JCF NOTES: This essay was originally written as an answer to a question about THE COMPANY MAN on the FAQ Page. Since it used most of the material that was to appear in this essay, it now appears in the Being A Christian section.
Q. I was just wondering why THE COMPANY MAN is so sexually explicit in a couple of spots? I know you have to establish the fact the villain is indeed evil, but you could have suggested his wife was ‘lonely’ without having the reader ‘listen’ to her private moment. A couple of my Christian science fiction friends have read the books but returned COMPANY MAN unfinished. They have cited the sexually explicit portions as being equal to an ‘R’ rated movie that they would not go to see.
JCF: I have constantly struggled with the contents of my books from the viewpoint of a Christian. There’s a whole culture war going on, and the battlegrounds are over sex, language and violence.
Language was one concern of mine even though nobody from Church has ever said anything to me about it. I have heard some rumblings from the friend-of-a-friend, but nobody directly confronted me about it — and I always hoped someone would if offended. Still, I changed my own policy on it, and after five novels, I quit using it. There’s none to be seen in the two Pembroke Hall novels, except two each of “bastard” and “ass.” Both of these are words I have heard used in real-life commercials (!); both are used in a commercial within the books; and Boddekker (the protagonist) gets raked over the coals for it.
As far as sex and violence… I’m divided about that. They exist in modern society and anyone who is writing about modern society (as any SF writer and satirist does) has to deal with them. I choose to deal with them by acknowledging that they exist, but not going into graphic detail about what happened. There are points in my books where the reader needs to know that sex occurred between two characters, so I let them know that it happened. Boddekker sleeps around in the PH books, but I don’t give any details about sizes, shapes, positions or durations.
In the case of THE COMPANY MAN, it was also necessary to tell something about the type of sex that was occurring. In these cases, I used different kinds of filters for the scenes so I didn’t have to go into explicit detail. Birch’s surveillance of Jade was audio, not visual; and a rape is filtered through Birch’s outrage that it is happening at all.
With sexual content, I don’t feel that I go into a whole lot of graphic detail. I think conflict occurs because with some people, any acknowledgment of any adult content at all (read:sex) is off-putting. Payne sleeps with Trinina and Myra in A DEATH OF HONOR. None of my Christian friends seemed to notice… but the mother of one of my oldest friends did. She went around telling people that she had to quit reading HONOR “because of all the spicy love scenes in it.” I never got any complaints that my novels didn’t have enough sex in them — I guess the people who wanted more explicit sex scenes went and found a Ken Follett novel.
I’m not saying that my friend’s mother or your friends are prudes. I’m just saying that everyone has their own set of personal limits. In each case, my friend’s mom and your friends did the right thing when something went past their limits — they quit reading the book. I don’t think any the less of them for doing it.
As an artist, I struggle with the integrity of the story I want to tell as weighed against my own personal beliefs and limits. As a writer I want to tell a good story. As a Christian, I want to point out the folly of sin. As a realist, I don’t want to throw my head under the covers and pretend that sex and violence don’t exist. So this is how I worked it out, with much fear and trembling. And I hope that’s enough for God, who gave me this talent in the first place.
Oddly enough, nobody has ever complained about the violence in my books. It’s in all of them, and THE COMPANY MAN is the most brutal. This is not to rationalize the sexual content — I just think it’s interesting that when you dunk the litmus paper in this book, the sexuality is what gets the reading… and the violence doesn’t even register. (At least not with most people… my wife says she skims the violent parts and the webmeister teases me about the high body count in my books. There we are, back to individual limits again).