Controversial Topics: What Affects Your Reading Choices?


The 10 Most Controversial Topics for 2014

When in doubt for what to write about, write about controversial topics.

I’ve heard the above advice so often that I can’t attribute it to anyone.  The point, of course, is to get more people to read your novels or blog posts. The result can be lots of contentious discussion with an emphasis on the “lots of.” I can definitely do without the contentious part, so i monitor my blog to be sure no Internet trolls are prowling about. But “lots of” is appealing.

Novelists, of course, make decisions all the time about whether they want to write about something so controversial they’ll lose half their usual readers with the hope of possibly gaining many more new ones. A well known romance author moved into single title with an explosive, sexually explicit–for the time–novel that seriously offended many who had read everything else she’d written up to that point. However the book was a bestseller and she went on to many more. She wanted to break out with a bang (and yes, pun intended) and her choice worked for her.

As a novelist I’ve never avoided controversial topics.  On the other hand I’ve never chosen to write about controversial topics, then picked a story to go with my selection. I don’t work that way. I’m interested in my characters or a story fragment first, then I look for ways to make the novel more gripping. However not putting the controversy first means it sometimes takes a backseat. It’s woven into the story and isn’t the stand-out feature. Soft-pedaling may be good, or it may not be. What it is? Emilie Richards.

I recently found the above infographic on GrammarCheck–and why it’s on that particular site is a mystery. I can’t say how accurate these selections are, but nevertheless they allow us to share, so I did. Granted these were last year’s issues, but I decided to check this out to see whether I’ve tackled any of them.

Lo and behold, #1 is Relationships and Sexual Relations. My novels are all about relationships. So that’s a home run. Breaking it down I note that the book I’ve recently proposed to my editors deals with one of these specifics. Good. Some of these statistics are surprising, so look them over. Have I tackled same sex marriages? Not yet.

#2 is Terrorism. I brushed against that one in Touching Stars, one of my Shenandoah Album novels, when Eric, a broadcast journalist, comes back to the Shenandoah Valley to heal after being taken captive in Afghanistan. I say brushed against it since it’s a catalyst for the story, not the prime topic. The same goes for Adam’s experiences in Iraq in No River Too Wide.

I can’t remember ever exploring the death penalty, global warming or the legalization of marijuana. Quite honestly I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I tackled the first, the second interests me as a citizen but so far not as an author, and the third interests me so little that I’d have to work hard to find a good hook.

#6: Healthcare. Hmmm. . . The Color of Light–as you’ll find out–deals a bit with problems getting health care coverage, but it’s such a small part of the story compared to everything else, it’s not worth noting here.

#7: Plastic Surgery. I once considered doing a story about a Palm Springs plastic surgeon who tires of doing face lifts and travels the world doing life-changing corrective surgery. This one never got off the ground. It’s just not a subject that lights my fire.

#8: Illiteracy. Somewhere Between Luck and Trust. Illiteracy figures heavily into the story.

#9: Abortion. For years I’ve tucked away one of my best-ever ideas that revolves around abortion. Over lunch I mentioned the story idea to my then-agent. She said, “Would you pick up a book about an abortion clinic no matter how good it was?” I’m afraid this idea will stay tucked away. No matter where you stand, do you want to read about abortion? So while characters in my novels have considered abortion, abortion itself has never been a major plot point for me.

#10: Stem cells. Intriguing and so far not on my radar. This seems to lend itself well to thrillers, not quite so much to a relationship novel. But I’m sure there are ways. . .

So what’s the point of this exercise? For a multi-published author it’s helpful to take stock of past novels before beginning a new one. Can I repeat a controversial topic in a new and completely fresh way? Or was once (illiteracy) plenty? Which of these subjects is so off-putting to me (capital punishment) that I prefer not to put myself through the process of writing about it? Which would be so off-putting to my readers (abortion) they may stop reading my books? And which of these subjects is so important to me that I’m willing to go out on a limb because hey, I can’t please everybody?

I’d love to hear your comments. Which of these controversial topics would keep you from picking up a novel? Which would guarantee that you would? How much leeway do your favorite authors have when they express an opinion you’re not comfortable with? Would you, for instance, stop reading someone who portrayed a same-sex marriage in a positive light? Or the opposite? Which of these issues punch your own hot button?


  1. Debra Hearne on February 17, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Hi Emilie! We have ice in my corner of NC this morning! My dog Zoey could not/would not venture down the porch steps on her own. I was hoping for the fluffy white stuff instead!
    I would not choose a book with terrorism being the theme right now. It sickens me, angers me, hurts my heart. I know it’s there at every turn I make and I want it to be gone!

  2. Kathleen Bylsma on February 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I agree that ‘hot’ topics play into the story line as the characters develop. It would be difficult to pick a topic and try to tailor a story line around it, making it true to life. Besides, we have way too much ‘true life’ all day, every day. I like my happily ever afters just to restore my faith in humanity.

  3. Lynn Ross on February 17, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    I would read a book on any topic if you were the author. The only way I would drop you or any other author is if you turned to writing dark, graphic novels filled with violence. I had to give up Katherine Graham and Elizabeth Lowell for that reason. There is too much ugliness in real life for me to want it in my entertainment.

  4. Kate on February 21, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    I enjoy books about relationships, probably why I enjoy your books. I don’t need controversy to cause me to pick up a book. I can read that in the paper, or see it on the news. Give me a story, with strong believable characters, acting in ways that make sense.
    Perhaps that is my problem with some of the topics listed, the people involved just don’t make sense to me.

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