How do you deal with difficult topics in books?

In March, I read Little Peach by Peggy Kern. It’s a short but unflinching look at child prostitution in New York City, and it’s…not exactly easy to read. And I’m not one to really flinch away from things, either, but abuse of any kind really makes me squirm. The worst I’ve read is undoubtedly A Safe Place by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which details a lifetime of physical abuse dealt out by the author’s father. It was extremely difficult to read, and isn’t something I’d ever really want to pick up again, but I was able to get through it.

We all have our boundaries when it comes to the media we consume. For lots of people—and this is something I don’t totally understand—animal violence is one of the biggest no-nos. (The part that I don’t understand is that most people who say “no way” to animal violence are perfectly okay reading about humans being violent to each other. Sure, it’s always sad when the dog dies, but I personally find it much sadder when a person dies. And I say this as a dog owner.) For some, it’s sexual violence; for others, it’s religion. Everyone has their deal-breakers.

But in 25 years, I’ve never come across something I actually couldn’t read. I’ve had a hard time getting through some things—like I mentioned earlier, domestic abuse in particular is hard for me to stomach, as well as really detailed descriptions of gore—but in most of those cases, those things came up at such a point where I couldn’t turn back. So I sort of held my breath and pushed on as quickly as possible. But it wasn’t really ever a question of whether I would keep reading, because at that point I had been sucked in.

However, it usually decreases a book’s “reread value” for me. Just as many people decide which house or car to buy by considering its resale value, I often judge the books I read based on how likely I am to reread it. Books like Little Peach and A Safe Place, though well written with good stories, have low reread value because of their topics. Similarly, I just can’t reread books like Misery and Gerald’s Game, though both were written by my beloved Uncle Stevie, because of terribly grisly scenes described therein. I occasionally remember that one scene in Gerald’s Game (people who have read it will probably know what I’m talking about) right as I’m going to sleep, which is just dandy. The thought of reading it again and re-implanting that image in my brain is just a nonstarter.

Then there are the people who do shit like make apps to get rid of profanity in ebooks. It even apparently lets you decide what to change the words to: for example, you can change “bitch” to “witch.” Now, I understand that not everyone appreciates profanity, but there’s a difference between rolling your eyes at it and removing it completely so that you’ll never be offended ever. I would humbly suggest to anyone who doesn’t like profanity that maybe they shouldn’t read books containing profanity. Using apps like the Clean Reader is like cheating—maybe the author wants to make you uncomfortable with their word choice, and removing their agency like that is unfair and simply wrong. If you’re not reading every word the way the author intends, then you probably shouldn’t be reading their book at all.

Luckily, most people aren’t that ridiculous, but we do all deal with difficult topics differently. What I’d like to know is how you all deal with difficult topics in literature. If you come across something you feel like you can’t handle, what do you do? Do you stop reading? Skim or skip the hard parts? Read Wikipedia to find out what happens without finishing the book? Write off the book completely because how dare they? Let me know in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “How do you deal with difficult topics in books?

  1. I’m one of those that just can’t handle animal violence. It’s a deal breaker. The reason I say that first is because animal violence is considered “more acceptable” in media, books and movies. Because domestic abuse is such a turn off for most, you won’t see it as often. Unless the book is ABOUT domestic abuse, obviously.

    As for how I deal with it, I do a lot of research before I read the book. Am I going to learn from it? Is it going to impact me in a way that will make me see things differently? Will this book end tragically?

    If I know a bit more about it ahead of time, I do much better. I avoid outright spoilers, but if I know the general outcome I can continue. It doesn’t stress me out… If that makes any sense!

    I read “A Child Called It” when I was about 12. I’m not sure I’ll read it again, although I AM curious to see what adult me takes from the story vs Jr High me.

    • Yeah, there are definitely books that I need to be somewhat spoiled before I’m willing to dive into them, so I feel you there. It’s more of an effort thing, though—like with GoT, I didn’t really want to put in the effort to figure out the story on my own so I made Andrew summarize the first book for me before I read it. =P

      Any idea what it is about animal violence that turns you off more than human violence? The one thing I could surmise is that animals are usually innocent parties who end up being collateral damage or something like that, whereas humans generally have more agency to avoid or combat said violence. Just spitballing, though.

      • Late reply… sorry!

        As for the why… Part of it is the lack of a voice animals have, and any abuse to them goes unspoken. Even children can at some point have a chance to get help. It may not come, but they have a chance. So as a reader, I feel more hope for them. Also, it is RARE in books and other media to ever see someone pay for animal abuse. Human violence is rarely unresolved. Either you are able to see that person recover or you see their abuser get theirs in the end.

        Animal violence is very rarely the plot point either (unless we’re talking The Plague Dogs *shudder*) It’s just something that is thrown in to disturb the reader. (Which obviously works.)

        • Very good point! I won’t say I’m *totally* unmoved by animal violence, but it definitely doesn’t affect me as strongly as it does some others.

  2. I also have a tough time with animal violence. I agree it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I guess I just like animals more than people? Still, I’ll read it. I haven’t yet found anything I *can’t* read. If something is fiction, there’s always the fact that it isn’t true that makes me feel better. I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but even if I read something horrifying that is true I feel like it’s more important to *know* about horrific things. Maybe I’ve just become densensitized to violence and whatnot; I did grow up reading all the horror I could get my hands on from a pretty early age.

    • I agree that in a lot of cases it’s more important to know about unpleasant things than it is to “protect” yourself (which is why I read Little Peach even though the subject matter was pretty unpleasant). I’ve read a lot of horror as well, so maybe I too am a bit desensitized.

  3. I usually avoid difficult books, because I prefer escapism and happy endings. I refuse to read horror also, because I’m a huge scaredy cat. However, in the few historical fiction novels I have read that discuss war, rape, and the like, I just take it slow and digest the words thoughtfully. I see it as a mindful exercise to be grateful for what I have in my life. It can be a great learning experience, but I have to mentally prepare for emotional rollercoaster ahead of me.

    Great topic!

    • I prefer escapism and happy endings too, although as long as it’s not an *open* ending I’m usually satisfied. I think it’s great that you read difficult books mindfully, and I totally understand the need to prepare first. I really should have prepared better for A Safe Place but I didn’t know what I was getting into, and really wish I did.

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