Take extremely talented, but deliberately offensive travel writer, Paul Theroux, for example. In 1992, Theroux wrote The Happy Isles of Oceania, a book of insults directed against the people and nations of the south Pacific region. Starting in New Zealand, Theroux launched straight in with a description of the Pacific Island population there as “waddling.” And they waddled, he said, because at some point in time they hailed from an island called “Fatland.” Nice one, Paul.
Offence doesn’t get much more offensive than that, or so you’d think. But Mr. Theroux was only just getting started. As he travelled through the region, he gave full reign to a vicious and racist misanthropy. The Tongan people he describes as “lazy, mocking and quarrelsome.” The Samoans, he says, are “gloatingly rude and light-fingered.” And the unfortunate inhabitants of Vanuatu are “small scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet.”
Whatever was the man thinking? Did he care how many people he offended in writing this stuff? My guess is no—he didn’t give a toss.
The milksop majority, of whom I am a member, do tend to give a toss about who they offend. Offence, where it exists, tends to be inadvertent rather than deliberate: offence caused rather than offence given.
It is nevertheless still a bit hypocritical of me to criticize Theroux’s book, because I don’t have too much room for finger-pointing. In two of the four books I have self-published, I’ve managed to create the potential to offend a great many more people than Mr. Theroux—a staggering 1.48 billion to his paltry 36 million.
Of course only a barely perceptible fraction of this vast number will ever be even remotely aware of my books, but even so, the potential exists, and for as long as it exists, it presents a moral dilemma.
While my case is more a matter of offence caused inadvertently than offence deliberately given, the distinction might well look like irrelevant sophistry from the point of view of the offended, because offence is still offence, whatever its origins.
All this has come about because for years I pottered away at my writing in a kind of bubble. Like many writers, I suspect. No-one was reading my stuff, so it didn’t matter what I wrote. (These were the days and years before I’d even begun to consider self-publishing, or where securing a traditional publishing deal seemed a distant and impossible dream.) While I did have a reader in mind, it was a fuzzy and vaguely defined reader, someone a bit like me perhaps, someone who wouldn’t be in the least offended by a little light mockery of Baptists from Tennessee.
For when I invented a party of Baptists from Tennessee and stuck them in my art crime mystery, I did so for their entertainment value, and not from any desire to cause offence. I needed some supporting characters for my tale, and almost before I knew it, Shirlee, Earl and friends were born, squealing loudly from the pages, providing a bit of comic relief, and generally livening things up.
I certainly wasn’t thinking about the possibility that one day a real Baptist from Tennessee might actually read my book, and horror of horrors, that they might take offence.
Or far, far worse, that an earnest and doctrinally-compliant real Roman Catholic might one day read my theological murder mystery. For when I wrote that particular book, it was not with the intention of seeking publication. It was merely to provide myself with some fictional light relief from the process of writing a tedious doctorate about doctrine. I’d discovered some pieces of church doctrine I particularly disliked, and I thought they would provide an interesting backdrop to a piece of fiction.
So I wrote it, got it out of my system, saved it to a memory stick and forgot clean about it for ten years. Then recently I found it again, and because it still struck me as interesting enough in its own way, and because I still stood by its underlying criticisms, I polished it up a bit, quashed my misgivings about all those billions of Catholics out there, and this week I published it on Amazon.
Yet, those misgivings hang about like a cloud. It’s hard to get rid of them, because there are an awful lot of Roman Catholics in the world. Every copy that now sells could have me fretting pointlessly about who might be at the other end of the sale.
There’s always the Unpublish button, of course— a drastic and interesting option, and one that’s not available to the traditionally published. With one click of the mouse I could make the potentially offending book disappear forever. I’ve nearly done so once already.
But common sense prevails. It’s probably impossible to write something without the offending at least someone, somewhere. You truly can’t please all the people all the time.
So perhaps it all comes back to the distinction between giving and causing offence, to intention. The book written with sincerity and without malicious intent may well cause offence. But it may also cause people to think about things a little differently, and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?