2

More specifically, how can one write a novel that examines or even argues against cultural moral values and laws without... dealing with legal fallout as the author?

I realize this may be asking to eat my cake and have it too, but I think it is always important to question the status quo. I am not inciting riots or anything, just examining the world through a different lens.

I wish I could be more specific but I'd almost certainly get this question closed; so please consider the below question euphemistically:

How to approach a novel in which the main character thinks speed limits should be abolished, AND in which this is presented as the proper argument?

  • 1
    What you're half-apologising for has a long and glorious tradition: Victor Hugo wrote novels against the laws and norms of his time, as did Boris Pasternak, John Milton... – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 9 at 0:58
  • @Galastel Didn't... most of them get in trouble for it? – Weckar E. Jul 9 at 0:59
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    What country do you live in? The repercussions for questioning the status quo in, for example, Iran, could be very different from the repercussions for a similar challenge in the UK. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 9 at 0:59
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    @Galastel UK is a fair assumption for purposes of the question. – Weckar E. Jul 9 at 0:59
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    @WeckarE. "UK is a fair assumption" I take it this means you are not in the US. – eyeballfrog Jul 9 at 23:45
11

Making political, moral or legal arguments in novels can always get you backlash, especially when it is obvious who or what you are criticizing. If it is a topic with particular passions/people behind it (e.g. gun laws in the USA, dictatorship in dictatorships, Tiananmen Square in China) that you do not want the attention of, I would recommend leaving it alone for your own safety and peace of mind.

That being said, it is always possible to remove the actual morality/legality of the situation by change the scenario in which it is presented. For example, if you are speeding through the desert at a speed limit of 30 mph due to some weird law, criticism of speed limits will appear valid.

You could also represent it as a characters opinion e.g. "Why are you going so slow?" "The speed limit says 30", "We are in the middle of nowhere!".

You could also create a proxy of the topic you want to address e.g. there is a special race of people who have weird religious traits and prone to attacking people who don't believe in the same thing as them (depending on the time frame, it could be almost any religion).

There is nothing wrong with a novel that uses a premise that is wrong or twisted in our real world and explores what happens.

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    I like that you assume that there is a debate and that I am not talking about something universally condemned. – Weckar E. Jul 9 at 9:57
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    @WeckarE. Well... depending on how you spin a story or society within your novel, you could use something that is "universally condemned". Purposely defiling a corpse? Child Soldiers/sacrifices/brides/slavery/porn? Murdering civilians? Culling people with disabilities or defects or who aren't perfect? Incest? Genocide? The earth is flat? All possible. All done in human history. It really depends on how you plan to present this and the type of Novel it is. High fantasy makes it very easy. A Non-Fiction on the Nazi's being right is a lot harder. – Shadowzee Jul 9 at 23:31
9

Many authors have written works which challenge political and ethical norms. These usually won't get you in trouble unless you were to make explicit claims about real people or organisations which are not substantiated, and thus you could be taken to court for libel or defamation.

For example, the Church of Scientology is notorious for suing anyone who publishes anything it doesn't like. Lawerence Wright's 'Going Clear' was banned in the UK due to the unfair nature of English libel laws.

Many books have challenged established values without incurring much wrath. Implementation varies from indirect metaphors in fiction, to fictional characters expressing specific political ideas, to explicit denouncement in non-fiction.

Friedrich Nietzsche published works which couldn't have been more critical about established Christian values. 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' takes a narrative form, while 'Beyond Good and Evil' is polemic. This didn't get him in much trouble as he wandered about Europe in the late 1800s.

Ayn Rand's philosophy was just as critical, and in interviews she explicitly said her intention was to get rid of America's Christian and nationalist values. Her magnum opus was 'Atlas Shrugged', which is a work of fiction used as a vehicle to transport her ideology.

George Orwell was an influential English writer and socialist, who admitted that everything he had written after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War was against Stalinism and for democratic socialism as he understood it. '1984' and 'Animal Farm' are his most famous works of fiction, while he had also written non-fiction extensively. For example: 'Homage to Catalonia', 'The Road to Wigan Pier', 'On Writing', 'Notes on Nationalism', etc.

While examples like '1984' or 'Atlas Shrugged' are explicit in their depiction of a subject the author wants the reader to appreciate, and 'Animal Farm' is an obvious metaphor for the same purpose, other works simply use the author's intention to underpin the writing. Consider Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', which is an examination of how living life according to Christian principles in contemporary (then Imperial Russian) society causes many problems.

I sincerely doubt your subject matter will be as controversial as you think it is. Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita' for example is a very risky topic nowadays, and yet is considered a literary classic.

The only obvious example I can think of to the contrary is Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses'. His story about a character barely distinguishable from the Islamic prophet Mohammad led to Rushdie having to go into hiding after receiving death threats left right and centre, not least of all from the then supreme leader of Iran.

It's also worth considering that our understanding of controversy is skewed by availability heuristic. That is, we only think of the most obvious cases and don't also consider how many potentially controversial things did not become infamous. Especially considering how hard it is to get noticed as an author anyway!

One case in point is how blasphemous Americans and Europeans somehow manage to bother Muslims in the Middle East, like the Salman Rushdie case. But similar things which happen in unexpected places do not register. Qurans have been burned at protests in South Korea, but nobody seemed to care.

In conclusion, do what you like... unless you somehow manage to write a story which is extremely critical of both the Church of Scientology and Islam simultaneously. Then you may have to go into hiding. That or use a pseudonym. The risk of suffering serious personal consequences for publishing something risky are low. Especially for unknown authors.

  • Regarding the example of Lolita, I think zeitgeist has a lot to do with it, and the book is unlikely to have been as popular had it been published today. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 9 at 13:50
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    @KonradRudolph That's true, but I don't think it detracts from the point that people have and do write outlandish or controversial things, and for the most part it doesn't have any consequences. You'd actually have to go out of your way to cause trouble, and even then I'm not sure you'd be guaranteed to get a backlash. Getting noticed as an author is difficult enough! – inappropriateCode Jul 9 at 13:53
  • @KonradRudolph I'm not so sure. It would maybe not be popularly celebrated by the mainstream press, but I rather see an increase than a decrease in youngish fans, some of which consider themselves as "Lolitas" and do follow a respective clothing style. Or consider Shades of Grey and Twilight, arguably stories of stalking/harassment (or "classical romance" if you will) and they are bestsellers... – Frank Hopkins Jul 9 at 23:34
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    @FrankHopkins "Lolita" fashion is only very loosely connected to Nabokov, I wouldn't assume anyone wearing it has even read the book. "Lolita" is also different from the asker's situation, because the main character's pedophilia is portrayed as a bad thing in the novel. OP wants to create a novel that endorses its controversial content. – KWeiss Jul 10 at 9:03
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    I think it's worth emphasizing that many of the stated examples don't directly argue their point, but use symbolism and other representational forms which are then the target of criticism. Hyperbole, exaggeration, and caricaturization are all tools in the author's hand. It's left to the reader to think about how they manifest in the real world. – icanfathom Jul 10 at 21:40
5

In your comment to @tryin, You say "It is a non-debated social perception the character would be fighting."

I am not a lawyer but I believe in the USA at least, and possibly elsewhere, there actually are some of these that you can get into trouble for; should your work be judged child pornography for example, or thinly disguised fiction promoting violence against sitting politicians, or promoting the murder of people in a certain profession like abortion providers or defense attorneys. Or promoting violence against a **class* of people, like gays, blacks, illegal immigrants, etc.

I also believe that when it comes to fiction, there are laws of intent when it comes to identification: So if you intend to argue some politician should be assassinated, it makes no difference what you name your character, if a jury agrees that your description of this character and their actions is intended to portray a real-life individual and can't mean anybody else -- they can hold you liable.

But I am not a lawyer, if you want to argue for breaking some existing law that prevents physical violence or retaliation, I'd get it vetted by a lawyer, or a publisher's lawyer. If you actually are arguing against laws like the speed limit or caps on interest rates or even prostitution (which is legal in many modern countries) that don't harm specific identifiable people, my guess is you are fine, there are no specific victims or classes harmed.

If you intend to self-publish, I'd consult an attorney first.

  • The only one of those that can get you in trouble in the US is CP, although even then it would require actual images. Promoting violence is only illegal if it is likely to cause imminent lawless action, something a written work simply can't do. – eyeballfrog Jul 9 at 19:21
  • @eyeballfrog, depends on the written work. For example, if I go to a political rally and pass out flyers advocating the assassination of the speaker, it's quite likely that I'll get in legal trouble. – Mark Jul 9 at 20:59
  • @Mark Well yes but that's rather different from writing a novel. And honestly that's probably still protected, though much more likely to end up with you in court to prove it. – eyeballfrog Jul 9 at 23:31
  • As a general rule, American's will find any depiction of the sitting President's assasination to be crass, even if they politically oppose the President and the depiction is legal (It's illegal to threaten to kill the President, but SCOTUS ruled that it has to be a true threat. A clear joke in poor taste but not illegal). Assassinating a fictional President or a Historical President is much more common in fiction, the later is almost a staple in Alternative History Fiction. Most events that cause the shift in History hinge on the then sitting president's assassination+ – hszmv Jul 23 at 17:23
  • +Fictional Presidents that are killed tend to be very poorly defined as the event is usually employed to depict a 25th Amendment succession crisis. Where the legitiment successor is far down the line and is seen as unable to fill the shoes of the deceased president (this also means, congress is wiped out but this isn't a major faux pas... the list of horrid things with higher approval than Congress on the whole is quite long. Even in the Middle of Watergate scandal, Nixon was still more liked than congress.). Saving the President from assassination is also a staple of action films. – hszmv Jul 23 at 17:30
5

Since you’re explicitly asking about legal fallout, rest reassured you that you’re most likely going to be fine, even if your book may rub readers (and/or authorities) the wrong way.

Short of inciting actual violence or libelling actually living people/corporations, you are unlikely to face any legal repercussions for arguing against a law. This is what freedom of speech is literally all about.1

In fact, even some books that have actively incited illegal actions have gotten away with it, notably Steal This Book and The Anarchist Cookbook (the latter being an extreme example, since it contains descriptions of how to make explosives


1 Despite the rather long list in that article, the exceptions to this rule are really rather few. The most notable restriction on freedom of speech in the UK that is not incitement or libel is probably the blasphemy law, and most of that was abolished in 2008, and further weakened in 2013.

4

Shadowzee makes some excellent points in their answer, so I won't talk about those.

Ideally, when arguing against a long-standing tradition/law (like speed limits), you would have some good arguments, something beyond "I want to go fast". You can use the setting of your story as a vehicle for those arguments, but beware: this can get preachy.

You can go to two extremes in the setting - a world where speed limits are insanely rigid and low, and everyone (especially the MC) suffers for it, or a utopian world where there have never been speed limits.

You also need to give your MC a good reason to be against speed limits. This is easier with human rights issues - if you're writing about gay rights, make your MC gay, etc.

But you can also try something like - A sign declaring the speed limit fell and killed the MC's younger sister (more comic), or a very uptight cop stopped the MC who was speeding to the hospital, and his sister died in the backseat(more serious).

If you show the audience many good reasons why the speed limit should be abolished, you are presenting a proper argument. Audiences tend to side with the MC/ narrator anyway, so you have a bit of an advantage.

Again, this will get preachy. Hopefully your whole novel isn't about this issue, or it's a much much meatier issue with many sides to explore.

Assuming it's a debate with multiple sides, I'd actually recommend using your world to explore the entire argument, even the sides you disagree with. You can use the power of the MC to tell the audience which side is 'right', but I think this is a much fairer way to represent a debate and has a lesser chance of seeming preachy.

  • "Assuming it's a debate with multiple sides" This is the stumbling block. It is a non-debated social perception the character would be fighting. – Weckar E. Jul 9 at 9:58
  • Are you fighting a non-debated perception in real life society through your character or do you want your character to be fighting an in-universe social perception? – tryin Jul 9 at 10:38
  • 'This is easier with human rights issues', unless of course the topic is one where the human rights of one group would be adversely impacted by the assertion of the right claimed by another. – Spagirl Jul 9 at 11:34
  • @Spagirl, I meant it's easier to give your protagonist an understandable + important reason to care about the conflict. Nothing about human rights is easy, even when it should be :\ – tryin Jul 9 at 11:48
  • Montana cops have been known to stop speeders, find out that the speeder had a suitably tear-jerking reason for speeding, and then escort them (at high-speed) toward their destination. – Jasper Jul 10 at 0:06
4

Anything that goes against the status quo is going to piss people off.

If you want to argue against the status quo, you're kind of going to have to accept that some people are going to get mad at you.

Don't break laws by what you write, unless you are doing so as a form of civil protest - in which case you need to be prepared for the possible legal results.

If all you want to do is to make people reconsider the status quo, write your story within the status quo.

To take your speed limit argument. Have your character intentionally break the law. Show the current consequences for breaking that law, and have your character (or the character's lawyer) discuss the arguments for weakening or eliminating the laws - or present arguments for why the law shouldn't have ever been there. You can't just write bullet list of arguments. You'll have to make it look natural - the character has to explain to the lawyer why he broke the law, and has to convince the lawyer that he's got a good argument. Once he's convinced the lawyer, you can have the lawyer convince the jury.

There's got to be a bazillion ways to do it without yourself saying or writing anything illegal. Immoral isn't a problem - you are arguing the morality, so don't let that bother you.

Alternatively, create a place (or time) in which that law doesn't exist. Show that civilisation doesn't collapse (and millions of people don't die) because there's no speed limit. Have a character visit that place, and contrast it with the known places where the law exists. This character doesn't have to be opposed to the law. This character could be someone who is completely convinced that the law is needed, and has to face a society in which it turns out that the law is really not needed.

This was (for me) one of the things which formed my opinions on homosexuality. I cannot begin to tell you how many novels I've read where the sexual orientation of the characters is mentioned in passing. Other than that mention, the stories get on with doing something else. It forms an image of homosexuality as normal and mundane - and the societies in which this happens and is accepted just keep on trucking and don't collapse because a couple of guys get it on. It's a kind of subversive "argue by not arguing" kind of thing. Assume your argument correct, and present a totally normal society in which your argument is taken for granted.


It boggles the mind that people are advising against moral arguments and the exploration of society and norms in a novel. With out that kind of thing, you might as well not bother to write. If there's no moral dilemma to consider or argue with, then you might as well write screenplays for the Teletubbies.

Adding a moral consideration or problem to a story won't necessarily make it a good story, but if there's none in the story then the story is automatically less good than it might have been.

  • A particular +1 for the next-to-last paragraph. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 9 at 12:43
  • @Galastel, penultimate paragraph? – user28434 Jul 12 at 14:33
  • And even so, the Teletubbies producers/writers were accused of stirring up moral controversy (I wish I was joking...it was all a bunch of homophobes who got their knickers in a twist because a character they perceived to be male uses a purse). You honestly can't win. There is nothing uncontroversial in this world, including the choice to make something uncontroversial. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 23 at 17:26
4

I don't get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it's probably because it's upsetting someone. (Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats, The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo)

As @JRE points out, if you're challenging the status quo, if you're pointing a finger at something that you perceive as unjust, or ugly, or wrong, and saying "look here", somebody is going to be upset. And, as we know, free speech in our world still needs defending, meaning somebody will try to get you to shut up.

Books as uncontroversial as Harry Potter got burned by groups that were upset by them (source). In China writers are getting imprisoned because the government found what they're writing upsetting. (Example 1, Example 2). In France a certain group found Charlie Hebdo's comics upsetting, so they killed 12 people and injured 11 more. That's the nature of the beast.

Frame challenge: consider how much poorer our world would be if Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn and Liu Xiaobo and Victor Hugo and Erich Maria Remarque, and countless others all the way back to Socrates, all asked themselves "how do I not upset anyone, and suffer no fallout for what I say"? What would our world be like, without all of those men chipping at the status quo, pointing out wrongs, effecting change? I don't think I'd want to live in that world.

Thankfully, in our world, if you are lucky enough to live in what is called "The Western World", the laws take the side of Free Speech. Censuring books and imprisoning writers is seen as a bad thing. Sometimes people even support the freedom of the kind of speech they don't like.

Publishers might decide they don't want your book, but that's another issue entirely. You're always free to self-publish, or just make your content available online.

4

If you are publishing your book in a country which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression, then you won't fear any legal repercussions. But keep in mind that:

  • Freedom of speech does not mean right to assistance with spreading speech. Publishers have the right to reject publishing your work. Bookstores have the right to reject selling your work. They are not obligated to provide a justification for that decision and there is nothing you can do about that.
  • Freedom of speech does not mean the right to be liked. When nobody wants to read your book because it goes against their values, then you are not a victim of discrimination. You failed to give the market what it wants.
  • Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from critique. If critics bash your work because they consider its message dangerous, Amazon reviewers give it one star because they find your arguments unconvincing and moral authorities advise parents to not let their children read your book because they claim it might corrupt them, then it's within their freedom of speech to do that.

If you want to publish in a country where the messages of your work might violate certain laws which restrict freedom of speech, then a possible way to avoid censorship might be to hide behind allegory.

Don't criticize speed limits on public roads, criticize a completely different restriction in a completely different scenario, but with an argumentation which applies just as well to road speed limits. Don't criticize the government, criticize a fictional authority figure with similar policies. Don't insult the state religion, insult a fictional believe system with a very similar dogma.

How much you need to abstract your subject matters in order to avoid censorship depends on how strictly censorship is enforced in the respective country.

2

This really depends on the issue you're writing about.

The first thing you need to do is to find out if what you're planning to publish is illegal. For example, in Germany, you couldn't publish a novel that glorifies the Nazi regime; in other countries, you might not be able to publish a novel that is considered pornographic, blasphemous, or hate speech. If you do want to publish a novel like that, you may have to do it in another country, and should probably speak to a lawyer first.

If the novel itself is not against the law, but the subject of the novel is -- as in your speeding example -- you won't have legal problems. You've stated that you live in a country like the UK. If you lived in a more restrictive country like China or Iran, you might still be harrassed or imprisoned even if you haven't broken the law.
But even if the law is on your side, a controversial opinion is bound to offend some people. Depending on who you're offending, and what you're writing about, you can expect twitter storms, having your book banned from libraries, or even physical aggression at your events. In the extreme case, police may decide that you're actually planning to ignore the speed limit, and watch you more closely in real life.

Since you're writing a novel, not an essay, you have a certain ability to say that what happens in your novel is not what you actually believe, and it's just an alternative look at the world. If you're writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, you can construct the world in such a way that real life arguments against your controversial opinion don't really apply, because airbags are now so advanced that no one gets hurt from speeding, or because everyone who dies speeding goes straight to heaven. This probably won't save you from criticism, but it might be enough to avoid offending the majority of the population who don't feel very strongly about the issue.
If you don't want to do that, and you're willing to stand behind your opinion, then your best bet is to find a powerful group that shares that opinion, and align yourself with them. That way, while people will attack your book, you will also have support. If the issue is so universally condemned that no-one would be willing to support you, you just have to hope that your book will sway a lot of readers to your side.

The last piece of advice I'd give is to not start from the most extreme form of your opinion. If it's speeding, argue that the speed limit should be abolished on routes through the wild; don't start with quiet neighborhoods where kids play on the streets.

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