A Chik-fil A sandwich is like a story

I’m fascinated by the Chik-fil A controversy because it spotlights an issue perennial to the world of writing stories. As a writer, what do you do with topics that might offend your potential readers?

Literature is full of books that people find offensive, have found offensive, and will find offensive. I’m sure you can think of a dozen titles that fit that category before you have time to take off your hat and sit down.

I’m not saying, mind you, books that are offensive, but books that people find offensive. There’s a big difference between those two things. Offense needs two things. It needs the reader’s perspective and it needs some sort of striking stone found in the story. The reader stumbles on the stone and, voila, you have sparks. The more necessary of those two components, however, is the reader’s perspective, borne out by the fact that what is offensive comes and goes with the times, as changeable as quicksilver. That underscores the primacy (and frailty) of human perspective in this matter.

Orwell’s 1984, for example, will not be offensive to a schoolboy forced to read it in 21st century America (though he might be irritated by reading it due to the lack of pictures and the fact that he’d rather be texting). However, someone with socialist tendencies or someone having enjoyed a long life as a faceless bureaucrat might very well be offended by the implications in Orwell’s story.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will not be offensive to a modern literature major. No, they will happily plow through and write their essays analyzing it from a Marxist perspective or through a comparative Old Testament lens. In the past, however, the book was found highly offensive by the business and farming communities of the west, particularly in the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up and derived so much of his perspective on the role of the worker in society.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses? Not at all offensive to someone from the west (unless they are the sort who choose to be offended when others are offended), but highly offensive to devout Muslims. Offensive enough for a fatwa to be placed upon his head.

The examples are endless.

A writer who wants to sell books is a businessman, just like someone who sells chicken sandwiches. The highest priority a writer has is to write a good story. This priority is precisely the same for the sandwich fellow: make a good chicken sandwich. The writer, if he believes in integrity and honesty, is going to write the best story he can, a story that is honest within itself, that does not pander, a story that is, above all else, dedicated to plot and characters who are true to themselves, regardless of whether they are the villains or the heroes. The same goes for the sandwich seller. That sandwich had better be the best damn sandwich he can make, with the best ingredients.

Considering potential offense in a story is a natural reaction for writers. I’ve stopped, mid stream, and thought about it. However, that’s a sure and quick road to a bad story. Story will stumble, weaken and fail if the writer piles on the weight of trying to avoid offense, trying to second-guess what group out there will be offended by this or that. At any rate, such divinations are basically impossible. Did Mark Twain imagine that Tom Sawyer would someday be abused and censored for the offense that certain people nowadays find in its language?

The more sensible course is for the writer to stay true to what he believes. Write faithfully within that philosophy, honor story and do not pander one’s writing to those who might be offended. If every writer wrote with a wary eye for offense we would soon have a world with no fiction.

Now, once the story is done and published, must the writer keep his mouth shut in public and on the internet and never say boo about any issue, cultural, political, or otherwise, in order to not offend any potential reader? I suppose so, if he wants to. But it isn’t necessary. It isn’t required. He still has the right to voice his opinion about the elections or the Israeli-Palestinian situation or veganism or the latest Hollywood film or whatever. Granted, he might offend and lose a potential reader, but that’s his choice. That’s both of their choices.

So what about the chicken sandwich seller? Granted, he might say something that will disturb certain eaters of chicken sandwiches. Is he beholden to them to say only things that are pleasant to their ears? No. Are they required to buy his sandwiches? No.

Furthermore, if the sandwich seller says something or the writer writes something that does not fit neatly into the worldview of certain sandwich eaters or readers, does that automatically equate to hate? No, it does not. More often than not it simply means disagreement. Just like there are many different sorts of sandwiches and stories in the world, there are just as many different tastes and perspectives and views.

We would all be wiser to not be so quick to find offense in what we hear or read or see. Regardless of what we believe, if we are not willing to see the wisdom in defending the chicken sandwich maker’s right to state what he believes, then what will happen on the day when we say what we believe and it is met with scorn and hostility? At any rate, if we are all so quick to offense, we might end up doing ourselves out of enjoying a tasty sandwich or a good story.

Myself, I would very much like to eat a chicken sandwich right now, but I’m afraid I’m so ill at the moment that even one bite would have disastrous results.

14 thoughts on “A Chik-fil A sandwich is like a story”

  1. Aint nobody got a right not to be offended.

    If you have an opportunity to make your reader feel something, be it offense, joy, sorrow, or a really bad craving for a chicken sandwich, you do it.

  2. How Chik-fil A spending millions of dollars on political campaigns to keep me from having full civil rights is “like a story”, I don’t know. I can assure you that they will never get a penny of my money to do so. I don’t care how good (or bad) their sandwiches are, I’m not crazy enough to give someone money in order for them to use it to do me direct and palpable harm.

    1. Hey, JR. I was trying to draw the parallels between the communication inherent in a business and the communication of a story. The money issue, to me, is a tangential thing. I’m intrigued by the fact that both entities (business and author) are essentially the same: product, communication, consumer, potential to offend or not. Granted, one of the entities is huge and one is small (unless you’re Stephen King, etc), but the dynamics look the same to me.

  3. Thank you, Christopher, my sentiments exactly! i have found myself putting on the literary brakes once in a while because of how I think it is going to be perceived by some. It seems that there are a lot of people out there who want to stifle our free exercise of speech, and probably too many of us not wanting to offend or become the targets of their acrimony.

    1. Wait, are you saying you write stories? You’ve been holding out. What sorts of things do you write?

      Yeah, I hear you. The whole offense & acrimony setup is a wearisome thing. I wish everyone could agree to disagree and leave it at that. However, that’s not going to happen.

  4. The opening line in my next novel >>was<< going to be "Jesus-fried chicken!" That is the colloquial version of Jesus F***ing Christ as spoken by the young teenage girl, and one of the main characters.

    My editor choked on those words. My wife (not my editor, just my boss) refused to read the book until I took them out. I began writing the novel 3 years ago. Those were the first words I typed. I removed them last month. I caved. Sorry.

    They were meant to be harsh words from a young girl with a strict upbringing that included a Catholic priest. She could not speak in profanities. My wife said my words were the ultimate in profane. Sigh…

    To your point, I was, however, allowed to liberally use the "N" word and the "F" word.

    On a humorous note, I entered the novel in a contest several years ago. One of the reviewers scratched it out and wrote, "Jesus! Fried chicken!" He missed the point entirely.

    1. Are you kidding me? What a fabulous line to open with, particularly given the character you outline. Yet your editor was fine with regular obscenity? That makes no sense. Which novel is it? Is it on Amazon?

      1. Out in September (I hope). I am editing the first proof copy. I suspect I will go through 3 paperback iterations before I press the launch button. It is titled, “Vinegarone.” There is more about it on my website including the prologue in its original form.

        1. I’ll check it out. Best of luck with that. That original phrasing you had her use kind of reminds me of a Flannery O’Connor-ish sort of tone. I could see that sort of character showing up in one of her stories, not having a full grasp on life and trying to make sense of things. Her or Walker Percy.

  5. “Offense needs two things. It needs the reader’s perspective and it needs some sort of striking stone found in the story. The reader stumbles on the stone and, voila, you have sparks. The more necessary of those two components, however, is the reader’s perspective, borne out by the fact that what is offensive comes and goes with the times, as changeable as quicksilver. That underscores the primacy (and frailty) of human perspective in this matter.”
    I think I rather fell on the stone and got knocked out cold.
    It’s taken me a while but i think i am back. re: the last couple of posts in this blog. It took me reading what Jesus said, in The Message version, in Matthew 7:1-6. Eugene Petersone has a way with words, ne, The Word.

    1. Thank you for being honest! Out of curiosity, if you don’t mind, what did I say that offended? I’m afraid I’m an opinionated, fairly passionate sort. Actually, my whole family is. If there are six people at the dinner table, there’ll be eight different opinions zinging back and forth, but the food is good and we’re family…

      That passage in Matthew is one of the more sobering things that Jesus said. I need to not forget it.

  6. sorry. and the really funny thing about the whole business is you had begun by talking about offense… i have a really awful tendency toward the critical, judgmental attitude, as i’m always finding the errors in everyone else’s works (i guess i would have been a good copy editor?) but let a lot of my own errors go unedited.

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