Interesting discussion on the Lost Genre Guild Yahoogroup this week. Topic: “cussing” (probably of little concern to secular readers, but a hot-button issue for readers/writers of Christian and Christian-friendly fiction). Positions staked out by the membership include:
1. Christian writers shouldn’t employ profanity in their stories under any circumstances.
2. Profanity is a fact of life and a symptom of the fallen world in which we live. To omit it would be naive and/or dishonest.
3. Christian readers seek out Christian fiction in part as a refuge from the barrage of coarse language and behavior prevalent in the entertainment media. Christian writers should respect this need and support it by providing “clean” fiction.
4. I don’t like profanity, so I won’t write profanity. End of discussion.
5. Profanity is okay if it’s judiciously and thoughtfully employed. If the story requires it, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
6. Amend #5 to read “…judiciously, thoughtfully, and prayerfully employed…” (Hmm.)
7. You can talk around profanity or use innocuous euphemisms that communicate the intent without actually employing an offensive word.
8. Talking around profanity is, at best, dishonest and at worst, lame. Use it or don’t use it, but you’ll look like a yokel if you try to sit on the fence.
9. Don’t worry about it. It’s the character talking, not you. If the character would talk that way, that’s how you ought to write it.
As is often the case, I have mixed emotions about profanity in fiction, Christian or otherwise. Here are some of my thoughts on the topic:
A. I dislike profanity. I grew up in a household where it wasn’t tolerated, I agreed with my parents, and I instruct my children accordingly…it isn’t Christian behavior (that is, it isn’t loving, constructive, forgiving, or redeeming), it’s a symptom of an inadequate vocabulary, it’s a cheap way to get attention, it contributes nothing of value to society in general or conversation in particular, and it has the aesthetic and tonal quality of nails on a chalkboard.
B. People use profanity. A lot. Yes, it’s been around since the dawn of time, but I do blame the modern entertainment media for fostering a social environment where profanity is considered a normal, acceptable, and even desirable communication feature. It provides a convenient verbal shorthand for intense negative emotional reactions, offers entertaining and humiliating putdowns of one’s enemies, and can terminate a lost argument while simultaneously denying defeat. There’s also a sort of glee at tossing out a naughty word and watching with an idiotic grin as the grownups freak out. You may get spanked, but it was so worth it. It’s the toddler-level foundation of all stand-up comedy.
C. Since profanity is so ingrained in human culture, it is unrealistic to expect that it won’t pop up as an issue in my writing. It already has. Point A being the case, when I find myself writing about real people, I quickly run smack-dab into Point B, and it hurts. I worry that readers will be offended or doubt my commitment to my faith. I may try to write around it, but it’s extremely difficult to avoid looking self-conscious. It’s like planting a big stop sign in the middle of the story: “Attention: Writer Avoids Swearing Here.” Euphemisms are worse, unless I’m writing a character who consciously avoids profanity and uses euphemisms to cope, dagnabbit.
I could rave on about this for a long, long time, but I’ll conclude with something that always comes to mind when swearing in fiction or the other entertainment media comes up in discussion. It’s from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore.
The Captain of the Pinafore asserts clean speaking is one of his many captainly virtues, but his crew knows him well, and they call him on it:
CAPT. Bad language or abuse, I never, never use, Whatever the emergency; Though “Bother it” I may Occasionally say, I never use a big, big D—
ALL. What, never?
CAPT. No, never!
ALL. What, never?
CAPT. Hardly ever!
ALL. Hardly ever swears a big, big D—Then give three cheers, and one cheer more, For the well-bred Captain of the Pinafore!
Like the Captain, I never use the big, big D. Well, hardly ever.