Archive for the ‘#profanity’ Tag

Balanced Use of Swears   14 comments

Sept 13, 2021

How do you feel about the use of profanity, either in your stories or in what you read?

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Trending Toward Profanity

Opinion | The Case for Profanity in Print - The New York Times

In recent decades experts noticed a decided trend to use more and more obscenities, profanity and vulgarity in books written for almost every age.

First, let’s define term. Obscenity is a word or phrase that covers sexual or scatalogical references to the body or bodily functions (so f**k and s**t). The term also has legal ramifications that offend the sexual morality of a given time and place and so the Supreme Court says they aren’t protected by the First Amendment. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explained that he couldn’t define what kind of material was obscene, but he knew it when he saw it. In 1973 the SCOTUS ruled in the case of Miller v California that an expression must meet three criteria to be obscene:

1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

2. The work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.

3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

If the expression fails to meet any one of those criteria, then the literary work is not obscene. The “average person,” “community standards,” “patently offensive” and “serious value” are all fairly subjective terms, though. Even with the Miller Test, there’s no national standard for what classifies as obscene, and distinctions between protected expression and unprotected obscene expression vary among federal court districts.

Meanwhile, profanity is an expression that is specifically offensive to members of a religious group. The definition extends to expressions of a scatological, derogatory, racist, sexist or sexual nature. What is and isn’t profane mostly depends on the context and the company you keep. There are words we don’t say in church that we might use in the privacy of our garage when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

Vulgarity is generally coarse or crude language. It’s substituting a coarse word in a context where a more refined expression is expected. So that’s like substituting the word “butt” for the word “ass”.

Modern Writing

Swearing and vulgarity in creative writing is on the rise, especially from independent authors not associated with a large publisher. Some authors who use profanity in books believe they are representing the world as it is, and that using profanity makes their writing more authentic and powerful. One author says we need swearing to make our created worlds “bloom with color.” Other writers argue there are more effective ways to make fictional worlds “bloom”. For them, vulgarity is a cheap, convenient device to give the impression the book is up-to-date and realistic.

Important authors of the past wrote amazing works with vivid imagery, compelling scenes, and powerful characters without resorting to swearing or vulgarity. Examples are Homer’s The Odyssey (Homer), Cervantes Don Quijote, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Yes, other great works of literature contain profanity, but most great literature is admired for its powerful imagery, descriptions, language and storyline, and not its dependency on swearing or obscenities.

Since the middle of the 20th century, society has witnessed a marked decline in spiritual and moral values throughout the Western World, including a distinct weakening of traditional sexual mores. There’s been a commensurate radical increase in the use of vulgarity and profanity in the writings of authors. This language and the accompanying behavior is fueled by the obscenities heard every day in sitcoms, movies, and on the street, in schools and the workplace. These trends can be destructive to the quality and value of literature, and they really don’t help sell books.

Target Audience

Although we say we don’t, authors must always consider their target audience. This necessity leads to the multiple genres in writing—science fiction, romance, mystery, crime fiction, historical, etc. Writers who desire to reach as many readers as possible within their chosen genres should seek to avoid shocking their readers with excessive profanity. Many readers today will not be offended by an occasional profanity word or vulgarity, but unless a reader is a member of a very small, specific demographic, the shocking words meant to bring color often pull the reader out of the story because they don’t relate to the continual vulgarity. At the same time, these readers will not reject a compelling book simply because it doesn’t contain profanity.

As an evangelical Christian who didn’t grow up in church, I’m not shocked by an occasional profanity. I also don’t consider myself a Christian author. I’m a Christian who also is an author. I strive to portray Christianity in a truthful manner, but I’m not writing “message” books. As such, I include an occasional profanity and vulgarity because that’s normal life, but I don’t use them as much as many writers in my genres do. I’ve taken some flack from readers for including it at all — “She says she’s a Christian and she dedicates the book to Jesus, but then she dishonors the Savior with swear words.” Uh, yeah, I failed to discover any Bible verses that said Christians should totally disconnected from the society around us and that writers who are Christians should pretend real life doesn’t exist. “In the world, but not of it” doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of modern society’s warts.

I did some research on the topic. Great authors such as Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Higgins Clark, Amy Tan, and Brandon Sanderson, published bestselling books with little or no profanity. Most top-selling books today by large publishers contain fewer than 40 swears, including novels depicting a great deal of violence. Some traditional authors who are self-proclaimed “potty-mouths” often have fewer than 100 swears in their books. I think it’s entirely possible that these authors’ publishers have a great deal of market research that shows that the “f-bomb” in every other sentence doesn’t sell well with readers. Independent authors would do well to take note of how the big publishers conduct themselves because they have big budgets to do market research. That doesn’t mean we have to follow every jot and tittle of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association guidelines, but we should be aware of the big publishing house standards and strive for that level of professionalism.

Swearing as a Condiment

My own feeling is that authors who resort to swearing and vulgarity give the impression of lacking in class, education, sensitivity, intelligence, taste, and talent. Catcher in the Rye is a great novel, but what most people remember most about it was the overuse of a certain profanity. Punctuating your work with excessive profanity seems lazy to me. Some writing critics say when authors use profanity, they are telling the reader what is going on in the minds of the characters instead of allowing the reader to experience the emotion for themselves. An author’s job is to describe the characters’ emotions and psychological makeup. Profanity is just another “telling” example, like the overuse of adverbs.

My personal policy on profane words is similar to my view on adverbs. I’m not an absolutist. I use both as condiments. A hamburger that was mostly pickle, not even much meat or bun, wouldn’t taste right, but I personally always eat my burgers with a little bit of pickle. My characters use profanity rarely and at extremely appropriate times. When you’re falling off a cliff, it doesn’t make emotional sense to say “Gee, golly, boy-howdy.” I’m a Baptist Sunday School teacher and even I’d rip out with a “s**t” in that circumstance. I’m pretty sure my pastor might too. Thus, it makes no sense to me to limit my characters to mild curses when something stronger is appropriate. I personally don’t swear a lot in the course of my life, but I do know the words because they were an everyday occurrence in the town I grew up in — with a male to female ratio of 4 to 1 and most of the men being construction workers. And, I try to write a realistic world with real-seeming characters and so my characters swear occasionally — some more than others and some of them are offended by hearing others swear and embarrassed when they let one slip — kind of like ordinary people in America’s heartland where the Transformation Project books are set.

When I’m reading a book, I don’t care about an occasional swear, but I don’t like books that have a bunch of profanity for no legitimate reason. I read a book recently that has some scenes from the two main characters’ pasts and the guy of the two has an extremely potty mouth as a high school senior. He used the f-word as an adjective for just about every noun. But then in the current time line, he hardly swears at all — once in a conversation with a guy friend who still has a potty mouth and once when he’s upset about something and then he apologizes for it because he says it in front of a kid. I saw it as a way of showing how much he’d matured over the years. And that’s really the balance I wish to strike–not using euphemisms but not overdoing the use because readers are kind of turned off by it and I really feel that profanity is far too widespread in society and used in inappropriate settings when it doesn’t truthfully convey what it is meant to.

Posted September 13, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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