Profanity in Literature

pottymouthWhat do you think about profanity in literature?  Some people can’t stand it, think it reveals sloppy writing, insist that writers can still get their point across without using curse words.

Wendy Lawton, an agent at Books & Such Literary, recently blogged:

But for me the biggest reason to avoid questionable language in a book is that it is usually lazy writing. It’s like telling instead of showing. Rather than just put a cuss word in a character’s mouth, there are so many more powerful ways to get the attitude and language across.

(You can read her entire post here.)

My friend and fellow writer Addie Zierman, whose memoir was released this week, likewise blogged about why her Christian memoir has R-rated words, saying:

And yet maybe there’s that person who needs to hear it. The bad word, the foul word, the one that cuts into the hard reality of her life. Maybe she needs to know that God is big enough to go even there. That his grace makes beauty from what is hard and ugly and foul. That he loves her more than all that.

Grace Biskie, a Christian blogger, used some profanity in one of her posts and then later defended her swearing, saying this:

Jesus is my life.  Jesus is my everything.  Jesus is my all in all.  ALL MY EGGS are in the Jesus basket.  I have no other eggs, no other baskets.  Everything about me lives and breathes and moves and longs for Jesus.  I long to live life in the presence of God, faithful to the work that He’s given me.  What I want you to know about why I swear, in light of allegiance to my faith is this: I’m trying to fucking survive. That’s all I can say.  That’s all I can tell you.  …  If you are worried about me, don’t.  I have an inner circle.  I have a therapist.  I have Jesus.  And thankfully, antidepressants.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, readers– Christian and otherwise.  My young adult novel (on submission right now) has more than a handful of curse words, including a couple of the dreaded F-bombs.  When I was writing those scenes, though, it truly felt that no other word would capture the complete devastation of those moments.  They are sad, scary, heartbreaking scenes where the characters are broken, and no other word felt powerful enough to reach out and slap the reader’s heart in a way that they could realize the ruins my characters lay in.

I will lose some readers because of this, I imagine.  My own mother and sister don’t understand my “need” to use such harsh words in my writing.  I know that if my brother reads my story, he will be disappointed with my word choices.  But I don’t feel guilty, and I know that part of that is due to the spiritual freedom I’ve experienced since God and ERP broke my shackles four years ago.

Let’s start a discussion in the comments below, friends!  All opinions welcome!  Play nice.

11 thoughts on “Profanity in Literature

  1. Profanity can be part of a character. In the “Dexter” series (novels and television), Deb constantly uses the F-word, but she uses it so often and in so many wildly creative ways it becomes funny and not offensive. On the other hand, there’s a tremendous amount of controversy regarding the n-word in Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” – so much so that people have lost sight of the story itself and focus only on the language. I think if it is used sparingly and as part of a character, it works. Otherwise, it is best left out, or used only to punctuate significant situations. A judgement call on the part of the author.

    • These are very good points. The only times I really use curse words is for character development. People swear in life, and if you are writing about a character who likes to swear, then they should be swearing. I would make a distinction of course between mashing up swears for shock value, rather than using the word to it’s full potential. Swear words are still words, with definitions and grammatical rules.

  2. A very good question. Being quite a Puritan by nature, I personally steer clear of profanity in writing. Almost always.

    I am reminded, however, of a story about the evangelist Tony Campolo speaking years ago at a chapel service of a prominent Midwestern Christian college. He said something to the effect of —

    “It is a fucking sin that children are starving all around the world while we toss food in the trash. And an even greater sin is that you care more that I just said ‘fucking’ in chapel than you care about starving children.”

  3. Interesting topic. I have a few cuss words in my novel that I’m preparing for submission. My novel is a YA fantasy with religious undertones. I’ve been wondering if I should remove them because my novel is aimed at teens but will also peek the interests of advanced middle grade readers. However, these words are coming from a demon so I feel crude language is appropriate. I don’t believe using profanity translates as lazy writing if you are trying to convey a lazy vocabulary inherit to a character.

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  5. I think writing should reflect reality, especially contemporary YA. I hear sweet little 8th graders cuss everyday. As a writer, to exclude those words is like putting your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la la.” Obviously, we don’t want to over use profanity (isn’t a golden rule of writing that you get one “fuck” in a story?), but it’s a part of most teens vocabulary.

  6. I’m on the side of occasional cussing – such is life, if I am telling a true story I don;t think it is my job to clean-up the event enough for the prude to come near, nor is it honest to the person I am writing about, including myself. I recently posted some stories about an experience I had where I told some kids what they had just done was some “punk-ass-shit” I considered editing my own words – partly cuz my mom might read it! lol decided no. I must also be true to myself in the experience

  7. I agree with the sentiment that a story ought to reflect reality. By being deferent to a pious few it comes off as inauthentic when stories, even those with Christian themes, are unable to convey honest emotions and the attempts to express those emotions. And contrary to the notion of laziness, when used properly, these four letter words provide powerful expression that helps get a point across.

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  9. While I strive to avoid the use of profanity and other foul language myself (following Ephesians 4:29, 5:3-4), I can see how authenticity, verisimilitude, or accuracy would require it in certain writing projects, such as a biography of Richard Pryor or the story of Watergate told from the tape recorder’s point of view.

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