My experience with books has been that if there’s a lot of profanity, I stop reading. It often seems to signal a level of taste in the story that tells me I’m not going to like other things. But in recently reading Pieces of My Heart by Robert Wagner, I’ve come to think that maybe it’s more of a story or character issue.
I remember the first time I stopped reading a book for the profanity. It was the movie tie-in for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it had quite a bit in the first chapter. Yikes. I didn’t realize it was that long ago — 1977. But even then, I had the sense the use didn’t add anything to the story. Hollywood was just starting to get more profanity in films, so it seemed like it made it more easy to overuse it because there weren’t any boundaries. It was more of, “Hey! I can swear now!”
But it is a challenging subject. The words can have high impact, but they also can offend people. Depending on how they’re used, they can also distract from the story. I think the fact that they can carry such an emotional connection and emotional baggage makes them a challenge to use, more so than other story elements. That emotional part can override what’s right for the story. A person who swore for the first time and is afraid someone will catch them is going to having a very different reaction than a person who grew up hearing it regularly from a family member. I still remember seeing a little boy of about 3 or 4 who came out into his driveway and started swearing worse than most adults (a few years later, I drove by that house and there was a coroner’s station wagon outside it).
So it’s important to recognize that it can have that emotional baggage. It seems like when the subject pops up, most writers will start argue about their first amendment right to use profanity, or accuracy of a certain type of character. I even had someone tell me it wasn’t realistic to have a military character who doesn’t use profanity. Excuse me! I never used profanity, and I was in a unit where there was an unwritten rule about using it. There were also some male soldiers who simply wouldn’t do it, and others who would do it as a matter of course. So “all soldiers swear” cannot be an automatic assumption. It’s an individual thing. For all I know, it may even vary, depending on the service.
Curiously, in the discussion, few writers focus on the story or the actual characterization. Maybe that emotional baggage?
But for me, it goes to what feels right for the story. One of my favorite films is Jumping Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Penny Marshall. Her character swears almost non-stop through the film, but mainly it’s only her character who does the swearing, and other characters call her on it. But it creates some of the funniest scenes. I also watched the version with all the profanity cut out, and it lost a lot of the story and the characterization.
The same happened with the Robert Wagner book. I read the book, enjoyed it, and then looked at the reviews. I was surprised to see some reviewers complaining about all the profanity, and I was thinking “What profanity?” Then I remembered that there was one chapter where the actor told a story about David Niven, and it was the story itself. The only way to deal with the profanity in the story was to omit the entire story because without the profanity, there was no story.
But there’s also what the readers want to see and their expectations. They sometimes get left out of the discussion in the quest to please reviewers or booksellers, or to be trendy. As a reader, where do you draw the line on the profanity? What kind of reaction do you have? As a writer, how do you determine where to push that line and where to pull back?
Good news! A flash fiction piece was a runner up in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Mysterious Photograph Contest. Also, my non-fiction piece “War Happens” will be in Red, White, and True, which is being released by University of Nebraska Press in August, 2014.