Hard and Soft Limits in Fiction Reading

Hard and Soft Limits in Fiction Reading

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.

17 responses

  1. Hmmmm, for hard limits? I would have to say sex with animals, yup. I used to be a fan of William Horwood – he wrote the passion of the Christ with MOLES (Duncton Wood) and I liked it, but when I tried to read a series he wrote about wolves – the villain is a hunter who has sex with a female wolf and I was like, NOPE. I’m 13. I don’t want to read this anymore.

    But I still consider myself someone who doesn’t necessarily know her limits, or how to get over the conditioning I’ve had. I remember how surprised and rebellious I felt as the daughter of devout Roman Catholic parents reading Tanya Huff when I was 12 – her books had gay characters! In major roles! Girls with girls and guys with guys – and another guy with his aunt (but she was a villain)! Who knew!

    For a Soft Limit – graphic violence against women, with the exception of books where the heroine is a warrior whose job it is to get into violent situations. Everyone keeps telling me to read/watch The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but I’ve heard so much about graphic violent scenes against women in them that I don’t want to read them. But I’ve also read very interesting stories that come out of rape and violence against women (Gaelen Foley’s The Duke, for instance) that I’ve enjoyed so it comes down to how much of it is in the novel and how integral it is to the story.

    For a “Must Limit” – again, no idea. I’ve been so surprised lately by what I’ve enjoyed that I can’t rightly say. I don’t even need a happy ending so much as a fulfilling ending.

    For “Time Limit” – heh, when I was younger I zeroed in on door-stopper books. The more the pages, the more it appealed to me. I was huge into epic fantasy and the thicker the book, the more interesting stuff happened – although I have to admit, Robert Jordan and his Wheel of Time books dulled that blade after six 600-page tomes.


  2. Very interesting analogy! I think most of my limits are very soft. Heh. There are themes I find icky, but they won’t generally make me give up on a book, unless it’s bad in other ways. I don’t have a Must Limit, though I prefer appropriate genre labeling — that is, I don’t mind no HEA as long as the book isn’t set up so I expect one.

    A Hard Limit would be graphic (or frequent) abuse of children or graphic torture. And I found myself completely unable to read a romance in which one of the heroes was mentally challenged. I won’t say it’s not possible someone could write such a romance that I could read, though I’m skeptical. Anything to do with special needs children is a very hot button for me, too. Casual comments about “retards” will send a book to the wall.


  3. OK, here are my brief responses and please keep in mind that if a book is good, I will read it regardless of my preconceived limitations.

    1) Hard Limits – I can read almost anything except novels about bestiality (Wolf Tales, etc)

    2) Soft limits: violence, abuse, torture especially where children are involved has to be in the right author’s hands

    3) Must Limits – don’t have any anymore (thanks Karin Slaughter!)

    4) Time limits – yeah, anything over 300 pages on my digital reader gets set aside


  4. Hard Limit — child abduction.
    I can handle it if the story is told through the victim or non-parent’s POV, but definitely not through a parent or abductor’s POV.

    Soft Limit — love triangle.
    I should know that Nice Guy Hero doesn’t get the Girl, but I still peek at the end to see which she’d end up with. I hate it when the heroine goes for the one I don’t bet on. She tends to go for the crappy one, too. In general, I avoid any that features a love triangle but would read if it’s highly recommended.

    “Must” limit — interesting heroine.
    Don’t really care about hero that much because he’s rarely that far from the usual stable of oh-so-masculine, so-rich, so-tall, so-handsome, so-broody and so-hawt heroes. So, Heroine is the make-or-break factor of a romance novel for me. More interesting she is, more into the story I am.

    Time Limit — I tend to read a book in one go, because I rarely pick it up to read the rest once I put it down. I’ll stubbornly finish it if it’s good because I’m afraid I won’t pick it up again once I put it down. Bad habit, but yeah.

    No Limits — romance book covers.
    There are some with covers that embarrass or repulse me, but I’d still read them.


  5. Interesting post. For me, rape is somewhere between a soft and a hard limit regardless of scene, situation, outcome, genre. Some things I know I have to put down as it will make me unhappy, uncomfortable, or outraged. This goes for films as well. Reading the first two Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books were hard enough. I haven’t read the third and have a strong suspicion I’d have to leave the theatre if I saw any of the films. We recently watched ‘Straw Dogs’ too and I had to leave the room as it was immensely upsetting to me. Like Jessica said so well, though,

    they are things I cannot read, not things an author shouldn’t write.

    It’s my own trigger and I know it well enough to know what I should avoid.

    Time limits? I don’t think I’ve set one, but I will put a book down if it doesn’t catch me relatively quickly. It’s my lack of attention span. Ooo, a kitty!


  6. No limits: what McVane said. Back in the day when Laura Kinsale’s Fabio draped covers were on the shelf, I’d linger around until I saw a female at the cash register before I would go purchase. Don’t judge me and that was a long time ago.


  7. A lot of times, I’m pretty tolerant of my hard and soft limits being expanded in the hands of the right author. Also, sometimes I don’t know my limits until I read it.

    Hard Limit-

    Abusive or violent treatment from one character to another including animals IF there is no legitimate motivation explained about the abuser or abused for taking it. In lesbian I’m more tolerant of such a relationship, barely. But if a male character is abusive to a woman just to be cruel, I’m done. I read a BDSM once where one character picked up a fire poker and started beating her sub with it. That was it. End of story for me.

    Too stupid to live female characters. I’ve reached that point where if I read a dumb ass woman I’m done. Like McVane, I need to respect the heroine to keep going. In fact, I might forgive abuse by a hero if the heroine is a dumb ass. Then I’m like go for it she deserves to be dumped on.

    Soft Limit-

    There are lots of tropes I hate like the misunderstanding, which drives me insane. In menage if the third party is used in any way, bad writing, dickish characters, all tell, no show writing, etc. I can deal with these things in the hands of the right author or if they turned me on in some other way.

    Must Limit-

    At this point it’s a hardware thing. I hate reading paper books now and only read ebooks. So the book must be in ebook format.

    Time Limits-

    None really. I’m a very slow reader. I usually read only at night, a few pages before sleeping, so it takes me weeks/months to get through a book. However, because of that I prefer shorter books. Longer books, 250 pgs or more usually sit on my shelf gathering dust.


  8. Hard Limit
    •Domestic Violence
    •Abuse [of power/trust] over those [people, animals] who have no recourse or are unable to give their consent
    •Rape where there is no acknowledgement that this has occurred and no consequences or outcomes from these events
    •Rape as a plot device/backstory meant to signal certain things – rape as an author’s device
    •The unthinking ‘benevolent sexism’ (vide http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/01/31/if-it-looks-like-a-compliment-and-sounds-like-a-compliment-is-it-really-a-compliment/… a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles… a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men) of much romance and erotica writing. I am not asking for the tropes of romance to be tossed out but that they are deployed in a way that doesn’t mistake shrill, entitlement behaviour for empowerment and that shows women as powerful or becoming empowered without turning into UF kick ass bitch/male clones. That is – there is thoughtfulness in the characterisation.
    •World building fail. Even in contemporaries, our individual lives are shaped by the culture and environment we live in. Not to understand or acknowledge this through the story-telling diminishes the story.

    Soft Limit
    •I will read anything as long as the author makes it believable and meaningful within the logic of the world building and story.
    •I am tired of derivative, unreflexive writing and this has become my main cause of DNF

    Must Limit
    •I care about the people in the story. It surprises me how many stories fail on this point
    •A logical resolution of the story that leaves everyone in a good place
    •Good editing and spelling and no word transpositions

    Time Limits
    I don’t have any time limits. I follow series and trilogies so page count doesn’t matter to me just that the story isn’t repetitive or padded out. I hate the wait between books though and I am reading a lot more novellas but then I dislike the rush to wrap things up or the lack of characterisation. May be more accurate to say my time limit is related to the story logic

    No Limits
    I have limits that are to do with how women are represented and the uses of violence. I have learnt to DNF so maybe I have learnt to negotiate my limits.


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  10. I wouldn’t be able to read Sun Storm. You put tears in my eyes with just the excerpt. I can’t read animal abuse or child abuse. It’s just too painful. And I suspect the better the writer, the more agonizing it would be to read.

    I’m a soft-limiter on HEAs. I need and want them, but a good writer with a non-HEA is able to draw me in. Still, I avoid books where I journey with a character and become invested, only to see them die at the end. I know for many stories, that’s an appropriate ending; but for me, there’s always a sense of pointlessness. I like stories where the character grows and learns and I have the sense he or she goes on to live an interesting life when the story ends.

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around BDSM as a type of romance. I came close to understanding it with Somerville’s Remastering Jerna. For me, it’s just not romantic and I don’t get any enjoyment out of reading it. I don’t understand why anyone would want to be hit. Ever. As interesting as Remastering Jerna was and as much as I liked the character and rooted for him, I think I’ve reached a hard limit on BDSM as a story type I’d ever want to read again.

    I have a soft limit on vampire/werewolf/shifter stories because I find them universally boring as all get-out.

    Other than that, I can’t think of anything else off-hand that keeps me from reading.
    This was a really interesting post. I liked the analogy, despite my dislike of bdsm. :)


  11. De-lurking….

    I guess technically most of my limits are soft. For example, the animal abuse thing you mentioned – I couldn’t even read the excerpt. I’m a big suck about animals being harmed. I don’t mind people being hurt in movies (as in battle scenes), but I get really cranky about animals being on the receiving end of abuse.

    However, on reflection, I think a lot of that depends on my perception of the purpose of the text (film or book), and probably also a certain set of preconceptions based on whether the text is mainly genre fiction, or literary fiction. If it’s genre fiction, I read that for comfort, and I’m not willing to go along with a lot that disturbs me. If it’s literary fiction, I have different expectations. If I think it’s mainly for entertainment, and the audience reaction is supposed to be a mindless “ooh, gross” or it’s all about the shock value, then I’m done. That’s a hard limit, and why for example I stopped watching Game of Thrones. If I think there’s more to it, then I’ll go along with it. In this case, I’m thinking of books like Findley’s The Wars, where a terrible thing happens involving horses.

    If I feel like rape/child abuse/abduction/torture are used as emotional shortcuts, I won’t tolerate that. If it seems intended to titillate, it’s a hard limit. Otherwise, I’ll go along, at least for a awhile (but might stop reading an author if that’s what she/he fixates on). But mostly, I don’t enjoy those things, and might read a book with one of those elements, but skip reading any actual scenes.

    One last hard limit – I don’t want to feel like the author is counting on my stupidity. Huge and unnecessary anachronisms, no evidence of consistency in character, brutal misuses of words – these kinds of things make me feel personally insulted by a book. I know this is not rational, but the indignation, it fills me.

    Must limit – Hmmm. I’m not sure I have any.

    Time limit – I’m not crazy about really long books. Ideally, I’ll finish a book on the same day I started it. However, most of the time I buy ebooks, without any real sense of how long it is.


  12. Oh, The Wars. Such awful things happen to both people and animals. What a brilliant, painful book. I’m glad I read it, but I doubt I could have if I hadn’t decided to teach it, which gave me some distance from the start.

    I loved this post. I’m not sure where my hard limits are, but I don’t like to feel the author is treating me cynically (manipulating my emotions for no purpose, assuming I’m stupid, not bothering with editing). I have a very hard time reading books that harrow my emotions (bad things happening to children are high on the list, but any real emotional trauma can do it). But I will, if I know to expect that, and if the book is good enough. I usually peek ahead, though, to help me bear it. There’s some negotiating going on there. I think it’s not so much content as approach or style where my limits are drawn.


  13. Violence toward children is a hard limit. The Lovely Bones — I bought it and started it and couldn’t continue past the first few pages. Graphic violence in general I don’t enjoy, but somehow a fight or a war seems very different from abuse.

    I will say I’ve learned to DNF in the last few years. I used to finish every single book, no matter if I was so mad at the protagonist that I had to stop and rant and smack the book on the arm of the chair. Now I just give the book away to someone who might like it better. I used to feel terribly guilty about that, but I’ve become much more adventurous in my readings so maybe it’s not a totally bad thing.


  14. Everyone has taken all my best thoughts! Thank you. Enjoyed the exercise of thinking about this though.

    Hard Limit – I don’t know that I have any. Probably knowing a child would be hurt would make me not pick up the book in the first place.

    Soft Limit – I have a soft limit on a few words — if I see quim too many times, it’s pretty much a guarantee that I and the book are not meant to be. It’s just too OTT. BDSM w/out brains — that I don’t want. Books are not an exercise in wankery for me and I don’t want to read about characters who don’t take their brains along for the ride. Including how and when and why to exercise their own individual choices. If characters, in my opinion, are too modern for the story and setting, again, that’s a book that I might not enjoy altho “never say never”.

    “Must” limit – No must. I used to want a Guarantee of a Happily Ever After. Now, I’m prepared for a Happily For Now, sometimes. Feel no compunction to finish books.

    Time limit – A book better not be War and Peace. That’s why Outlander and I have parted ways for now.

    No Limits – Not sure how that applies for me.


  15. These are such great responses. Thank you so much. You know, one interesting question would be whether it’s a mark of a good writer than she can make us overcome these limits.

    Merrian — Thanks for the link to the SciAm article. My students and I were talking about it last week. I think romance novels are riddled with benevolent sexism.

    @cecilia: Welcome, and delurk any time!


  16. @Jessica: “You know, one interesting question would be whether it’s a mark of a good writer than she can make us overcome these limits.”

    I generally think so. I remember reading an utterly horrible Regency (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2243900.The_Rake_s_Rainbow) in which the adulterous hero actually wishes his wife would die and thinking that only Mary Balogh would be able to redeem this guy. And books in which my “soft limits” are made to work often become my absolute favorites, though whether that’s because of the quality of the writing or a possible lure of the forbidden situation, it’s hard to say.


  17. Many people have hard limit with cheating heroes. “From the moment he meat heroine he must not sleep with other women” – I think everybody read something like this in reviews. Some time ago, I read Never a Gentleman by Eileen Dreyer and then I noticed that reviewers either liked book very much (as I am) or hated it. Every one of bad reviews was explained by hero adultery. Apparently, it’s a big no-no, must-not-ever for romance writers.


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