I was looking for review sites to review my books recently and discovered a depressing trend. One particular site — I won’t name which — had this at the bottom of its submission guidelines page:
“This is a family-friendly site, and there is a growing concern that violent, sexual, or otherwise graphic content influences children, desensitizing them and causing them to imitate what they see or read. If your book has violence, cursing, or sex in it, we probably won’t review it.”
Barring the obvious idiocy of “violence on tv makes kids violent” which has already been disproved time and again, this makes it difficult for anyone to promote a book that isn’t basically YA fiction. Site after site told me their policies against anything with so much as a few dirty birdie words in it.
Is our society so pussified that nobody can even handle curse words anymore? Really?
We had a brief discussion on a similar subject in creative writing club, although we didn’t go into detail, and maybe we should at a later date. Mostly I wanna focus on the cursing aspect, because there’s enough talk about violence and sex in entertainment. And also because the major concern over something as petty as dirty birdie words is something that really annoys the shit out of me. We discussed other ways to show how a character is gritty, angry, or generally an asshole other than having him or her use curse words, and they were all great examples, but they don’t invalidate the use of bad words. Some people use them more than others, and it often is related to their disposition. In The Helios Legacy, the protagonist Juno doesn’t curse a whole lot (but to be fair, she doesn’t talk a whole lot, either). She’s a quiet, stoic leader who’s generally well-adjusted, reasonably eloquent, and generally only curses when she’s upset. The villain Ganymede, by contrast, is a self-absorbed little bully with a Napoleon complex and a mile-long mean streak. She cusses like a goddamned sailor. I made her cuss like a sailor because it suited the character. I didn’t have to, but it felt right, and her overuse of curse words helps the reader to loathe her even more. If you point out other “better” ways to make her loathsome, chances are I’d just add them to the list. I’m not worried about offending soccer moms and squishy, sensitive review sites. If I was, I wouldn’t have written about a dystopian matriarchal society in the first place — already more than enough ammunition for modern ‘net users to use against me.
“Everything in moderation” is a good rule of thumb when you’re a writer, but a better one is, “Be true to your characters.” If you hand me a story about gangsters that is intended for adults, and the gangsters don’t cuss like sailors, I’m probably not gonna believe it. I might still enjoy the hell out of it, but the dialogue will feel scripted for a general audience, and not natural like you transcribed it from a conversation overheard in a bar frequented by wiseguys. I’ve seen Goodfellas, I’ve seen Gotti. They don’t make those guys cuss like sailors to be “edgy” or “shocking” like a lot of people will try to convince you: they do it because that’s how gangsters talk. That’s how people in rough neighborhoods with little education talk, or people who hang out with those kinds of guys. It’s true to the characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you make it sound natural and not forced.
Dexter is an example of a show where the cursing, and dialogue in general, is stilted and forced, which happens when you staff your writing team with thirteen-year-olds (see also: modern comic books). Deadwood is another example, where they replaced the old timey cussin’ with modern cussin’ because they didn’t think people would take the show seriously if everyone kept saying “dadgummit” and “tarnation” and “varmint”. I thought the whole point of the show was to be an authentic period drama, but what do I know?
If you grew up in an environment where dirty birdie words were off-limits, I can see how ANY curse word would strike you as unnecessary. But guess what? Most of us didn’t grow up in that household. You’re the minority. Most of us grew up with rough-and-tumble little shits who said bad words sometimes, or all the time.
There’s also the argument that if you overuse curse words, you ruin their impact. My argument still stands: it depends on the character. If you choose to keep cursing to a minimum, then fine, but don’t do it because you’re worried about offending somebody. You’re going to offend somebody regardless of how clean your language is. Getting offended is how the mediocre empower themselves. I gave a positive review of a girl’s poem once, with zero negative criticism, and somehow she still thought I was insulting her. I mentioned in a discussion on this very site how single parents have a tough time in the dating game, because most people aren’t crazy about dealing with the drama of a potential stepkid, which is a sad but true part of being a single parent. This moron calls me a haughty asshole who has something against single parents, because he/she didn’t actually read what I wrote before getting triggered by it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone needs to use lotsa cussin’. If you avoid cussing in all your dialogue, that’s cool, too. I’ll admit, a story with forced cursing is a lot more annoying than a story where nobody curses at all regardless of their upbringing. The latter feels a lot less juvenile. Star Wars has no cursing, and it’s a great story. But Goodfellas is a good story, too, and the language doesn’t make it any less so. One goes for fantasy, the other for realism, and both are perfectly good approaches to storytelling. Just remember that if you do use cursing, don’t force it; and if you don’t use it, do it for the right reason. And definitely don’t be a high-and-mighty twat who tells people not to use cursing in their dialogue because it might trigger somebody, or dismiss any and all curse words as an attempt to be “edgy”. If you believe that, you need to get out of the fuckin’ house more.