On The Subject of Profanity In Fiction

As an author, you know when you put any book out there that somebody, somewhere, isn’t going to like it.  You can’t please all the people all the time.  And that’s fine.  There are readers out there for everybody and everything (as proved by the popularity of the dino erotica, but that’s another matter).  As a general rule, I try not to read reviews.  Reviews are not FOR me, as the author.  Reviews are aimed at other readers–and love or hate, that’s someone’s opinion.  It’s being put out there to help other readers determine whether or not a book is for them.  But sometimes my will power fails, and I’ll go look.  Or see inadvertently when I’m looking at my Amazon ranking.

I’ve had various criticisms lobbed at To Get Me To You (thanks to the recent Bookbub, nearly my widest read work, second only to Blindsight, which has just been out for way longer).  

It’s too long/wordy/detailed.  That’s fair.  I did a metric ton of research on that book and because of who the shero was, the specifics of the marketing involved in saving the town were, in my opinion, important to the plot and to the setup of the series arc. That’s not for everybody.

It sounds like another book I read.  I am not the first person to write a small town romance set against a threat from a big box store, nor will I be the last. There are no new stories out there.  Just different ways of telling them.

It would’ve been better without the sex.  We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.  None of my books are classified as sweet romance, so if it’s a novel, they’re probably hitting the sheets at some point and that’s an important part of the romance arc.  Better that be out there up front, so nobody’s surprised.

It just wasn’t for me.  Dude, that is totally okay!  I try books all the time that aren’t my bag.  Sometimes it’s because it’s just not what I’m in the mood to read that day and sometimes it’s because it would never be something I was into.  There are millions of books out there.  Don’t waste your time reading something that doesn’t float your boat, because hey, this isn’t school and you aren’t being graded for not finishing something.

But the particular criticism that seems to be popping up most often (because several readers have felt compelled to email me about it directly) is my use of profanity in fiction.  And I don’t mean the usual lexicon of four letter words that have, over decades and centuries, been decided are taboo.  The objection seems to be of the “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” variety.  One review insisted I used Jesus as a cussword.  I still maintain it was an exclamation or a shorthand interrogatory and that Jesus does not have the grammatical variability of a good F-bomb, but that’s personal preference and not something I’m here to debate.  No, the two points I actually want to address are the issue of intelligence and using profanity to sell books.

It is an oft lobbed criticism that people swear because they aren’t smart enough to come up with a better way to say things.  In fact, there have been psychological studies that prove this is not the case.  People who swear a lot are very low in the taboo quotient–meaning they don’t give a damn what society or anyone else says and aren’t going to be held back by arbitrary rules about what words are considered acceptable and what words are not.  I will happily submit myself or any of my foul-mouthed friends in any legitimate vocabulary competition to further prove disprove the assertion that we somehow lack intelligence.

The conclusion of the blistering email I received this morning was that you don’t need profanity to sell books.  I agree with this 100%.  You don’t need profanity to sell books.  And that isn’t why I use it.  I use profanity in my books for verisimilitude.  Because that’s HOW PEOPLE SPEAK.  What those characters swear about and what curses they choose says something about who they are. People swear when they’re angry or upset or when they stub their toe for the umpteenth time on the coffee table.  People swear when they’re impassioned.  People swear.  Period.  Cursing is language. It’s a part of the rich tapestry of life and I employ it with my characters because it’s just another layer of detail that makes them real, makes them relatable.

Now maybe that’s not relatable to you.  And that’s fine.  You may choose not to swear at all.  You may choose never to take the Lord’s name in vain.  You may actually believe that saying “Lord, that person is crazy,” is wrong.  That’s your prerogative.  But it is not mine.  My characters swear.  I swear.  We’re all going to continue to swear, and we aren’t going to change that because it makes you uncomfortable or somehow violates your personal principles.  So please, go ahead and review my book poorly on that front.  Shout it from the rooftops and tell your friends.  Because you are not my target audience, and you’d be doing me a favor in scaring away any prospective readers who share your particular sensibilities.

Meanwhile, may I direct you to Harlequin’s Love Inspired line?  Or their religious suspense?  Or other segments of Christian romance?  These genres actually do have a convention of limiting or eliminating swearing and they may be more to your liking.  You should probably just avoid the other 90-95% of adult fiction entirely.

P.S.  I’m leaving comments on for now.  Feel free to express your opinion, but play nice or I’ll dropkick your butt into the spam folder.

12 thoughts on “On The Subject of Profanity In Fiction

  1. Thank you for writing this. 🙂
    I completely agree, and it’s awesome to see an article that states how very wrong it is that people who curse have low intellects. I understand that some people don’t care for it. That’s fine. But to suggest that a person has to be stupid in order to curse is rather…unintelligent. 😉

  2. ::fist bump in solidarity:: Writing YA makes that old “why was there sex” question pretty touchy. I get nasty reviews and emails from parents who can’t believe I’d put a (non-graphic) sex/make out scene in a book for teens. I’m sorry–teens both think about and have sex. If I’m demonstrating a healthy relationship where the couple also uses protection, how is that worse than them watching half the shows they watch on TV? Le sigh.

  3. As a fellow author who writes characters that sometimes say ‘fuck’ more than once in a sentence, and as a human being who swears whenever the urge arises in my own life – I applaud you! Your reply shows intelligence and restraint, qualities the sender of the email should have thought about before clicking the send button. Do you mind if I re-post your article on my site – strictly as a preemptive measure? 🙂
    Jolene Cazzola recently posted…FINALIST – Maggie Award for Excellence!My Profile

  4. Angie

    Kait, I am a born again Christian… and a Southern Baptist at that! But I love your books! As you said, you write like people speak..my mouth over rules my Christian heart more times than I care to admit & the times when I have the willpower to bite my tongue, the thought was there anyway. Remember Jimmy Carter said thinking is as bad as doing…I believe he said he’d committed adultery in his heart many times. Good Christians admit their own sins instead of pointing the finger… Why didn’t those people just toss the book when they ran across the ” bad stuff”…nope…they read it and sought absolution by criticism. You don’t get “trashy” with the sex, or pepper every sentence with 4 letter words. What you do so well, is develop your story and give us characters to fall in love with…..I would move to Wishful in a skinny minute. Every story prepares us for the next one…keep doing what you do and we’ll just pray for your critics.

    Angie

    • Not gonna lie. Got a little teary. Thank you so much!

      • Angie

        ?

  5. This. So much this! I know a few people who don’t swear or try not to…very few. Most people do use curse words on occasion, and others spread it on like mayonnaise on a ‘mater sammich. My heroines — most of them are pottymouths. My heroes, might not curse around the heroines, but they damn sure let the f-bombs fall around their male friends. That’s just life. That’s just how folks talk. We might not be using profanity to sell books, but we are using realism. If it isn’t real and true, you better believe we’ll hear about that in a review.

  6. Kate Willoughby

    I’ve been dinged by readers about profanity also (and if that’s their main criticism of my writing, I’ll take it!) But my heroes are hockey players. Hockey players swear like there’s no tomorrow. It wouldn’t be realistic to me if they didn’t swear. Also, I’m aiming to portray a certain type of hero for a certain type of reader–readers who get a little thrill from being a fly on the wall of a rough, all male locker room. I dig that stuff and I write for other readers who dig it too. If I wrote some other genre, I might rein it in a little, but at the moment, I don’t, so I won’t. 🙂

    • What baffles me is that I am not in any way, shape, or form marketed as being one of those genres where you can have the expectation of no profanity, so why someone would pick up the book, be angry about it and instead of, IDK, stopping reading it and going to find something they like better, spite finishing it and then emailing the author because how dare I put out something that isn’t to their liking when they aren’t my target audience in the first place…

      • Kate Willoughby

        I don’t mind this kind of criticism. They’re just not my reader, or they are my reader and they’ll have to suck it up. I remember there used to be a time when I thought the word cock was jarring and too graphic. Now, I use and read it all the time and it’s not a problem. Maybe these readers just need to be broken in. LOL

  7. I’m totally with you on this one. My characters swear. A lot, sometimes. Not every other word or anything (because even I have issue if it’s that constant) , but it’s definitely there. I have two characters who served together in the Marines and now work together as firefighters who use f*ckhead as a term of endearment. So, obviously I have no issue with swearing. 😉

    I may have some characters who don’t swear, but that would be a personal thing for them and not because there’s something wrong with it either way. The only time I’ve really worried about editing sweating out was in a western, and that was more of watching where it happened/who it happened in front of.
    Fallon recently posted…Writing Wednesday: Adjusting AgainMy Profile

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