Writing: A Brief But Most Impassioned Missive on the Subject of Vulgarity
A NOTE: If you have a problem with strong language in novels, that’s just fine. It’s your right to feel the way you feel, just like it’s my right to say fuck a lot in my story. My anger here isn’t directed at you. Unless, of course, you’ve felt the need to get all up in arms with me about it. In which case: fudge off.
Dear Sir or Madam,
I hope this epistolary concoction of mine, now commonly called a ‘weblog’ or ‘blog’, finds you and your spouse exceedingly well. I hope weather in the place you currently reside is good, and your friends and family have suffered no misfortune since we last had one of these strangely public private chats.
My health is good, and my family is very well, and the weather is delightful, thank you for wondering.
You may have begun to wonder, with suspicion I fear is common to all my readers, what fantastic and whimsical Turn this missive is about to take. Why, you may ask, eyes round, is this sovereign Person, previous empress of the word F-, writing in a fashion which suggests longhand, fountain pens and inkwells, and swirling my own farts in a vintage brandy glass before inhaling deeply?
Because I’m making a point, sweethearts. Life without vulgarity–it sounds different to me. It sounds like a Victorian novel, without the occasional ‘damn’ thrown in there. The lengths a writer can go to to avoid vulgarity can ruin a novel–nothing pulls you out of a world quite as fast, after all, as a group of tough soldiers standing on a battlefield around their recently dismembered comrade, whispering ‘oh sugar’ in shocked tones.
I see this question asked a lot around the Interwebs: ‘should I use cursing/vulgarity in my book’? And my answer is, and always will be:
I don’t know. Why don’t you want to?
If the answer to that question is ‘because I’m not sure it belongs in this story/coming out of this character’s mouth’, then no. No, you probably shouldn’t. Because it doesn’t belong in the story.
If the answer is ‘because Aunt Mabel would unfriend me on Facebook/I’m worried I’d lose readers/it’s not appropriate to the age group I’m trying to reach/someone might be offended if I say ‘damn’ in it/etc.’, pull your head out of your ass and do it.
I curse. A lot. I’m not proud of this fact or ashamed of it, it’s just part of who I am. The curse words in my linguistic flow are like the exfoliating beads in my morning cleanser. A brief, momentary brightness. A typographical em-dash. Mix metaphors as you will.
As I’m the sort of person who cusses, a lot of my characters are also the sort of people who cuss. They’re ordinary people, common people, people of small means and low circumstances. Soldiers, innkeepers, convenience store clerks, fifteen year old kids (who cuss more than the rest of us. Sorry, moms.). Prostitutes. Magicians.
People who don’t, by and large, say ‘sugar’.
Of course, when one of my characters is the type of person who says sugar, or doesn’t curse at all, then they’re portrayed that way. Because story.
My language is, when in novel form, not uniformly bad. I drop an f bomb or two and, okay, sling more shits than a plumber’s supersoaker. But my vulgarity is fairly limited, and, outside of language, there’s little that keeps my book from being pretty clean. Here are some comments I’ve gotten (always in private, tch tch!) on my usage of the mother tongue:
1) ‘Vulgarity just makes you look less intelligent.’
Did you not bother to read the rest of the words? ‘Cause I have a pretty big vocabulary. And I use those words too. When they’re the right word. (I’m sitting on a post about archaic words I’ve learned from my recent dive into Dickens. I am excited as fuck and you should be too. You’ll learn what a pettifogger is, and more on the best word ever: megrims.)
2) ‘It makes you look so common.’
So what. Nice attempt at shifting the blame onto ‘society’, that elusive bugbear, however.
This is the unisex companion to one girls used to get a lot: ‘it makes you look like less of a lady’. Hang on, let me check something–yep, vagina still there. However, oh my goody gumdrops goober goodness. You mean I’ll never be presented into society?
You couldn’t figure that one out earlier, like when I was born?
3) ‘People won’t like you as much if you’re vulgar.’
And there it is again! Not you, the commenter, but people. All of them out there. You know, them. The same people who, I assume, shot JFK, and rigged 9/11.
Here’s the thing, person who certainly isn’t people. As far as my novel goes, I don’t care. If someone’s shallow enough to like or dislike me based on my language choices in a novel, let ’em. It’s not like they were close friends of mine to begin with.
You read the book. You either like it or you don’t. Don’t get me wrong: I love my fans, and I respect all my readers. If someone reads my book, sees the f word, gets offended, and puts it down, well, I’m sorry we didn’t get along better. This person is making a choice for themselves and not complaining to me about a choice I made for myself, and I can respect that.
But for the person who whinges about my language to me, as though I’m a customer service department fielding complaints: I don’t take requests. You get what I give you.
4) ‘People won’t trust/respect you as much if you’re vulgar.’
Again with the people. These people. So judging, so limiting. Especially when expressing an opinion you don’t want to tell me you also hold.
And, again, the same reply: if you don’t trust or respect me, a person you barely know, because of my language choices, and you feel the need to tell me this out of some misguided sense of earthly duty, you’re a few steps higher on the ladder of pseudo-literary shame than the Grammar Nazi. You’re like the Goebbels of the English Language. And that’s your right. No one’s saying you can’t make your choice that way. Yep indeedy. Jawohl.
Also, when you’re in jail and you need to make that one phone call to someone who you absolutely know will bail you out, I’m willing to bet your first worry isn’t whether or not he says fuck a lot.
5) ‘You’re damaging your career options by being vulgar in public.’
This is the one I’ll give some credence to, because it’s true. You won’t ever be able to work somewhere superconservative if you, like I, have a filth-smearing online presence that, in addition to expressing intelligence and good communication skills through a written medium, says fuck sometimes. (And how nice of you, person who isn’t in any way people, to be so concerned).
However–how much money is it worth to you to substitute ‘sugar’ every time someone says ‘shit’ in your novel?
Answer carefully. Your sellout point is a good thing to know, just like your safeword.
I’m mentioning all this because, yes, I get a little tired of fielding it, but also as a word of wisdom for you kids who aren’t sure if ‘sugar’ is the word you’re looking for.
These people who’re telling you it’s ‘disgraceful’ to use a naughty word. These people who’re telling you it’s not what ‘well bred’ people do. These people who, in the least vulgar way possible, are implying that you’re a vulgar piece of shit, and certainly don’t deserve induction into whatever passes for proper society these days:
These people are censors, bigots, and bullies, just the same as the dickhole who cut you off in traffic and called you a cunt. They’re just keeping a G-rating on it, which doesn’t mean it’s any less bullying or censorious. It’s the same ugly thing in a prettier and more self-righteous wrapper. And, again–perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be in such a shiny wrapper when, you know, out and out telling somebody they’re worth less because of their language choices is such an ugly fucking thing.
The choice as to whether you should use shit or sugar is up to you. It is your choice, and yours alone. And it has nothing to do with you, or the Neighbors for a Purer Tomorrow who’re lurking out there, waiting for something new to be outraged by. You’re not shouting it out to the rooftops, where everyone can hear it–you’re writing it down in a book, where people can choose whether or not they’re exposed.
No. This choice has to do with your story.
Does your long haul trucker say fuck, or fudge? If he says fudge, why? Because, let’s be honest–we all kind of expect a long distance trucker to say fuck. The opposite for a grade school teacher, a pastor, Aunt Agnes with her knitting needles and coke bottle glasses. And again, if they do say fuck: why?
If there isn’t a reason for it, it pulls us out of your story. It reminds us that there’s some little person at the typewriter, plugging away, praying like hell she isn’t (or is!) going to offend anybody. It reminds us that those pious braggarts, those constant offendees, those people whose quavering constitutions are so delicate they can’t even bear the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is saying fuck, are out there.
And they call enough attention to themselves without your help.
So cuss at will, soldiers. Cuss laissez-faire. Because if it’s the right word for your story, it’s the right word, and fuck everybody else. Anything else–any adaption, modification–would make it a lesser story.
And that’s a bigger sin than saying damn every once in a while.