Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com
I am reading Mary Doria Russell’s SciFi novel The Sparrow, and came across a brief passage describing one character’s dark past. Orphaned at the age of fourteen by the violence of a civil war in her country, she “sold what she had to sell, and survived.” The author does not go into detail, other than to mention that her customers were the male victims of the violence, good men and boys crazed by circumstances. We are made to understand the horror of the situation and her inner strength and nobility in surviving it, without any scenes of graphic sex.
Another author might have dragged the reader through at least one heart-wrenching, sordid episode, evoking vividly the girl’s shame and degradation, describing the moment of penetration and every dripping, sweating detail of what she endured. Russell chose not to do that, instead granting her readers the benefit of the doubt in their ability to understand for themselves what the character went through.
There are times when it might be necessary to go into visceral detail about an episode of violence or sex—in the case of sex, it can be positive or negative, a rape or a voyeuristic peep into a character’s love life—but unless it has some direct relevance to the story, it seems to me as unnecessary as following the character into the bathroom to enlighten readers on the function of his bowels.
How does a wise author make the call whether to send the camera after the couple into the bedroom, or just establish that’s where they went, fade to black and get on with the story? What level of effluvial detail is the best?