Monday, October 13, 2014

To Cuss or Not To Cuss

People who know me, or follow my Facebook or Twitter feeds know that I am a foul mouthed son of a bitch. I was raised in a working middle class blue collar neighborhood in the 1970's. I knew just about every racial epithet and swear word there was by age ten. I learned the rest when I went to college. Every job I have had in my adult life since has been shared with people who casually breathe out expletives roughly every third sentence without thinking about it or caring.

Profanity in books or movies does not throw or shock me in any way. The F-word is so deeply rooted in my vocabulary it's essentially filler. A synonym for "very". Like Smurf. It's an incredibly versatile word. It can be a verb or an adjective. Even a noun. It can be used to convey anger or humor.

One of the more memorable scenes in The Wire was when McNulty and Bunk were looking around a crime scene. The only word of dialogue for the whole scene was a single four letter word, uttered in a various tones to express surprise, suspicion, amusement, dismay, shock, worry, or even just "Hey look here." It was hysterical.

And so, in the crime novel I am working on, I'm up to 48 F bombs and 78 variations of feces. I even drop the dreaded N word. Twice. Two and a half if you count the time someone started to say it and was shot before he could finish it. Earlier drafts have an even higher curse per word count ratio.

I feel compelled to go on a sidebar here, which might put my opinion into context.

I despise political correctness. I loathe the compulsion that society has instilled in me to hesitate to speak freely with every fiber of my being. Especially in fiction, the words are being spoken by characters. When it's something a person would say... say it!

I just saw a great example. The TV series Spenser: Fore Hire finally came out on DVD. It was one of my favorite shows of all time, and a heavy influence on me creatively.

So anyway, there is a scene at the end of the pilot episode where a mob boss is threatening to kill Spenser. More accurately, order his enforcer kill him. At this point, Hawk betrays his employer and refuses to kill Spenser. So the big man turns to another guy in the room with them and orders him to do it. Hawk warns him not to.

Robert Urich (right) as Spenser, Avery Brooks ...At which point the mob boss blurts out, "You don't take orders from this ni**#r!"

I am sure the reaction to this in 1985 was "WOAH!!" If that happened on network TV today, the show and all its sponsors would be subject to death threats.

But... it's exactly what the guy would say. Take a small minded racist asshole, no matter how big time he thinks of himself, get him angry enough and that's what he'd say. To even call the line "unnecessary" is asinine. There is literally no other thing that that character in that situation would say. Not to mention the line was immediately followed by one of Robert Urich and Avery Brook's classic witty exchanges that managed to make a mockery out of said racism and move on with the story without going all social justice warrior on the audience. It reminded me why I loved that show so much.

I wonder if a publisher would allow a white author to write such a scene in 2014. I am braced for the possibility of having to rewrite my own scenes once I finish and get it into an editor or agent's hands, regardless of how accurate the context is, because it might be seen as too provocative. Even though it's not meant to be. It's just meant to be realistic.

It sucks.

But as I am wont to do, I digress...

Despite the fact that frequent use of foul language among, lets say, less refined segments of our population is the only way dialogue sounds natural to my ears... I am also aware that there are touchy feely pantywaists who feel compelled to brand books with 1-star reviews on account of what they feel is excessive language.

Okay, okay. Not everyone who takes exception to so-called "bad" language is that bad. I do not understand where they are coming from. Like at all. But I don't necessarily fault them. I take great exception to the kind of troll who 1-stars a book on those grounds, though. I hate the assumption made in such reviews that the writer is just trying to be provocative or shocking or pretending to be edgy. It's completely believable natural sounding dialogue in the setting of most crime dramas. It's how people speak.

Either way, enough people who pay to be entertained don't like it for whatever reason. Whether I agree with them or not, there are enough of them to make me care.

Thus I am torn.

On one hand, I want to sell books. I want as wide of an audience as I can get. Although it's violent crime fiction, I throw in a couple characters and a number of moments that I think will appeal to female readers, too. Though it seems women are the most sensitive to the language "issue".

And it's not like I feel compelled to force swear words in to seem authentic. Trust me. I am well enough versed in gutter speak that I don't need to fake it. I am always aware of who the speaker is, and the situation they are in. I recognize when swearing is just padding that real people would not actually use in daily conversation just to seem edgy (e.g. True Blood).

That said, I have met women who speak like Debra Morgan in real life (from Dexter, for the few of you might not get the reference -- and if you don't, rent it dammit!).

Example... One scene that made me stop and wonder if I'm going overboard was a greeting between two friends. They come from a world where busting each other's balls is just what good friends do. It's a sign of respect. It means that they like you enough to mess with you and have enough faith in you that you'll take the joke as the spirit it was given.

The response I wrote was: “Man, f*#& you,” he laughed and greeted me with a fist bump.

Sometimes when I hit lines like that, I get all hung up and wonder if I should edit it. I hear the outraged voices of the Oversensitive Class in my mind. I can see the comment threads already.

But ya know what... I'm sorry but if you are offended by lines like that, then I can't imagine you're a fan of crime fiction anyway. Writing any other response sounds completely unnatural to me. It feels fake. Wrong. That right there is a common greeting ritual among guys.

When it fits, it fits. The best argument in favor of profanity in crime fiction was from The Crime Factory blog. The takeaway quote: "Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it."

But then there's this guy's point of view. No matter how justifiable the use of profanity, a lot of people have some oddly calibrated moral compasses. They won't blink at all the people getting shot in my story, but they'll freak out over allegedly inappropriate language. And those people have the power of 1-star reviews. Or even if they don't exercise such trollish behavior, they will be turned off by a story that they might otherwise like if they didn't have this hangup. I'm still losing audience members.

No-profanityYes, I still dismiss their deeply held personal feelings as a hangup. Because it's weird. I've never understood it and I never will. Sorry.

I guess maybe this is an example of what my buddy Sean Taylor meant by writing for the market vs writing for art. And the circle keeps spinning.

There are times when I will agree profanity is not "needed". In other genres especially, I commonly fall back on sentences like "She swore under her breath" or "He bit out a curse." Or I'll go with the euphemism if it doesn't sound corny. 

But when it is needed because the absence of it would make dialogue so watered down to the point that it sounds wrong... Screw it.

I am sincerely curious what y'all have to say on the subject, too.