Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Who's Afraid of Smutty Words?

I have serious concerns about people who can accept murder and other violence (even if it's off screen) yet are offended by mere words in a story.

Let me preface this by saying I'm not a proponent of profanity. I don't sprinkle my prose with vulgarity in order to shock or thrill readers. On those rare occasions when I do employ one of those words which offend some people, it's usually because that particular one is the appropriate choice for that character or situation.

Like it or not, people do swear. Some more often than others.

Many of the words condemned as obscene or coarse come to us from Germanic, Latin or Greek roots with rather benign, descriptive origins. For instance, that four-letter word with sexual implications we hear so commonly today, even among children, originally meant "to plow." The interesting thing is these taboo words exist in all languages and cultures.

You don't have to like those words. You don't even have to read them. If such a word offends your sensibilities, skip over it. Just accept these words exist and people do voice them, especially people who might be inclined to commit a crime.

Not that every character in a book who uses vulgarity is a criminal. For some it's just their nature. Lydia Brubaker, Chief Brubaker's daughter in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series, swears frequently. Aside from that, Lydia's a nice, compassionate young woman. Officer Flora Vastine, in the same series, is not given to profanity. Other than a rare hell or damn, nasty words aren't part of Sticks's vocabulary either. Incidentally, since the intent is the same, there isn't a shade of difference between hell and heck or damn and darn. A euphemism can't change the nature of the beast.

For the most part I've refrained from using so-called offensive language in my 19th century stories for the simple reason it wasn't common to the culture as it is today. And it was largely as a result of that repression obscene words came into more widespread use in modern society.

 Some opponents suggest using profanity indicates laziness on the part of the writer; i.e., he could have found a better word. Or might have simply said, he/she swore.

Really?

Either is a cop out. The writer chose that particular word because it was the most descriptive. Simply saying the character swore does not reveal the depth of the character's feeling. That's tell, not show.

To deny a writer the use of any word is, simply put, censorship.


19 comments:

  1. Interesting observation. I don't object per se, but sometimes it is overdone, especially, sad to say, in some American films!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Often overdone. Especially in this culture. Shock value rather than an honest expression.

      Delete
  2. Great topic and a great post, John!
    Let's just say that, in my "real" life, I've been known "to plow" a few fields. LOL
    But, there isn't any profanity in my Malone mystery series. And, there's a reason for that; the stories don't call for it.
    I believe that fiction should be true to life and, as you mentioned, people do swear in certain situations. Why would it be any different in fiction?
    BTW, I stop reading any book that uses profanity just for the sake of using it. To those writers, I say "Grow up!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Patricia. Hope the writing on the new standalone is going well.

      Delete
  3. I use an occasional damn or hell. I have a couple of critics who keep me in line

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess that's what critics are for. Thanks, Dac.

      Delete
  4. I don't like to read books that are laced with profanity, but I don't mind an occasional bad word. I use them very sparingly in my writing. It is strange, though, how people have a problem with swearing when they don't mind the murder that's taken place. Your post really has me thinking...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep. Use those words--but like salt. Too much and it spoils the soup. Thanks for commenting, Amy.

      Delete
  5. I agree that the language needs to fit the character, however, if it's overdone in a book, I find that off putting. Sometimes it just isn't necessary. The same can be said for movies. There are occasional words in my stories,but not often, and there are some I really avoid. Realistically, the bad guy probably isn't going to say "shucky darn" in a situation. Good post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the ticket, Marja. It has to fit the character and the situation. Appreciate the feedback.

      Delete
  6. I don't mind profanity in books at all. I wanted to have a little more in mine, but it slanted toward cozy, so it would not have fit. At times profanity has annoyed me in books, but only because it didn't "fit" or seem appropriate for the theme, situation, or storyline. The annoying kind sounds like the writer used it for the wrong reason: to force interest or look worldly or something else that added no purpose to the story. If it fits in to the situation, I say use it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Writers are more free to use the words these days. It should never be seen as a license for abuse. Thanks, Linda.

      Delete
  7. I agree with Linda. I think profanity should fit the character who is using it. I do cringe if it gets too thick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It must fit the character and the situation. Too much of anything is bad. Thanks for commenting, Gloria.

      Delete
  8. Besides fitting the character, I think it is best to sav the really emphatic words for situations in which the character is really angry, frustrated or in pain as a way of showing the depth of the feeling. Otherwise they lose their impact.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi John.
    Love this post.
    My novels are narrated by a character that swears constantly. He doesn't mean anything by it, it's just the way he talks. He has had not much of an education, is very working class, and the swearing acts as a kind of punctuation. I have had a couple of negative comments, but not many - considering the level of profanity in the books. One comment I had was 'this is an author that knows how to swear' - taking to mean, I think, that the swearing augments the reality of the book rather than being a gratuitous attempt to shock the reader.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Little late, but I'll share this story. Back when I was librarian at Berea College (KY), a townsperson checked out J.B. Stallenger's Catcher in the Rye. When he returned it, he'd taken a razor blade and cut out the four-letter words in the entire book. Could not understand why the library was making him pay for it, as he was only cleaning it up. Do times ever change?

    ReplyDelete