This next blog is going to sound like I am really getting old>>> BUT, here goes anyway!
Why do authors feel the need to inject profanity into their novels?
I am going through a lot of Ellis Peters, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh audio books (and enjoying all of them immensely!) right now, and I am struck by their lack of profanity. Years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed the lack of these “choice words” as that seemed to be the common practice.
So why is it that it seems like authors truly feel like they have to include “harsh words” into their novels to make the dialogue seem realistic? >>> Words that years ago would have prompted your mother/father to wash your mouth out with soap.
Do you think that it’s because we, as a society, have become relaxed? OR Do you think that it’s because it seems like it is now acceptable for major network television channels to feature child actors who say things like “Up Yours!” to their on-air parents (to which the laugh-track man/woman inserts huge peals of laughter)? OR Could it be that people really do talk like this? OR Is it that our vocabularies have gotten so poor that we now feel like we have to add these verbs, nouns, adjectives (etc.) to get our points across to our listeners? (Or in this case, the readers?)
I have been out of the work force for many years, so I have to rely on other people to tell me if their offices are inundated with people who … let’s just call it what it is… swear. And, of all the people I have asked, not a one has responded that it’s common-place to hear obscene language at his/her office. So I wonder why it is so common for authors to have their characters swearing.
What I’d like to know is this: How would you feel if Miss Marple’s response to the Inspector’s clumsy line of questioning went something like this:
“Get off your *##&^#* *%##@* and get to the *^#@&* point, you *^$@&^** !!! ”
Do you think that Agatha Christie would still have become the grande dame of mysteries?!?
I couldn’t agree more. Until recently, I volunteered as librarian at my church which has a fairly large and eclectic collection. Mysteries are a favorite. So many good tales and/or authors were off-limits for inclusion because of bad language.
I just finished my first Joanne Fluke book. Her sleuth occasionally uttered, “a bad word I’d never say in front of my nieces!” That got the point across without being offensive . . . Thanks, Pam
Frank Sinatra said in a song “People who once knew better words now only use four letter words”. I think that modern writers feel it is necessary to use bad language because they think it will show how “with it” they are. Or they have forgotten how to write using anything else. Sometimes I think they must be paid for each “bad” word they write.
I have stopped reading some writers who have decreased their vocabulary to four letter words. The more of them they use the less words are necessary for the plot.
I agree with Frank. When people become accustomed to using foul language, they don’t even try to learn other ways of expressing themselves. I don’t think that writers have to use bad language to get their points across. It’s an easy way out.
To answer your question, I do not think Agatha Christie would have written that way – it would not be her style. Is the language offensive? Yes. Can we expect some of that kind of language? It is a sign of the times. Does it go overboard? You bet. I would be surprised if there was none of this in the writings of the authors – just do not let it go too far to take away from what is being written about.
I am in the process of writing a children’s book, my first, aimed at 12+ year olds, although I have seen swearing in other children’s novels I am trying not to use them in mine, I want the parents to buy my book…when it gets published of course…but, will they want to read something which isn’t realistic, lets be honest here, in today’s society, everyone appears to swear just listen to them talk, and the kids pick it up. I agree that there should be other words to use instead of expletives which show a lack of education so I really don’t know what’s best. Should I use swear words or try to write without?
I think you should write it without these words. Often, children are not taught how to be polite, how to behave in public, or how to use or increase their vocabulary. By inserting these words into an otherwise wonderful story takes away from the characters. Even bullies or other ‘bad guys’ can be shown how bad they are without those words – use their actions, not their words. If children, (and yes, even 12 year olds are still children), hear the words in school, in the places they frequent, and then read it in books they’ve chosen or had chosen for them, it provides confirmation that these words or phrases are acceptable. They are still learning, even if the book is not a school book. Let’s teach them how to turn a phrase or give a look of disgust or warning — instead of using ‘swear’ words. I believe if you were to read some of the classics, there are a number of ways to tell someone off very politely, yet very clearly. J.K. Rowling had some interesting epithets, I believe, in the Harry Potter series. In fact, in some cases, you might want to make up words for the kids to use in the story illustrating they do not swear, but have feelings they cannot express in the heat of the moment. As a pre-teen, I, myself invented “potato brains!”, “oh, poodles!”, and “monkey sweat!” I hope this was helpful, good luck to you on your book!
Danna - cozy mystery list says
Penny, I totally agree with you about leaving those words out, as well as twelve year olds being children.
(I hope Amanda sees your comment.)
Note how glorious Elizabeth Peters, in the narratives of Amelia Peabody and her children (time period roughly that of Sherlock Holmes mysteries) often refer to the supreme ability in profanity of Professor Radcliffe Emerson, called by Egyptians the ‘Father of Curses’ while never relating anything more raw than an occasional ‘blasted’ or ‘confounded’. We can assume such quotes have been bowlderized or euphemized. It’s just refreshing, and more fun. And, just as ‘F-bomb adjectives actually DEFUSE the power of what the sayer wants to emphasize. Compare old ‘Production Code’ movie acting to Tarantino dialog loaded script recital nowadays. ACTING skills, oratorial power made the messages intense and memorable. Dirty words are weakness and blastphemy is just deplorable, like the tantrums of dictators sunk in the worst of ‘second childhood’.
Lilian Jackson Braun stopped her Cat Who/Qwilleran series (beloved round the world) for about 18 years because editors wanted her to ‘spice it up’ with vulgarity. So glad she had honor, and won out!
I just realized how old this post was – 3 years! Oh, well, maybe my comments will help someone! 🙂
Danna - cozy mystery list says
I certainly would never include any swearing in a book aimed at 12 year olds. As a matter of fact, I would NEVER have tolerated it from either of my children, and, if I had heard one of their friends repeatedly swearing, that would have been the end of that friendship! (My husband and I were pretty strict about things like that when our children were young.)
As for hearing swearing out of my students (years ago when I taught)… I sent an eighteen year old senior in high school to the principal’s office for using some rather choice words in my classroom… and she was an honor student!
I would never have (knowingly) bought a book with swearing for either of my children when they were twelve. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t complain when other parents want to buy books with swearing in them, but that’s their choice. We simply didn’t use that type of language in our household.
Sometimes swearing is needed for realism. (Because, unfortunately, there is a lot of swearing nowadays.) However, I prefer for the author to describe the swearing rather than give exact words. Something like: “At Inspector Smith’s question, Bob unleashed a torrent of obscenity” or “Alice swore softly under her breath”.
Danna - cozy mystery list says
As you say, an author should be able to do exactly what you described. Unfortunately, a lot of Cozy Mystery authors don’t know that… and seem content to “push the envelope” because of society’s ever-changing attitude of what is acceptable. Imagine asking Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln whether he wore boxers or briefs! (I know, I know… I sound ancient!)
A lot of times, I think , especially if there is much of it, it is a lazy way to get the reader’s attention. Gets mine all right. Usually results in my sticking the book back on the shelf.
The heading of the particular topic is “Do people really talk like this?” Yes they do, and it is becoming more apparent everday. From the young elementary school kids to our senior citizens, the filty language is becoming common place. I hate it. I hate the taking of the Lord’s name in vain.
I want to think this is because of the rough times that people go through and it is their anger coming out. But I know quite a few young adults, say those around 18 and older tend to think this way of talking makes them feel big and important. Young women seem to think talking like this makes them on the same scale as their male conterparts. Of course, if a child lives in a house with this language it is natural they will pick it up too!
I can get past some swearing in the books I read but if the swearing is in just too much abundance then I will put the book down and then not pick up that author again, I don’t care how many times that author has been on the New York Times best seller list!!
Sometimes this language is just pure filth, in my book.
Charles Todd and Sharyn Mc Crumb are great authors that would fit on this list