One of the very most common questions I receive is about whether agents are rejecting a work because it’s “too controversial.” I’m always a bit mystified by this question. Since when is controversy a bad thing? Controversy = attention = curiosity = sales = have I told you lately that I love word math? Controversy can help a book rise up above the thousands of other books out there.
But most of the time when I’m asked this question, the author has either written a polemic or, very commonly, a speculative fiction novel that draws a straight line from the present to a horrific future. So, for instance, you have the post-global warming novel, the totalitarian president novel, the modern theocracy novel, the moral degradation novel, etc. These books are political (both right and left wing) and they express their politics very very clearly.
Here’s the thing. Setting aside from the fact that an intensely political novel is turning off half of its potential audience, the problem isn’t that these types of novels are controversial, it’s that they’re not controversial at all. If you read the newspaper you’ll see plenty of doomsday scenarios about global warming, moral degradation, a powerful executive branch, etc. etc. etc. You’ll see op-eds on both sides. We’re gotten very used to these sorts of scary situations and inured to just about every political belief, and thus they’re not at all controversial.
The great speculative fiction novels that express a deep fear about the present (ORYX AND CRAKE, 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD) or use a real doomsday scenario as a plot device (THE HOT ZONE, THE ROAD, PARIS HILTON’S CONFESSIONS OF AN HEIRESS) don’t come right out with their politics. They craft a wholly new world that centers the real fears and anxieties of characters, whatever their political inclinations. They make the worlds complex and nuanced and not at all straightforward.
Sure, ORYX AND CRAKE has implications about wealth disparity and environmental degradation, 1984 has implications about totalitarian governments and BRAVE NEW WORLD about drug dependency and eugenics. But all of these themes lurk beneath the surface and impact the lives of the characters, and the politics are secondary to the story. The authors tackle the issues in unexpected, counterintuitive and completely new ways.
So if you’re wondering if your novel is too controversial, you might to ask yourself the opposite question – is it original and thought-provoking enough to be controversial?