversial Topics in Fiction, Art, and Life

If you’re going to write you might as well write something that’ll potentially change the lives of your readers.  Otherwise, shelve your words and save them for someone who needs affirmation.  When I sit down to write I don’t want to say things that will safely get me sales.  In fact, I care about sales only as an indicator for the number of readers I reach.  More importantly, I want readers to be knocked back on their heels and say to themselves, “I didn’t know.”

Obama family arrives at US Capitol prior to inauguration swear-inWake up calls are never pretty and are never comfortable.  As artists, we are tasked with the unique calling to help audiences contemplate the worst avenues in their lives.  And we have to negotiate the line between being offensive and being helpful.

So how do we handle controversial topics?  How do we as artists stand firm in our character and hold the resolve of morality?

In the spaces between the words I write I can seem anti-conservative, anti-liberal, and even at times anti-Native, and I’m Native (Kiowa and Cherokee).  Why would I do that?  Why would I be so critical?  It could mean jeopardizing my readership.  Yes, that’s true.  But if I didn’t it would mean jeopardizing my own character as an artist.  More importantly, we must have faith that our readers are savvy enough to understand constructive criticism versus dismissive criticism.  A big part of our development as artists is “trusting” our audience, “trusting” their intelligence and their willingness to engage in art.  Our audiences don’t oversimplify anything.  In fact, our audiences want complexity.  That’s the reason they turn to art, literary or visual, so they can find the intellectual stimulation which entertains and enlightens.

Olive_Thomas_in_April_1916_looking_into_a_mirror_with_a_glimpse_of_the_photographerIf you are going to straddle the line successfully, you’re must give each character, each painting, each song three dimensions:  hero, villain, and victim.  I speak about the drama triangle in previous posts (feel free to explore my blog).  This will make your most critical thought on an issue or person constructive?  If you can find the good in the bad and the bad in the good, then you will make an audience reflect rather than run away.  Ultimately, reflection is success as an artist.


(Works Cited:  The images used in this post were borrowed from Wikimedia Commons)



  1. There is a case to be made for escapism in art. Constant beating of the war drums gets ignored after a quick while. If you knock someone on their rear you rarely change their mind. Generally, according to psychology, the person entrenches themselves in their beliefs. It is better to sneak something into a story or other art so that the viewer or reader is not consciously challenged. In my five book in the Jesip Elder series, finished but not published yet, I start with a specific point and never (I hope) try to knock someone on the rear in presenting it. Subtle works, blatant is futile.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree, reflection is at the center of the very reason and purpose for art. Yet I think it is a reflection that seems to just come over us, we only need to let it in. I do worry though that it’s becoming more common for people to view a natural idea/conflict/disagreement stirring inside them as a negative disturbance and seek to push it out in order to avoid anxiety rather than express it and face opposition. It is a wonderful thing to have faith that your audience wants to see all shades but I fear there are to many who would rather see black and white.

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    1. I agree. Viewing the world in black and white makes things simple and feels safe. Most people operate from a need for safety, and ultimately in can be a self destructive form of self preservation because it can mean over simplifying situations to a point that it’s reductive. Thinking along a spectrum makes for a more purposeful method of understanding what’s happening before our eyes. But yes, I agree, too many people like to keep things simple. For, I assuming, a multitude of reasons.

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  3. I like your way of thinking. In any event, we are not one person. We change, from day to day, year to year. Heraclitus applies to ourselves just as much to any river: we never step in the same river twice.

    And of course the buddhists believe our personality is an illusion anyway. We are a collection of physical and mental objects. Little wonder that we feel the need to drift and wander, even if our bedrock personality tends to remain relatively constant.

    Liked by 3 people

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