Open Mike: Do You Support The ‘F Word’?

The Open MikeI’ll be taking a study break from Novelr until late December, which means my posts here will be fewer and further between. Yes, I know this sounds quite awful, but I’m currently studying about 4 hours a day and it’ll only get worse as my Finals approach. Guest posts and community alerts are welcomed – I can come online, but only in very short bursts – so please shoot me an email if you’d like to write something for the blooking community.

I’d like to do an open mike before I vanish. An open mike is a post where you take the center stage, be it in the commenting section below, or back in your own blog, about a topic I’ll be discussing today. Brains turned on, then? Alright.

Here’s what I’d like to know: would you rather censor foul language for the sake of your audience, or would you keep it in your story, because that is telling the truth? Where do you stand when it comes to vulgarity in fiction?

This is an argument I’m pretty unsure about, because there are very valid opinions on both sides. On one hand we have Stephen King, who defends his use of the f-word because he is writing about common, working-class people, and they say fuck more than they do foie gras. On the other hand (the cleaner one, you’d suppose) you have the argument that it is just impolite to litter your prose with, well, impolite language. The most creative treatment of vulgar language I have seen is by children’s writer Diana Wynn Jones. Yes, you got me right – a children’s author. In her book Wilkin’s Tooth the neighbourhood bully is a particularly rude child, and he frequently uses (in her words) ‘colourful language’. Jones treats this quite literally – her dialogue from the bullies is filled with “orange” and “black” and “you purple red green boy you!!” Witty stuff.

Where do you stand on this issue?

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Category: Meta · Writing
  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    I’d say use the language that fits the story you’re telling. Swearing is and has always been part of our language.

    Not all stories need swearing, but I don’t think it should be avoided because its “rude”.

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    Would you rather censor foul language for the sake of your audience,

    No. Or perhaps, hell no would be closer to my thoughts.

    … or would you keep it in your story, because that is telling the truth?

    Well, now that’s something entirely different. Keeping it there implies that I would consider taking it out in the first place, which I wouldn’t.

    Stephen King, who defends his use of the f-word because he is writing about common, working-class people, and they say fuck more than they do foie gras.

    There, he’s already said all I could I think. I write targeting an adult audience. There is sex, and violence. If you don’t get turned away by that, what’s a little swearing on the side? It fits, the readers are adults, why coddle them?

    Where do you stand when it comes to vulgarity in fiction?

    There is a time and a place. If writing a childrens book, perhaps colourful language is a good alternative. It’s brilliant.

    In an adults book though? Again, there’s a time and a place, but it shouldn’t be excluded based entirely on perceptions.

  • http://millvexations.com Kyt Dotson

    For the sake of my audience? I don’t need to. If I am writing to an audience that cannot stand the vulgar turn then they won’t be receiving it in the story because it’ll be written in a styling best suited to their airy graces—I don’t need to think about it that way, the fiction will unfold around the audience I want to attract. Things that alienate that audience will be peripheral.

    If the audience, on the other hand, belongs to the gutter and a grosser reality then it’ll be there at whatever force it needs since they live it day to day. If someone with more delicate sensibilities wants to end up reading my story and takes offense they can up and go because they’ll be the outliers.

    I don’t so much write things for the sake of my audience, I write things to cultivate my audience.

    Although, I often like to mix cultures just enough to give a taste of either in a lot of my work. I write for the penny and if it’s being tossed from one hand and not another, I will likely garden for those minds.

    Where do I stand?

    Write! Readers choose to put down books with far more caprice than simple vulgarity can engender, if it’s not that it may be something else. Just be thematically consistent and a story will gather the likely lights around it—and if they find it popular enough in their own lives soon the wishy-washy readers will come and with them possibly even audiences that would gasp at the scandal of bad words.

  • http://allantmichaels.digitalnovelists.com Allan T Michaels

    I’m all for cursing, if it fits the story. I curse a lot in my daily life, but my characters tend not to, because it’s not who they are. I can certainly imagine situations where they would, but we’ve yet to encounter them. I think “shit” is as blue as I’ve gotten so far.

    You know, it used to be, I’d have said it’s pointless to make up words, rather than just saying the curse. But then, I saw Battlestar Galactica. I think they handle it really well. The characters curse all the time. But not it a word we would consider cursing. But if you count the “fraks” there’s more cursing than at a Richard Pryor show in any given episode.

    The other example I’ve seen is on Firefly. The characters there clearly curse. But they do it in Mandarin, so most viewers don’t get it, or at least, aren’t offended by it.

    It’s amazing what the reader will put up with. I doubt even the most sensitive would stop reading if I wrote the line: “Mike was stumbling through his living room looking for that first cup of coffee when he stubbed his toe. He cursed loudly.”

    It’s not the fact that he’s cursing. It’s the act of writing out the word itself. So, there are ways around it if you want to avoid the words, without painting a pretty picture of real life. But if you don’t want to, curse away. Especially the F-word. It’s so versatile, as demonstrated at the following link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCcCzj_yRtk

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    Firstly, I love you for linking that video. I had a good laugh over the same video a long time ago, and it’s nice to see it again.

    I’ve dropped the F-‘bomb’ atleast once, but if you want to talk about versatile, the once that comes to mind was when one of my character was trying to cast a teleport spell with a building falling down around him and he injects it into the middle of the latin on about the third try.

    Ironically, that’s the try that worked.

    I don’t agree that we should have to obfuscate the fact that our characters are swearing, but the fact of the matter is, when writing for large audiences to make money, you want to offend as few people as possible, and for some reason beyond me, this is necessary. Oh well.

  • http://www.themutantstory.com/?page_id=2 Sonja

    Time and place and all things in moderation, imo. I don’t like gratuitous cursing because then it’s just repetitive and boring.

    Yay for the way cursing was portrayed in Firefly.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    Cursing is a bit of an odd thing for me.

    I personally pretty much never swear in real life. By contrast, I don’t hesitate to use it in print if it’s in character for the the character. I’m writing a superhero serial which (if I were to pretend to follow the comics code which even comics mostly don’t follow) theoretically wouldn’t include swearing at all. In my case though, I’m trying to be as socially realistic as I can be given the situation (teenage superheroes?) so certain characters will just swear and I don’t see any reason to avoid it.

    I probably have them do it less and at more dramatic moments than they would in real life though.

    One of my professors when I was in college allowed his students to use a maximum of either one obscenity per page or possibly per story. His reasoning was that if you used them all the time, they lost any impact they might have. Another reason was that he felt that students used them as a crutch and he thought they ought to be able to express the same thing without them.

    I suspect he was probably right, but it didn’t affect me much. I suspect I use them less than one per page.

  • http://wibblypress.net Stormy

    I’m not afraid of using swearing. People swear, it’s a thing. And the words themselves have a lot less impact than they did, say twenty years ago.

    I just did a quick check, in MF, the “f-word” is in there sixteen times. Six of these are from the MC, a couple of which I’m going to go back and change, since she tends to use the hacker alternate “fsck”, and only the “f-word” when the situation calls for it. The majority of the rest are from a character who casually swears, and has a pretty foul mouth (and attitude) in any case. I’m a bit more liberal with the “s-word” (thirty counts, including “bull-s-word”).

    I don’t think I have to tone it down for my readers – I don’t think I have anyone reading who isn’t at least in late high-school, so they probably hear worse on a daily basis.

  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    I swear, most people I know swear, my characters swear. It’s natural. While I do self censor when I’m, say, around my mother, I have no intention of self censoring my writing.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    I think Irving said it well in the first comment: there’s generally no reason to avoid profanity, but if you’re going out of your way to include it, the cursing is probably hurting your story.

  • http://www.celephi.com/blog2.php EJ Spurrell

    I have no intention of easing up on the swearing because of “Tender eyes.” I keep the premise quite simple. If you don’t like the fact that my characters swear, go read a children’s book. Swearing is very much a part of the human vernacular and I refuse to believe that a single word, undirected at any particular person, place, or thing is going to offend someone. (And if it does, they’re much too sensitive and need to become desensitized… just a little.)

    Now, I don’t go nuts with the swearing, mind you. I keep it on a character-to-character basis. Some characters tend to swear a lot because it’s their nature. Others swear less because it’s their nature. Other still don’t swear at all, and say “Golly” because, simply put, that’s their nature.

    That being said, I’d never swear in the narrative, but wouldn’t hesitate to use it in dialogue, provided the voice behind it has reason to use it. (Either s/he’s foul-mouthed/angry/shocked/etc.)

  • http://www.adammaxwell.com Adam Maxwell

    I love a bit of creative swearing – mangling swear words with non-swear words to create wordspawns and mashing two swearwords together to create new and excellent examples of the form.

    But, it has to be said, that they have a place. Some stories have swearing, some have none. It really just depends on which way the story goes. In the end there is no word I would not use, swearing or otherwise.

  • http://courage-my-friend.org Chris Poirier

    Well, I guess I’ll add to the forming consensus: my characters swear/curse/whatever-wrong-word-you-want-to-use liberally, though seldom at length.

    “Vulgar” is the word my mom likes to use when telling me off. She usually grinds it, too, the way I would “Fuck!”, which I find deeply ironic. And as I’ve explained to her on many occasions, “vulgar” simply means “common”, or “of the people”. All this comes down to a thousand year old racist grudge–Norman parents not liking their children using words from their conquered Saxon serfs. It’s kind of pathetic, to be honest, that anybody still gives a shit — and usually in the name of “decency” and “morality”.

    Words are words. They have no more or less meaning than the speaker/writer intends and that the hearer/reader interprets. You can swap in “Fudge!” for “Fuck!”, but if you meant it the same way, you’ve said the same thing.

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    Words are words. They have no more or less meaning than the speaker/writer intends and that the hearer/reader interprets. You can swap in “Fudge!” for “Fuck!”, but if you meant it the same way, you’ve said the same thing.

    And just when I thought all sorts of ‘correctness’ were starting to pull the world into a deep, dark pit. I know my sister atleast did this particular substitution, and somehow it was fine by my mother.

    Go figure.

  • http://bigmellymills@blogspot.com GGCT

    Our story is written for younger readers, so we’re sensitive when it comes to keeping the language appropriate for our audience–and appropriate for our narrator as well, so it’s fortunate that she’s not the type to be dropping F-bombs left and right (and it would be awkward and out of character for her to do so without a darn good reason).

    But if our target audience were a few years older, and if we had a protagonist who ran with a crowd of foul-mouthed malcontents, it would be unnatural and weird for us to hold back.

    So it all depends.

  • http://courage-my-friend.org Chris Poirier

    I don’t know — I was a “late bloomer” in the mouth department. Grade 7 (circa 11). And I learned all my bad language from my 2-year younger brother. ;-)

  • http://www.millvexations.com Kyt Dotson

    Bad language has bite to those who are used to decorum. And like Chris’s treatise on the word “vulgar” it’s also sometimes a proper part of characterization and setting.

    I’m an amateur linguist and anthropologist, so taboo words and language are extremely important to me. If I read a book where the character belongs to a culture or class where they should be swearing—they’d better be swearing.

    Fun fact, I never started swearing myself. I’ve always been an extreme prude when it comes to my own language. However, Vex does and like a sailor.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    “Vulgar” is the word my mom likes to use when telling me off. She usually grinds it, too, the way I would “Fuck!”, which I find deeply ironic. And as I’ve explained to her on many occasions, “vulgar” simply means “common”, or “of the people”. All this comes down to a thousand year old racist grudge–Norman parents not liking their children using words from their conquered Saxon serfs.

    Now that is cool stuff. Lemme try:

    Vulgar! Vulgar! Vulgar! Vulgar! Vulgar vulgar!! V for Vulgar!!!

    Ehheh =)

    On a more serious note – there seems to be a consensus on writing vulgar. But how about reading? I’ve many friends who shun Stephen King for precisely that reason – they say they don’t like him because he’s too rude. Most of these friends are, admittedly, people who don’t swear … so they find the experience of having ‘fuck’ repeatedly thrown at them very disconcerting.

    I personally don’t like reading over-the-top swearing, but it’s usually bearable if I remember that this is the character speaking, and all his/her history behind all those words. I don’t, however, remember any swearing in old classics like War and Peace, The Age of Innocence, or even Harry Potter, for that matter – and many characters in these novels have every right to swear.

    What’s your say on this?

  • http://courage-my-friend.org Chris Poirier

    Hi Eli,

    I don’t worry about readers in that way. There’s going to be people who have all sorts of personal objections to your writing or your story. I write for myself first, and for people who might like my story second. Everybody else, I pay no attention to. :-)

    That’s not to say I don’t spend a lot of effort trying to improve my writing, just that I pick and choose my battles. Bad prose? Poor characterization? Hackneyed plot? Those things I’ll work on. Unpopular prose? Unhappy characters? Dark plot? Those things I won’t. I write what I feel, and I write it in the way that feels right to me. That’s the part of the equation I consider inviolate.

    I know for a fact that I’ve lost one reader of Winter Rain due to the vulgarity: my mom. She hasn’t read a word of it, and she told me she wouldn’t if I used bad language in it. The thing is, it’s for the best: the vulgarity would have turned out to be the least objectionable thing in it, for her. The story’s full of anger, disillusionment, and pain. If you can’t get past the language, you aren’t ready for the story, anyway.

    Chris.

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    I think Eli was refering to your own reading habbits.

    As for me, I read what I read, which isn’t a whole lot. I don’t put a book down because there’s a dirty word, but at the same time, as noted above already, if it starts interfereing with plot, etc, there’s something wrong, and I just might.

    It’s a balancing act, but no, ‘bad’ language isn’t a turnoff in and of itself for me.

  • Sam

    Swearing, when used to add to the personality of a character, would be perfectly fine with me.
    Too much swearing or partially censored swear words are a complete waste of time because it takes away any impact intended and Fcuk is just a ridiculous stand-in for the actual word itself.
    But there exists people who completely tune out anything else when they hear the word Fuck. If they’re the intended audience…
    Personal Interpretation I guess?