Friday, February 6, 2009


Heard anything that offended you recently? Or read a sentence in a book that caused you personal outrage? And what did being offended give you the right do? Call for someone to be sacked? Make death threats? Write an abusive email?

It's a subject that has been much discussed here in the UK over the past few months. First there was the notorious Sachsgate, involving 'lewd' phone messages left by broadcasters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Very few listeners who heard it at the time complained to the BBC. But many thousands who hadn't heard it decided to be offended when they read about it in the papers, resulting in resignations, suspensions and grovelling apologies all round.

This week, there have been two more cases. Carol Thatcher, daughter of the former British Prime Minister, was at the centre of a row after comparing a black tennis player to a "golliwog" in an (unbroadcasted) conversation in the green room at the BBC. If you don't know what a golliwog is, go here (and be sure to scroll down to see the original cover of that Agatha Christie novel now known as AND THEN THERE WERE NONE!).

Well, Miss Thatcher is refusing to apologise, saying it was private conversation and the comment was made in jest. But people who heard the jest claim to have been offended, so she has gone.

Then today we hear that TV motormouth Jeremy Clarkson is also in trouble for referring to our current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" during an interview in Australia. This afternoon, Clarkson has been apologising too - but apparently only for "insulting someone's personal appearance", i.e. for pointing out that Mr Brown has only one eye, which is a verifiable fact and a matter of public knowledge. No need to apologise for calling him an idiot, then. Or for mentioning his Scottishness. But Clarkson is no stranger to this kind of thing.

It's a politically correct minefield for anyone out there in the public, er... eye. Especially when some folk seem to think they can be offended on behalf of others. Is this an issue all about context and tone?

As I was reading these news stories today, reality snuck in from the cyberworld and gave me a vicious little poke, as it so often does. I checked my inbox and found one of those wonderfully abusive emails that all writers receive occasionally from their readers. At least, I assume all writers get them. Or is it just me?

I'll let you read an extract of this email for yourselves. It opens without any preamble - no fuss about saying 'hello' or 'hi', but getting straight to the point, thus:

"On page139 in the hard copy of "Scared To Live," you write, "Nothing special-but women don't care much about the technical details, do they?" How, in this day and age, can you write this, and actually get away with writing this statement? How DARE you, you sexist pig! Who do you think you really are, God's gift to all mankind? Well, think again! Not only is fifty percent of mankind women, but many of this planet's brightest people today are women. Many women occupy the world's top jobs, careers, and research fields today. I think you grew up in the cave man era, am I right? You should absolutely be damn ashamed of yourself; writing someyhing like that in this day and age!...."

Okay, so the lady is offended. I think we got that. But not by something I've said to her. No - she's offended by a comment made in a crime novel by one fictional character to another. The sentence she quotes is part of a passage of dialogue between DI Paul Hitchens and his boss, DCI Oliver Kessen. Hitchens has never been presented as a particularly sympathetic character, and I'm sure there's far worse from him and some of the more cynical police officers elsewhere in the Cooper & Fry series. My characters tend to talk pretty much the way they would in real life. In this passage, Hitchens is actually referring to a stereo system, being himself the sort of bloke who cares about the woofers and tweeters. (See footnote *1)

So should I be the one who's offended? You've got to have a thick skin when you get published, of course. In fact, my first reaction when I read this email was to think "poor woman - she's got such a huge chip on her shoulder that it's preventing her from distinguishing fiction from reality". And then I started taking it as a compliment... Why? Because what's happened here is that a reader has been so deeply involved in a story that she's taken personal offence at something said by a character, as if it had actually been said in her presence. But, because this character is fictional, she can't shout back at him, right? So she chooses the next most obvious target - the author. Isn't it great when a book can evoke that kind of passion?

Well, let's face it - if you're going to abuse a writer for the views of a fictional character, you might as well write to Thomas Harris and ask him to justify his cannibalism. It would be ridiculous to believe that every opinion expressed by every minor character in a book is also the opinion of the author. It just isn't physically possible, since characters tend to disagree with each other all the time. It's called conflict.

In fact, there are so many unpleasant individuals with nasty attitudes in my books, I'm starting to wonder what some of my readers think I'm like. :)

SPOILER ALERT - if you haven't read SCARED TO LIVE yet, you might want to read no further! No offence or anything...

Footnote *1 - The fact that the owner of the stereo system had just been shot is completely inoffensive, apparently. As are the deaths of a mother and her two children, who have just died horribly in a house fire. But then, this is a crime novel, so we expect things like that, don't we? We just don't expect characters to express opinions that we disagree with...


  1. And I who have always thought one of the advantages of writing fiction was that you could put in your characters´ mouths what you daren´t say yourself! But apparently not. I hope there are other advantages, however :)

  2. Ah yes - the I'm deeply offended by the amount of swearing in your books - with no apparent objection to the number of bodies littering the pages (to paraphrase Mark Billingham). I think you're probably taking the logical / reasonable approach, that the reader was so involved in the story that they forgot that it's fictional. But then you are a very nice person. Others probably head down a different explanation path altogether ;)

  3. Now that is a lady who is so seriously involved in her reading that she got mad at the characters. Definitely take that as a compliment. You can tell a good story. I know that though since I love all the books in the series and regularly get irritated at the characters. I can't wait for each new book to come out so see what they are up to this time around.

  4. This is such an interesting topic. I've become extremely angry and offended too by some characters in a novel, but I never thought anything they did or said reflected back on the author. Unbelievable! Half the juice in a crime novel is the conflict. But, like it has already been said, take that as a great compliment. At least she was really paying attention! Joyce

  5. My e-mails have been very nice. I go and reread them sometimes when I feel depressed. Perhaps they are nice because I am female but write about a male protagonist, thus covering both sides of the fence.
    I have had a few negative reviews, or negative comments in positive reviews. Totally undeserved, of course, and due to gross misreadings or very poor taste. :)

  6. Thanks, everyone! I.J., I should probably say that most of the emails I get from readers are very nice, too. Occasionally, there's one which is so terrific that it makes everything worthwhile on its own. But the abusive ones are interesting in their own way. I once had a really angry rant from a mountain biker because I'd got the size of the tyres wrong on a particular model of bike. :)

  7. I think there's a growing sector of the population actively looking for opportunities to be offended. And, sadly, our media is fueling them by publicising things that might be offensive and often by generating communal 'we're offended' hysteria. Last year I was stopped in the street by a TV crew in my city (in Australia) asking me how offended I was by something that happened on the reality TV show Big Brother. They completely ignored the possibilities that (a) I might not have watched the show (which I hadn't) and (b) that if I had I might not have been offended at all. As soon as they could see I wasn't going to give an outraged rant they moved on to someone else.

  8. Hi Stephen, for me characters in fiction books are unique by the oddities that make them different, from personalities, past history, agendas and social views. It creates a feel to a book, a certain element of distinguishing features that make you like or loathe certain characters! I applaud your sense of adventure to opening up your doors to allow emails, blogs and forums for the readers to connect with you. With it comes all manner of experiences that are both personal and novel related, but there are rewards and opportunities to explore! Potential new characters in your eagerly awaited next novel for Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, ;) that offer similar traits to those that may have wrote to you, after all every experience can create a fantastic new story!

    Keep printing those words off the press, I am looking forward to the next novel that follows on from The Kill Call!

    Kind Regards