The 8 uncomfortable lines I want to cut from the books I’m reading these days.

The 8 uncomfortable lines I want to cut from the books I’m reading these days.

The books on my nightstand vary with the seasons. I’ve been deep in Summer Reading Guide prep for months, which means for most of the winter and all of the spring I’ve been reading contemporary fiction non-stop, trying to uncover the just-released or soon-to-be-released novels that deserve a place on your summer reading lists.

As always, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve found some novels that I am unequivocally pumped to recommend this summer. I’ve read some mediocre books from authors whose previous work I adored. I’ve taken a chance on some little-known titles: some I loved, some were meh, a handful were truly dreadful.

And this year, more than any previous year, I’ve found titles I absolutely adored but am hesitant to recommend because I’m not sure I want to go there. Depending on the genre, I’m prepared for salty language (to put it gently) and difficult content (to put it politely). Those are topics I’m accustomed to and comfortable talking about, for the most part.

But I’m noticing something specific in this year’s crop of novels: they all have about 8 lines I’d like to delete because they’re way too sexually explicit for my taste. (And I loved Outlander, so that’s saying something.) These lines are too visual, too descriptive, something you could never show on the movie screen.

We’re just talking 8 lines: not a huge portion of the book by any means. A tiny, tiny percentage of total word count. Barely more than a paragraph.

But those lines make me so uncomfortable when I’m reading (an HSP thing?) that I’m leery of recommending these titles.

I’ve spent a lot of time–too much time, probably–pondering what exactly’s going on here. Is the writer going for shock value? Does the publisher think it will sell more books? Do those 8 lines serve the story? (My answers: maybe, maybe, sometimes.)

An example: the most jarring instance I’d like to subject to the 8-line edit is a novel that’s being billed as one of the best books of the summer. It’s a good story, maybe a great one. The writing is terrific. But one unexpected line was so jarring, so shocking (and I rarely use the word shocking), I almost quit reading right there, halfway through the book.

But I didn’t quit, and as I approached the end of the book, and saw the way that character grew and changed, I suddenly realized: the author didn’t include that line to be gratuitous. The author was showing you something important about the character, something dramatic, something disturbing. I was supposed to be shocked.

I still didn’t like it, but I could at least understood why the author made that choice.

What does this 8-line edit trend mean for summer reading? If a book requires so many disclaimers about why you maybe shouldn’t read it that I don’t have space left to tell you why you maybe should, that’s a deal breaker, even if I thought it was otherwise pretty great.

On a larger scale, I’m wondering if this is a trend in publishing. I think yes, but others say no. (I’ve read several of the titles in question as galleys or advanced reader copies—editions where the text is still subject to change. I mentioned my 8-line theory to an editor friend, and expressed hope that maybe those lines wouldn’t make it into the final edition. Not a chance, she said. The sexy stuff is in for keeps.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on racy content, your own personal dealbreakers, and any recent literary trends you’ve noticed in comments.

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227 comments

  1. Ashley says:

    Racy content is a deal breaker for me, especially the older I get. Didn’t mind it so much back in the day, now it’ll ruin a book for me. I can think of one memoir that I didn’t like for this reason, even though I liked her subsequent work. The vast majority of the time I find that it doesn’t add to the story. Apparently sex sells books…just not to me. I appreciate the warnings.

    • Leslie says:

      Have to agree. Sometimes, it just ruins a book for me. Much like when a friend pasts a picture of roadkill on facebook, just to remind you to wear a seatbelt. There are better ways to get the point across without diarrhea of the mouth. Sometimes what’s left unsaid is more explicit.

  2. Kristy says:

    I don’t go out of my way to read sexual explicit books or ones with constant bad language but I do think that reading helps to broaden my mind on what is reality for others, and that in turn builds my empathy for people who’s life experiences has been different to mine. I didn’t read 50 shades of grey because it didn’t seem that there was a bigger meaning behind the book but a biography or memoir with lots of raw emotion and real experiences even if a little provocative often leaves me thinking and I like that about reading.

  3. Rachel says:

    I have a lot of thoughts and feelings around this topic…as do so many others, judging from the comment section here! As it happens, I am currently reading Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman (which I bought on my kindle thanks to MMD’s kindle deals of the day~thank you so much Anne!). I love Neil Gaiman’s work with the heat of a thousand burning suns, despite the fact that I am an HSP. His work always triggers me, and yet, it is always redeemed. He wrote a very thoughtful introduction to Trigger Warnings about this very topic, and I would highly recommend that essay to others for an insightful perspective on this subject.
    Thank you Anne for your lovely blog and once again providing me with some food for thought. I just love the topics you cover here!

  4. Diane says:

    Thank you for bringing up this topic! I have my own “boundaries”, and I read you because I am learning to trust you, and that you won’t violate my set “boundaries”. So if you have reservations about those “8 lines”, please let us know so we can make our own choice. I HATE being shocked/surprised in novels. And lately I think that Editors are insisting authors add those “8 lines”, because book authors that I used to be able to read (and then loan the book to my Mom), are now adding those “8 lines”. That’s stopped me from reading them, and loaning them to my Mom. And sometimes those “8 lines” are so out of place in the story, that it’s just ridiculous. You know they were added by the Editor/Publisher’s insistence for what sells. IT DOESN’T SELL IN THIS HOUSE! I’m anxiously awaiting the Summer List!

  5. Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

    As i live in Europe the wiew of these 8 lines would be very strange. There are so many other things that makes me upset in Books. I remember Oprah choosing the Poisonwood Bible and so many years later it still make me feeling unsettled.When my son was 10 years his teacher read Michelle Magorians “Good Night Nr Tom” the same summer it went on radio as childprogram. After our holidays all people talked about this fantastic book. If you havent read it please do.This young guy is sent to the country during Ww2 for to escape the London bombing, the Only one able to take him is the Village old grumpy. I wont tell you more. MY son was really in the plot. If i had known the story from the beginning I font Think se would ever had read it. There are same nasty human behaviour to be able to go through. But i wouldnt have missed all our talks about the situations and times we had, uplifting for us all. Yes we shall protect ourselves and our Children but the daily news and the situation we have with all the refugees from Syria and other countries there is daily news of bombing, killing, rape on the Tv.

    I read a lot of historical books. There is tales about medieval killings that makes me shake. This is included in history and the computer games can be awful.

    I must at last tell you that real grafic so called love i just hastily skim.

    • Mary says:

      Oh my! I have only watched the first 50 minutes of the movie “Goodnight, Mr Tom” on YouTube. It is wonderful, Birgitta. Thank you for telling us. I have ordered the book for my grandsons and granddaughter. Very beautiful and moving.

  6. Abbey says:

    I would not consider myself prudish in any way. Still, I tend to just push through these types of scenes, or just glance at them quickly to get back to the story…the reason I’m reading the book in the first place.
    I agree a lot of this stuff is added to “sell” or make books feel edgier and not really do anything for the story or characters. But do authors and/or publishers not realize how much this can pull a reader OUT of a story instead of pulling them in? I remember watching Cold Mountain and thinking how beautiful the scene was where Nicole Kidman & Jude Law were making love after being apart for so long. I thought is was done tastefully and fit the story. But then…you see her nipple. It totally took me out of the moment and out of the movie…in a place in the story that you really needed to be drawing your audience in completely for the final blow at the end of the story.

  7. Jessica says:

    Thank you for having the dignity to post about this topic. I just recently discovered your blog and was very pleased to see this post. I know I would be considered a prude by today’s standards and I thought I was pretty much alone in my way of thinking. But I’ve been so uplifted to read so many comments from others who feel the same! Why isn’t intimacy treated with respect anymore? Why isn’t it private and special and sacred? It just seems so crass and vulgar to me to include sexual intimacies. These are depictions of complete lust, not real love. I really don’t read much anymore because of this problem I kept coming across. I never take recommendations because I have been sideswiped by explicit material one too many times and had to kick those books to the curb and then I’m left feeling a sort of…betrayal, I guess? It’s a shame because I love to read. I LOVE a well-written, inspiring and interesting book, (since I have seen you mention it so many times in just a few days of being acquainted with and exploring your blog, ahh Anne of Green Gables) but an explicit scene or language can absolutely ruin it for me. I won’t finish it because of the ‘shocker’ but then it’s in my head over and over and I don’t need or want that trash. I loved what one commenter said about the author needing to respect the reader and not thrusting this sort of material out of nowhere and into your mind where it’s there to stay. (Not an exact quote at all but that’s what I took from it 🙂 ) Thank you again for addressing this issue. I also vote with others for an “8 line edit” for any sort of sexual material in your recommendations! It’s so refreshing to hear someone say they find this sort of thing distasteful, even if we don’t have the same standards. Also thanks to all who have been so respectful of others’ differing points of view.

    • Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

      I appologise fo the above comment, i wrote it on my tablet and there is a spelling program that all the time change everything to swedish. I have to all the time look for the changes it does. I realise now that i missed a lot and that it perhaps was hard to read. I must say that my favourite author is Jane Austen and therefore i was really chocked when reading of one of the sequels that has been madehhe The best is by in my oppinion Ann Collins that has by far let the story untouched and just let the story uavnrel with the later generation

  8. Traci says:

    I have trouble reading about sensitive topics (particularly sexual violence and abuse toward children) when the scenarios seem likely to happen in real life, or when the writing is so good that the characters feel real.

    When it’s purely imagined, in most cases, it’s just a story, and I can divorce myself from it.

    I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I read The Kite Runner, my stomach was so sick for children in cultures where that violence occurs and is met with extreme shaming and no help.
    Outlander didn’t bother me on an emotional level, but we had picked up the audio book for a 28 hour drive, and it was awkwardly funny to listen to with my husband and 18 month old. We never finished it (or got to the scene of rape, though we both agreed the tension of that possibility existed throughout the book) because neither of us were interested in continuing to sit in our car for hours listening to the recounting of another couple’s sexual experience. We would have certainly finished it had their early marital sex scenes been abbreviated or omitted; we would rather hear about the action!

  9. Tabitha says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I actually read almost all of the comments! While I understand that art, literature, music, etc. is meant to affect us deeply, I absolutely can and will exercise my right to avoid dumping garbage into my mind, because I don’t like the effects. I dearly love to read, but I’ve had a terrible time finding fiction written in the last twenty years that I am willing to finish. I can’t stomach graphic violence, profanity, or gratuitous/warped sex scenes. My healthy sex life is a lovely blessing, and I want that kept quite separate from my fiction reading. I don’t object to authors using tasteful and discrete ways of conveying their point, and I loved Joy’s comment!! “I think a good writer knows how to walk the delicate line between revealing and exposing (the former leaving you feeling like your best reading self-a privileged empathizer, and the latter leaving you suspicious that you are no better than a common voyeur).” EXACTLY!!!!!

    I actually read nonfiction way more often simply because it’s easier than wading through the muck of the new releases. As a matter of fact, that is PRECISELY what caused me to follow the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I’m Christian, and yet I don’t like the sappy little Christian novellas. I turned to this blog and the “What Should I Read Next” podcast in hopes of finding clean reads with excellent plots and characters that I can truly engage with. Thanks to Anne, I’ve discovered Kate Morton and several other excellent authors.

    I’m all for an “8 line edit” flag for book reviews. I’ve looked in vain for a site/book club online to help me screen out the books with content that I’m trying to avoid, while still promoting literature that’s more than 2 inches deep. I’ll be following the comments on this post!

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, Tabitha , for expressing your thoughts. I empathize with you. I feel the same way but you put it in words so well. I completely concur.

  10. Kathryn H. says:

    I think an “8-line-edit warning” is a great idea. I have to be careful about what I read and watch because things make strong impressions on my memory and will be impossible to “un-see.” I’m very selective. When I’m reading reviews or blog posts by people I like, respect, and with whom I tend to have common interests, I would appreciate an “8 line heads-up.” It’s an easy way for a reviewer to indicate that while she appreciated a work, she has some caveats.

  11. Emily B says:

    Too much smut is a definite deal breaker for me. I wish book bloggers would make it a point to address offensive content in their reviews so a potential reader can be informed. I liked what you said about if the disclaimers outweigh the novel’s upside then the decision to recommend it to your readers becomes pretty clear.

  12. Alexa says:

    I do not care for graphic novels with language and strong sexual content. We get the picture. I find that beloved books and well written books have conved the same message and have not taken the easy way out. I do not feel good about any novel that has to devulge that type of writing style. It effects you-regardless of the character type. After awhile it’s a turn off.

  13. Gina says:

    I enjoyed reading The Nest overall but wasn’t comfortable giving it to my mother to read… I’m so glad I read this post and the comments. I’ve been wanting to read Outlander but now I think I won’t be reading it. I had no idea!!

    • Eilzabeth says:

      I’d rather skim and skip than miss out on a great story, for example Outlander. I loved this series, even with skimming and skipping on occasion (really not all that often). It’s a wonderful well-rounded story – worth nearly a year of my life to get through the series 🙂

  14. Ann Perrigo says:

    Very late with my comment on the 8 Line Edit. I’m reminded of my mom, who turned into an avid reader the last ten years of her life. When my sister and I were suggesting or selecting books for her we tried not to choose anything too graphic. Mom wasn’t fazed, though. When she was almost 90 she said, “I’d have missed a lot of wonderful stories if I let that bother me” going on to say that she did sometimes skim or skip offending passages. This always seemed very enlightened to me!

    • Eilzabeth says:

      Yes, I feely skim and skip if the content is too iffy for my sensitive self…but I’d rather skim and skip than miss out on a great story, for example Outlander. I loved this series, even with skimming and skipping on occasion (really not all that often).

  15. Charlotte says:

    I’m very late to this conversation but had some thoughts to add. I don’t appreciate 8-line content when it’s gratuitous, and I’m liberal in my media choices. My gauge for censoring my own reading is how I the content makes me feel; being uncomfortable isn’t the same as feeling icky, and being uncomfortable can be really good for me. I read The Casual Vacancy all the way through and did not like it. And yet, I came away from that book wanting to be more compassionate to those around me, and that is definitely not a bad thing.

    (And regarding the Outlander books–which I love–yes there is sex and yes there is violence. But to see how Claire and Jamie heal and weather the many storms they face makes me more confident in my own marriage, and that is not a bad thing either.)

  16. Nancy says:

    Very late to this blog, but certainly understand what you are talking about if it is a repetitive use of words seen from book to book (my word for is it the What-the-tuck trends). Your particular 8 line edit (not sure exactly what it is but guessing it is about gratutious sex of a non-consensual nature) is not necessary except where it is truly part of the plot and needs to be there. Otherwise, it is a WTT trend that needs to be pointed out to HSP in reviews. For what it is wort…nan

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