“Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” Mark Twain
Sooner or later, in this age of email, Amazon reviews and Twitter, today’s novelist will turn on her computer and discover that an unhappy reader is complaining about her language. The emails follow a pattern. I read your book and found XX word(s) and I will never read you again. My good friend Casey Daniels/Kylie Logan received an email like that and had to scour the book in question to find the single use of the word that had so infuriated and upset the reader.
The word? Damn.
When this happens to me, I’m fine. I support that reader’s decision to find other authors she can enjoy and wish her well–and yes, those readers usually are women. If a word or two is upsetting enough to dash off an angry email, the reader should only buy books that are clearly marketed as inspirational, which has rules all its own, no profanity of any kind among them.
Profanity, of course, is subjective. I remember calling a truck a “pick-up” in Australia and being taken aside and told that trucks are called “utes.” A “pick-up” was a woman selling herself on the street corner. I, of course, was taken aback when told that Australian erasers are called rubbers. While neither of those examples are actually profanity, you get the gist. Meanings change. Words are, after all, simply combinations of vowels and consonants that are even pronounced differently in different places.
What makes a word profane? At least for the people who are counting and reporting? Three possibilities.
- The idea behind the word. The object or action it represents.
- Words that suggest sexual acts.
- Words that blaspheme God or religion.
According to Dictionary.com to curse someone is “
Writers who may or may not use profanity in their daily life, are often in a quandary when it comes to using it in their novels. Why is this an issue? Why not just avoid it?
- The author is positive that the person he or she has created and knows intimately would use profanity in moments of stress or even as a way to impress or outrage others.
- Substituting “Oh, fudge,” or “Golly, gee,” for more realistic and graphic alternatives would be silly and inject humor into a serious interchange.
- One episode of swearing from a character who hasn’t sworn to that point will demonstrate how outraged that character is.
- Profanity demonstrates in only a few words what a character is feeling.
Novelists are tasked with creating believable and sympathetic characters. They don’t have to be perfect; they don’t even have to be good. But as the story develops, the reader wants to know those characters inside and out. For the most part this goal means that characters have to be grounded in reality. It’s our job as novelists to convey those characters well in believable ways.
One of the characters in my novel When We Were Sisters is an internationally famous pop star. The major character of my last novel, The Color of Light, newly at bookstores, is a Protestant minister.
Now, you tell me? Which of these two women is more likely to use profanity? Time’s up, and you got it right. Analiese most likely pruned her vocabulary after years as a television news reporter and now, as a minister, is careful with words. But Cecilia in When We Were Sisters is a completely different story. Her world is different. Her background? Couldn’t be more different. Her philosophy? You got it.
So, while profanity is delicately scattered through the novel in progress, and I studiously avoid the worst of it by not repeating everything we’re told Cecilia is saying, I will still likely get a letter or two from readers who, like Casey/Kylie’s choose never to read me again.
And you know what? That’s okay.
Where do you stand? Will you set aside a novel if you find a word you object to? Or do you even notice? Or care?
Ernest Hemingway addressed this subject many years ago. Thanks, E.H. for the perfect ending.
“I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.” Ernest Hemingway