The review I read online (from www.lurvalamode.com) was an explanation as to why the reviewer couldn’t finish reading Passion Play – and her reaction was a severe one:

 

“I don’t remember ever feeling this enraged or disgusted by a book… I wanted to hurt Passion Play. Throwing it at the wall wouldn’t be good enough, and my wall really doesn’t deserve to have the likes of that coming at it. In those first thirty or so minutes of shaky rage, I wanted to physically hurt that book. Dare I say set it on fire?”

 

Wow. I had to find a copy of this book to see if I had the same reaction…

 

…and after reading it, I do understand where the reviewer was coming from. Rape is heinous – especially the rape of a child – and I found it difficult to make it through some sequences:

 

“Her new duties became a part of the caravan’s routine, no different from breaking camp or resting the horses at intervals. When Brandt [the caravan master] judged her used to the routine, the four men [a day] became six. Sometimes he offered her during rest breaks, as a reward for work done well. Otherwise they kept her bound, and when the caravan passed near settlements, he ordered her gagged and hidden behind the pots in Ulf’s covered wagon. She lost track of the days, but she remembered other details. The curses the men used. The taste of their skin. The weight of their bodies atop hers. She remembered whether they took her fast and brutally, like Niko, or used her slowly, like Alarik Brandt…”

 

But that's just the very beginning of the story – Therez (under the name Ilse) eventually escapes the caravan and after living alone in the wilderness for weeks, comes to a town and fatefully meets Raul Kosenmark, a benevolent owner of a pleasure house. With his help, she recreates herself and finds a new reason to live...

 

The controversy associated with this book does raise an interesting question: is rape in fantasy fiction an acceptable topic, a narrative necessity – integral for character development, etc. – or should it be taboo, even though it’s categorized as fantasy?

 

 

But we’re talking fantasy fiction here. We discussed this topic briefly on the BarnesandNoble.com forums and one distinguished bibliophile put it fittingly: “Yeah, sorry Paul, but as a woman if I wanted to read books like this I'd read a history book. For a fantasy, hell no.”

 

It’s a complicated topic, however. A psychologytoday.com article published earlier this year (“Women's Rape Fantasies: How Common? What Do They Mean?”) reveals that rape in fantasy novels may not necessarily repulse some female readers:

 

“From 1973 through 2008, nine surveys of women's rape fantasies have been published. They show that about four in 10 women admit having them (31 to 57 percent) with a median frequency of about once a month. Actual prevalence of rape fantasies is probably higher because women may not feel comfortable admitting them.”

 

And this:

 

“Rape or near-rape fantasies are central to romance novels, one of the perennial best-selling categories in fiction. These books are often called ‘bodice-rippers’ and have titles like Love's Sweet Savage Fury, which imply at least some degree of force. In them, a handsome cad becomes so overwhelmed by his attraction to the heroine that he loses all control and must have her, even if she refuses – which she does initially, but then eventually melts into submission, desire, and ultimately fulfillment.”

 

It’s undoubtedly a volatile topic – and here’s my take as a longtime book reviewer. Yes, we largely read fantasy fiction for literary escapism but part of that experience is immersing ourselves in a richly detailed and realistic realm, one that may very well include allegorical elements and/or themes, symbols and images in which readers can glean some kind of insight or understanding through associations to our “real” world and our history. And, unfortunately, rape has – and still does – plague us as a people. Murder, genocide, and torture are all atrocious but I don’t hear an uproar from readers when Drizzt Do’Urden kills off a cadre of assassins or when the entire city of Windwir is wiped off the face of the earth in Ken Scholes’ Lamentation. There is something particularly reprehensible, something soulless, about rape that sends some people into a frenzy with the mere mention of the word…

 

That said: I’m okay with rape sequences in fantasy novels ­– just like I’m okay with murder, torture, genocide, etc. But here’s the thing: not only does it have to be integral to the storyline in some way but it also has to be written with discrimination and compassion. For example, why does an author decide to go into graphic detail involving a rape when he or she could convey the act to the reader through subtlety, insinuation or implication? In instances like this, I do think it’s a matter of a lack of taste.

 

If I begin to feel that an author has included overtly sexual or violent scenes just for the sake of sensationalism, I more often than not pan that book – but that wasn't the case with Passion Play.

 

I’m all for authors being innovative and “pushing the envelope” but if they decide to include a particularly graphic rape scene or any other socially explosive subject matter – child abuse, incest, slavery, etc. – in their storyline, they have to be well aware of the powerful backlash that it can create. Passion Play turned out to be an entertaining novel – especially the latter chapters ­ and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel, Queen’s Hunt, tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2011. But how many readers didn’t get past the rape scenes at the beginning of Passion Play and never finished the novel? How many readers will (unfortunately) think twice about reading its sequel?

 

Have you ever read a novel where a rape scene has ruined the experience for you? Do you think the inclusion of rape in a fantasy storyline is generally unnecessary or is it thematic acceptable?

 

 

 

Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.

Comments
by on ‎11-10-2010 08:16 AM

Paul,

 

I agree that I'm okay with things if they are nescerry to the story but I don't like it if that is graphic and th3e main reason for the story.  I don't think that I ill be reading Passion Play.  Enjoyed your article though.

 

 

Toni

by MADIS on ‎11-10-2010 12:08 PM

This blog has sent my thoughts in many directions because it is a difficult topic.  Still, I will try and stick to the question at hand.

 

I cannot think of an instant of a rape scene has ruined a novel for me, but I can not say the same for movies.  There are several that I will not watch again because it was just too difficult.

 

As for whether or not rape is an acceptable topic or not, it is something only I can decide for myself.  I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to tell someone else what should be okay for them to read.  And, there are such varying ways of it being raised as a topic of a book, I do not believe there can be any black and white answer on its appropriateness.  For me, I want the freedom to decide for myself on what I am going to read.

by on ‎11-10-2010 03:31 PM

I read the blog railing against Passion Play, and the reason I declined to purchase/read the book wasn't just the rape/sexual exploitation. Rather, my decision was influenced by the author's recreation of our patriarchal past in which women were basically treated as property to be disposed of by the male head of family or man-in-charge as he saw fit. Being a woman myself, that fact rankles and has lasting repercussions even today. 

 

Furthermore, why would I want to read a fantasy about a young teenage girl being sold by her father, being repeatedly raped by a caravan of men when she tries to escape and, then, winding up in a whore house where she presumably finds some semblance of control through use of her own body? History teaches us that girls/women who become whores for hire, even the most successful courtesans, rarely escape the stigma or psychological damage associated with the sale of their bodies. Perhaps in this fantasy the protagonist will, but even if she does, I don't care to read a story about turning 'lemons into lemonade' when the subject concerns sexual exploitation of a young teenage girl.

 

Finally, as regards the subject of rape, it depends. Rape is a violent act, and if it's depicted as such in literature, I approve. Note, the 'bodice ripper' romances are non-starters for me. IMO, literature and other modes of entertainment should neither romanticize nor otherwise 'soft sell' sexually deviant behavior in our society. For god sake, there's enough sexual deviance w/out catering to it. But, sex sells, and rape apparently appeals to some people. I'm just not one of them. By the way, I've never had a fantasy or dream which could be remotely described as rape or near rape.  

by gezza on ‎11-10-2010 07:51 PM

I am not adding anything especially new here. Personally, rape in fiction, if it adds to the story, characterisation, thematic depth, etc, is fine... and generally it doesn't need to be graphic. While people can have different views about the Thomas Covenant series, a rape perpetrated by the antihero is absolutely integral to a lot of the first series.

 

Regarding exploitation etc - I suppose the important question is whether the writer is doing the exploiting, or whether the author is making a point about it (or using it to add to the story etc).

by Arctic_Ranger on ‎11-17-2010 02:04 AM

When I was a Senior in HS I heard about this great new fantasy series.  Thomas Covenant...I got to the rape scene in book one dropped it and have never went back.  I don't need a hero like that.  I am willing to acknowledge that at times it may be a necessary part of a story, but in general I'd avoid a fantasy or sci-fi novel if I knew that was a big part of the story.

by Moderator dhaupt on ‎11-18-2010 11:06 AM

Paul what a great article, I'm relieved to see that you don't believe in causing waves or anything.

I don't like reading about rape, what woman in her right mind would, but I do understand it's being in certain pieces of literature and like you said above if it's necessary to the plot then I can overlook it, especially when the victim uses the experience to reinvent themselves. I have two perfect examples of rape, they both appalled me but one was an integral part of the novel and the other one pissed me off so bad I couldn't read the rest of the novel.

 

The Perfect Husband by Lisa Gardner is a novel about a man who is considered perfect by society standards until you get inside his closed doors. He is a monster and when I finished the novel I wanted him dead all over again, BUT, I totally understood where the author was coming from by using the rape in her novel.

 

The one that pissed me off was The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss - I mean how many times can the heroine say NO, the bast-rd still rapes her, he's sooooo sorry for it, marries her and they live happily ever after, well not in my life. He'd have been rotting in hell the first chance I had to get to him. Now I know it's the classic love story, it's also deemed the first modern romance for detailed sex between the hero and heroine and all that, but I couldn't stomach him or her after that.

 

So I can totally see where this reviewer gets off spewing about the rape, it might just have been touched off by something personal or just hit a button for the reviewer. Because like you've seen with my picks some people's trash is other people's classic romance.

 

Deb

 

Okay, now I have to get my blood pressure down.

by on ‎11-21-2010 12:49 AM

Well I made my opinion known earlier on the sci/fi board. But to add to this discussion.

 

Are there books that contained a rape where while it made the book far less enjoyable for me, yet I continued reading and finished the book liking it? Yes. Are there books that right after or during the rape scene enter my "books that I've thrown across the room" list? Oh yes, far more.

 

There was this book, it had a pirate ship flag and one of the crossed swords was a blaster on the cover. But it was a great book for the first 100 or so pages. Space pirate ship, boy stows away to get off planet, gets a job as a one of the scullery boys, learning dueling from the cook, learning seamanship from a minor crew officer. Well one day he taken to the deck by the crew officer, his first time on deck. And promptly as soon as he sees the main mast, the crew rushes him ties him to the mast, strips him, and then crew officer announces that he's there for fun and games "have at him boys". You can fill in the details yourself, 26 bloody rape filled pages the cook cuts him down. I BURNED THE BOOK, right after vomiting; all of this in public courtyard mind you.. Never finished it, didn't feel like reading anything else either for days after. Was there even a hint of that on the back blub? Nope, book toughted a treasure island in space adventure. (shutter)

 

Recently there's a popular author of a particular paranormal series. Lot's of other love her series. I broke the first book in half; I threw it so hard after reading the cavalier way she detailed the rape of her protagonist. And no I'm never reading anything that author writes again ever either.

 

Basically it all in how the subject is handled for me.

 

And as for "bodice rippers" well there are reasons I verbal panned the romance genre for decades. And that old staple tops the list.

 

As for

“From 1973 through 2008, nine surveys of women's rape fantasies have been published. They show that about four in 10 women admit having them (31 to 57 percent) with a median frequency of about once a month. Actual prevalence of rape fantasies is probably higher because women may not feel comfortable admitting them.”

 

Now that's a complex issue. Do you want to talk about how 60% of women fantasize about things that they would never even contemplate in real life, or have even tried and actually hated?  Or that most rape survivors go through a nasty period of reliving the experience over and over even subconsciously and tend to seek out similar situations and so may seek out safe ways to do this? Or even the darker issue that most people's sex fantasies tend to revolve around their first personal sexual experience, positive or not? That's a tar baby issue, rape fantasies.

 

 

by javabird on ‎12-03-2010 11:56 AM

The Psychology Today article also makes this distinction:

"In porn for women as depicted in romance novels, the fantasy is to be desired so much that the man loses all control, though he never actually hurts the woman, and in the end, marries her."

(The articles make the important distinction that the "rapist" in most romance novels is a hunk whom the woman actually desires, and the woman is not physically "hurt.")

 

Also read "Rape Fantasy or Pseudo Rape Fantasy?"

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-it/200806/rape-fantasy-or-pseudo-rape-fantasy

 

Charles Johnson's great book "Middle Passage" depicts a rape of a cabin boy overheard through a cabin door. The rape is not actually seen, and the scene is sparse in detail and powerful, and absolutely essential to understanding the character of the captain and the nature of the ship. That is skillful writing.

 

 

 

 

 

by on ‎12-03-2010 08:02 PM

I read some article about how the phrase 'rape fantasy' is an oxymoron. When you think about it, the term is intrinsically inconsistent. Rape is the ultimate loss of control when someone else uses you at their whim to gratify their own need for dominance. And, a fantasy is an imaginary scenario completely scripted and under the control of the person having the fantasy. In other words, it's impossible to have a 'rape fantasy' because the two words have inapposite meanings.

by Lizzy_Funk on ‎12-28-2010 04:50 PM

I have read the bodice rippers.  I have panned many of their scenes simply because I get tired of the dominant/rapist males that seem to be prevalent in many (NOT all) of them.  There are only so many instances of what I call the "Gone with the Wind" moment that I am willing to read. 

 

"Gone with the Wind" moment - we are all familiar with it, Scarlett is telling him no and fighting Rhett and he takes her upstairs anyway.  If one is truly going to look at that moment in the movie or in the book - it is rape plain and simple.

 

I feel a great sadness when I read these scenes in novels and the women involve "usually" smile and saunter off afterwards with no ill effects like it never happened.

 

My issue is simple:  What if my son, my neighbor's daughter, or someone else's child got a hold of a book like that.... They read it and think, oh this is how it's done.  Now I am not taking into account what of parenting, what of writer's craft being protected, what of blah blah blah....

 

As writers (big and small) we have a job and duty to entertain but don't we also have a code that we are supposed to follow.... A way that we need to do things.  'Soft Rape' scenes if they are necessary to the plot and actually push the story forward - appropriate responses from our heroines to what has occurred

 

And as reviewers are we not held to some standard as well, to simply say "This was pushing the envelope of what is acceptable"

 

I would not wish and will not take an author's voice from them, but I will also politely pass on books that raise my blood pressure from their contents when I find that they have crossed the line into the land of gratuitous savagery