I recently read a popular self-published romance with BDSM (to my complete shock, I have woken up this morning to see that this book, Fifty Shades of Grey, is #27 on the New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction Bestseller List.) that introduced me to terms I had never heard of: “hard limit” and “soft limit.”
Adults, read on:
Here’s how Wikipedia* defines them:
Though the terminology can vary, common types of limits include:
- Hard Limit – something that must not be done. Violating a hard limit is often considered just cause for ending a scene or even a relationship.
- Soft Limit – something that someone will do only in special circumstances or when highly aroused.
- “Must” limit – something that a person will not do the scene without.
- Time limit – an amount of time after which play ceases.
No Limits – the dominant may do anything he or she cares to with the submissive. This is usually a sign of an inexperienced player who does not yet know what their limits are. In reality, even the most hardened and experienced players have limits. “No limits” play is more the stuff of porn and thriller movies than in actual, real-life BDSM. This is also sometimes used as a term for TPE or Total Power Exchange.
I was thinking about how they might translate to reading:
Hard Limit — something that just cannot be read. The reader is upset and disappointed when she encounters this in a book. Violating a hard limit is often considered just cause for closing a book or ending a relationship with an author.
Soft Limit — something that a reader will read only in special circumstances or when highly aroused (lol. Could be any kind of arousal.) This might be something difficult to read (rape or child abuse), a plot or setting a reader hates (secret baby, alien invasion, werewolves) or a trope she is absolutely sick of, as in “I can’t believe a friggin vampire just showed up in the novel. I’m so sick of vamps!”
“Must” limit — something you can’t read a book without. For some readers, this is a happy ending.I can;t think of another “must” limit. Perhaps good editing. Many people will put down an otherwise good book if the editing errors pile up.
Time Limit — I think we can just borrow above, “an amount of time after which play ceases.”, lol. I personally won’t pick up a book longer than 600 pages. I know I simply prefer shorter books. Then there is a different measure: a book that you give a certain amount of hours to, and then can’t give it another minute. Maybe it’s a slow read because the prose is so impenetrable, or maybe your mind keeps wandering. It may be a bad book or a good book, but the time limit is up.
No Limits — I’m not sure what the parallel is here. It may be the reader who refuses to DNF any book, regardless of how she feels as she is reading it. The NDNFer (NonDNFer). She feels that she’s entered into something with this book, and that it would be unfair or wrong to quit no matter what happens. (There are probably other kinds of NDNFer, too. The person who is a perfectionist, and has to finish any task she starts. This kind of NDNF has nothing to do with any commitment to the book.)
There’s an ambivalent element in that list that is bothering me. In the BDSM list, it reads to me as if the participants have already agreed to play, and they are setting limits for that play. The parallel in book reading, then, is not the book you refuse to pick up, but the book you’ve picked up already. I’m trying to stick to the latter in this post.
It just so happens that I read two books recently that cross what I once considered a hard limit: animal abuse. When I say animal abuse was a hard limit, I mean: there is no author who could write about it in such a way that I could keep reading. This shouldn’t imply that there is something wrong or improper with a book that crosses my own hard limit. I’m thinking of limits in subjective terms — they are things I cannot read, not things an author shouldn’t write. The latter is a separate question. It may be that, in a given case, my hard limit maps onto a moral prohibition for an author. It may then turn out that my hard limit actually reveals a moral limit. But that’s not what I’m interested in at this moment.
The first book is a mystery, Sun Storm, by Asa Larsson. I read this book after looking at a review by Keishon on her mystery blog. Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm attorney, returns home to Kiruna, in the north of Sweden, to help her friend, Sanna, after Sanna’s brother was horrifically murdered. Sanna has two little girls and a dog. Virku the dog is a “spitz crossbreed”, and accompanies Rebecka everywhere she goes. Virku is the light in this novel, her happy pink tongue licking in submissiveness, her black eyes “shining with happiness.” In a very bleak book, images of Virku bounding through the snow offer what little solace there is.
And then, near the end of the book, Virku gets kidnapped. There are just two brief scenes from Virku’s point of view. The author does not go too far, and the reader is not forced to read in detail about animal suffering. Regardless, after reading this bit:
But she turns her face up toward the man who is lifting her out of the trunk of his car. Shows him as much submission as she can, with silver tape bound tighlty around her muzzle and paws/ In vain she exposes her throat and presses her tail between her legs.
I put the book down. I was in bed, my husband asleep. I was crying. My two English Shepherds, one on the bed, one on the floor next to me, looked up, wondering why I was making noise at this time of night. I asked myself, “Why the hell am I reading this? Why am I doing this to myself? This is ridiculous.”
But in the morning, I picked the book back up. On the whole, I really, really liked it. Sun Storm is the first of a series based abound the character of Rebecka and yes, I want to read the next one. So, what I thought was a hard limit, is, in the hands of the right author, a soft one.
Another example is a book I heard about from Kat of Book Thingo, who reviewed it here. It’s called Triptych: An Erotic Adventure, by Krissy Kneen. I wasn’t able to acquire this Australian title in the states, so Kat was kind enough to send it.
Triptych is actually three erotic novellas based on paintings. The description of the book states that it is “transgressive” but not how. In the second, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, the protagonist, Leda, takes her dog as her lover. The dog’s name is Paul. Here is how it starts:
The slip of livid skin poked in and out in time to the movement of the big dog’s hips, a slippery red worm. She held out her fingers and Paul pushed himself into the cup of hr palm. a pleasant enough sensation; but when Paul picked up his pace and pushed so hard against her hand that Leda fell back under the heft of him, she began to feel her hart beat faster; an excited little tremble in hr fingers. She held tight to the thickening flesh in her hand and when the warm dampness sprayed onto her fingers she felt a warm damp spread betwen hr own thighs, as if in sympathy.
Leda also has sex with a pony and an octopus. As with Sun Storm, I hope to write a review of this one. I have not yet finished it. Although the publisher, Penguin, described this book as “irresistibly erotic”, those scenes are not arousing to me. To me it is very like reading about someone having sex with a child, or with an adult with a severe cognitive impairment, that is, abusive. I’ll have more to say on that specific point in my post on the book, but for now, I’ll just say that I am still reading, albeit in short bits, because the writing is lovely and it is such a bizarre and interesting book. So again, there is my hard limit turned soft.
Maybe I don’t have any hard limits at all. Do I engage in a sort of Total Power Exchange with authors? I really like the idea of a “must limit”, but I don’t think I have one.
How about you? Any limits?
*I have no idea whether Wikipedia has got this right. Although this is not a post about BDSM, if you have a problem with Wikipedia’s definitions, please share in the comments.