Several people who have read my novel, Homunculus, have commented that they were disturbed by it. Although they said it apologetically to be nice, I'm glad they were disturbed, and just sorry that some people who do make reading a part of their lives nevertheless have a mental list of places they "don't want to go."
Homunculus is about the effect of career-related frustrations on the libido and marriage of a couple when one day the stressed-out man's already well-exercised imagination tips into hallucination. Its themes have to do with lack of intimacy in a marriage, humiliation, and the possibility that the imagination can deliver salvation or damnation.
And my job, as I see it, is to push hard into the subject matter and see how far I can stretch society's pre-existing envelope around it. Ultimately, a writer has to shape his story into something readable, but I don't think that shaping means trimming off anything that hasn't been done before.
No, I don't for one moment claim that my work is not disturbing. Naturally I'm very pleased with the reviews and comments I've received praising the book for its language, its funny parts, and for being well crafted. I love that people have told me it is a compelling read. I'm quite tickled that more and more comments are coming to me from readers in their late teens and early twenties, and they have been uniformly positive although often not worded in ways that lend themselves to quoting publicly. "Your book kicks some serious butt!" is a mild example.
But there are plenty of readers who are not looking for challenging observations. One very, very nice lady at my church, having read my book, confided to me that I need not be ashamed to show my face at church now, and that it was actually a good thing that I got this all out of my system. Thus reassured, I'm attending church as regularly as ever.
I don't see why anyone would want to read a book and emerge from the experience undisturbed. And by "disturbed" I don't mean moved by the same old sentiments of which we never tire. Reaffirming what we know or wish to believe is fine of course, but personally, I feel I've read too many books that jerked the same old tears. There've been too many books that didn't much disturb me, and when I find one that does, I cherish it. The Catcher in the Rye disturbed me when I was fourteen and I read it five more times, squeezing out every bit of disturbance I could. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man disturbed me, as did Ullyses, and Nightwood, Portnoy's Complaint, then later on, Blood Meridian, and on and on.
One reviewer characterized Homunculus as kind of gross and issued a warning to readers with delicate natures. This person claimed that the book is full of graphic descriptions of bodily functions that made her feel sick. I had to laugh, having just read, coincidentally, Dave Eggers' Pulitzer Prize finalist novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. If you haven't read that one, I can tell you the opening dwells in great length and detail with the cancer-induced dispelling of copious amounts of unusual bodily fluids of odd, dark color, from a woman dying of cancer, often onto the clothing and person of her son (the narrator). That is a graphic description of a bodily function. And Eggers also throws in a long, very long, very graphic bit about her unstoppable nosebleed, also due to the cancer. In my novel, you'd have to look pretty hard to find a more graphic reference to a bodily function than "I haven't had a bowel movement in three days." There is the hallucinated "birth" at the beginning with one reference to "a pink, viscous substance," later referred to, just once, as "goo." That's about it. I find it hard to believe that the web-based reviewer who was so grossed out actually read my book. I think she just read the opening pages and extrapolated the rest based on her relationship with her husband (poor guy), about whom she writes on the same website... but I'm digressing.
I was feeling isolated a couple of years ago and attended a few meetings of a writers' group that was forming. The group was dedicated to writing salable genre fiction -- a noble enough aim, but not mine. Before I left, I was telling one of the other writers that I see writing as an art. I explained that while I would love to make some money at it, I just didn't approach it that way, and have always had "day jobs" to support me. He looked me in the eye and said, "Jerry, there might be a twelve-step program for that." I laughed with him, and the truth of his implication has reverberated with me ever since. His (and that writers' group's) approach is sensible and laudable. I won't even say that it stands in the way of art. All I will say is that it is not the approach I have developed through a lifetime that is now growing pretty long. I do take a professional approach to the business of being a writer. I believe the best writing has been and is being done by artists who are driven by deeper motives than commercial considerations, and that the works they create are valuable (and, hopefully, commercially viable) because of their excellence as literary art.
I hold my few readers in the highest esteem and I respect their sensibilities. I would never try to "gross out" people. Nor am I the least bit interested in providing any kind of cheap thrill. While I believe in writing good naturedly and with humor, my purpose is to go beyond what is comfortable and familiar, and search for Truth with the deepest vision and discernment I can muster. If I'm successful, a book that is disturbing would indicate a positive result.