I recently had an interview booked on a radio show with a host who was looking forward to chatting about Island Girl. The book had been sent to her months before, the bio had been forwarded and the questionnaire answered. We had communicated by e-mail a few times, and it was all systems go for the interview. So imagine my surprise when I received another e-mail only days before the date, informing me that it was with “mixed emotions” that she was forced to cancel.
The reason? Profanity. Turned out she hadn’t read the book until the week before, and has very strong feelings about the issue. To cut to the chase, she couldn’t possibly endorse a book, even one she enjoyed, if it contained profanity.
Now I admit that one character, Liz, swears a lot. In fact a quick count of the F-bomb alone puts her use of the word at well over two dozen. Still, I was shocked to discover that in 2011 in North America, the use of profanity in an adult novel could still get you banned in some places.
I’m not saying the radio host was wrong. She has the right to choose which books she reads and which guests she has on her show. But it was her admission that she had mixed emotions about cancelling the interview that intrigued me.
Despite the profanity, she had found something to like in the book, something to give her pause, to make her hesitate, if only for a moment before cancelling. Of course, to my mind, it would have been better to forge ahead, to have a heated discussion about the issue, to engage the audience and challenge established ideals and values. But not everyone likes heated discussion, something I appreciate but will never understand, but that is an issue for another day.
The point today is that her e-mail got me to thinking: Could I have written that character without dropping a single F-bomb on the reader? Would she have have been less believable, less realistic, if her language had been more genteel?
I’m not the first to think about this issue. There are no shortage of essays and blogs written on the subject, most from the point-of-view that profanity is never necessary. The proponents of gentle speech routinely trot out the popularity of Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and, more recently, Stephanie Meyers as proof that one need not use crude language in order to create compelling fiction.
That’s all well and good, but both Austen and Hemingway wrote in bygone eras when social rules were stricter and censorship harsher. And Meyers writes contemporary fiction in a genre where careful speech is appreciated, which makes sense I suppose since young minds are at stake, but that too is a topic for another day.
My novel, Island Girl, is written for adults, and I couldn`t help wondering if my character would have worked as well as she does, had she been more circumspect in her speech. Let me be clear up front – not every reader likes Liz. Some actively hate her. She’s an alcoholic, after all, and self -destructive, so she’s not always on her best behaviour. She’s purposely shocking in both dress and lifestyle, so again, not someone who’s going to worry about offending people, not someone you would necessarily want for a friend. But does that mean profanity has to form part of her character?
When I was a kid, my mother always told me that nice girls don’t swear because it marks them not only as crude, but also semi-literate. Lacking the words to express themselves properly, the poor unfortunates had no choice but to fall back on the shock value of profanity. I, on the other hand, was one of the lucky girls, equipped with a plethora of words all balanced neatly on the tip of my tongue, just waiting to be set loose in a fabulous tribute to the English language. In short, there was no need for me to stoop to such low speech.
A fart could become a gaseous expulsion. Shit, a malodorous discharge. And of course, there are the old standbys of penis as member and ass as bottom. Mom was right. The alternatives are endless if one only tries. As for cursing, my character could have said gosh darn instead of God damn and heck instead of hell, so honestly, does anyone ever need to drop an F-Bomb on anyone?
After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is yes – sometimes an F-bomb is essential to the realistic portrayal of a character. Liz would never have said Gosh Darn, unless she was trying to be a smart ass. Or should I say, a clever rascal. Except she’s not a rascal. A rascal implies an impish quality, a playfulness, even a certain innocence, which in no way describes Liz. Had I gone that route with her speech, she would have become someone else. A woman who liked herself, who wasn’t a danger to herself. A plucky character everyone could like, and that is not who she is. I honestly believe that not only Liz, but the story as a whole would have been weakened with the use of gentle language for her character.
So I stand by my F-bombs, knowing there will be fallout. And again, I ask, what think you?