Tuesday, September 21, 2010

To What Extent Do You Tolerate The "F-Word" in Fiction?

I asked this question of my Facebook friends a few weeks ago, and a surprisingly lively conversation thread broke out — aided and abetted in no small part by my author friend Mary Guterson, who jumped in unexpectedly and got everybody's blood pressure rising. Mary's two novels, We Are All Fine Here and Gone To The Dogs, feature generally intelligent, well-educated women who drop f-bombs like kids drop candy wrappers.
But overall, in 46 responses, opinion was fairly split down the middle. Which just goes to show, I think, that there's no one right answer. Either your personal aesthetic and the perceived aesthetic of your target audience demands that you keep such language out — or that you keep it in.

A sampling of responses:

• Christy K., a 37-year-old Seattle author: "Any word repeated too often gets boring, especially if it seems forced or unnatural. It's not a moral thing. But if it's in character, let it fly."

• Jessica R., a Florida resident and former newspaper journalist in her early 30s: "My reality doesn't include prolific swearing. So I tend to choose books that don't include the language. It distracts me in the same way as writers write in regional language, making the story almost incomprehensible as you try to slog through the prose."

• Rabecca L., a Bellevue, Wash. wife and mother in her early 40s: "Big turnoff for me, whether in a book or in conversation. Occasional use is fine but frequent use is lazy and seems trashy."

• David H., mid-30s, computer tech in Portland, Ore.: "The F-bomb definitely has its usefulness in specific circumstances where nothing else will adequately do justice to the situation."

• R.J., a Maine author in her early 40s: "Reality is my guide. If the story is set where the people don't know or use a wide range of adjectives, then the characters shouldn't. It isn't lazy. It's accurate."

• Mary Guterson, 52, Los Angeles author: "My characters know a million adjectives. They just prefer the word fuck, as it works every single time."

• Janet R., Texas resident, late 30s: "Doesn't bother me in the least. The word can be used in many colorful ways. Overuse of it, or any repetitive word, does become dull and annoying, though. As if the character has a very limited vocab or a general lack of intelligence."

• Amber M., Montana resident, early 30s: "I agree that when an author is redundant by virtue of laziness or lack of talent that my interest wavers. However, if you wanna' see me get REALLY bored RE...ALLY fast, give me a book full of "characters" whose soul has been shaved away by a writer trying to protect his own delicate sensibilities or that of his readership."

• Donna M., Bremerton, Wash. resident, early 40s: "I have a fairly low tolerance for it in both literature and life."

So ... insta-poll for you readers: What's the takeaway from this sampling of people and responses?


Jim Thomsen is a news editor at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash. He also is a partner in Proof Positive, a manuscript-editing and media-services business, and maintains
Reading Kitsap, a blog about the local literary scene. He can be reached at desolationisland@gmail.com ... or found, almost 24/7, on Facebook.

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  1. Like gratuitous violence or sex, gratuitous swearing is unnecessary and, whatever the genre, doesn't constitute good writing.

    If it's in character, it must still be seamlessly woven into the story (e.g a violent murderer who has just been cornered by the hero cop will not shout "Oh dash you!")


  2. I see no problem with the F-word or the C-word or the L-word or any other word. I'm probably swearing way too much myself (bløame it on Tourette), in particular when I speak with the kids (so they have adapted the habit too). I'm not impressed when I hear the F-word repeated in every sentence, in a movie or a rap text. But used in the right situation, I think it fits naturally. Also, I like variety and creativity in the swearing. Where I come from, religious swearing is more common than sexual swearing. And the people living up north (beyond the Arctic circle) has turned swearing into a colorful art that I appreciate >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. The comments you received on your Facebook thread are as diverse as the population, so it comes down to writer choice. Either way we go, some will be delighted and some will find fault. But once again, it boils down to great writing as much as (or even more than) chosen language to keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

    Great idea to poll these friends, Jim. Very helpful post!

  4. I did a find and search for one of my novels and found I used the f bomb 74 times in a 236 page novel. True the characters were New Yorkers and The f bomb is a verb, noun, adverb and every other part of speech but still. There are more clever words to describe sex and anger. I think the last draft ended up with 20 and I feel like that's a more acceptable number.

  5. I am currently re-reading Harvesting the Heart by Judy Picoult and in light of this series on The Blood Red Pencil have paid attention to her use of colorful language. It is sparse, but so effective. Another author I really enjoy, Raymond Atkins, also uses that language sparingly in his work, and I think that is the best way to do it. Cold as Heaven made a good pint about the f-word fitting in the right situation.

  6. The great thing is that each of us gets to make our own decisons about what to write and what to read.

    I have very strong feelings on my personal guidelines, but they're personal guidelines.

  7. I don't mind reading it or using it in my writing, but I'd limit it so it's effective and meaningful, either to the character or the situation. If it's overused, it just gets tiresome, to me.

  8. It doesn't bother me, but like any word used too often, it can get annoying. It's similar to when teenagers use "like" between every word. That's irritating, right? Well, dropping the f-bomb between every word is annoying, too!

    If the story is compelling, it doesn't keep me from reading it, though. The great thing about writing is we writers can choose what we want to write and how we want to write it, and our readers are free to choose if they want to read it or not!

  9. Great article, Jim! I like the way you polled people about the topic and presented both sides. And reading through the comments you've received so far, pretty much everybody seems to be saying "Use it when necessary to help portray the character, his feelings, and the situation, but don't overdo it." I heartily agree. Besides getting tedious, anything overdone loses its power, anyway.

  10. I swear like the proverbial (and much maligned) sailor in real life, so my characters speak quite crudely as well. I like swearing, so you can call me crude. I'm entirely unbothered by foul language, but I reserve the right to be offended by language that, while crude, is really sexist or abusive. Calling a woman a c**t is unacceptable, generally speaking, although I can make a case for using it as appropriate for your characters. Just don't say it to my face.

  11. Well at the risk of sounding prudish (which I'm not, really), I intensely dislike the use of the F-word in fiction, and once even gave away a book LONG before I finished reading it because I was totally put off by the unrelenting use of gratuitous curse words.

    I don't hear that word used - ever - in mixed company, not even from the younger people I know. I'm sure it's used among guys, and possibly even occasionally among women (not the ones I hang out with), so I think it's way overused in fiction today.

    I can understand when it's needed to convey the roughness of an uncouth character, but I don't believe it adds anything to the dialogue of otherwise normal characters.

  12. I believe, above all else, your characters must be authentic. Whether the word is "couch" versus "sofa" or "damn" versus "dang," use what fits the character, for that particular situation. Even Miss Prim-and-Proper Grandmother may drop the f-bomb in a certain situation and when she does, it means something. It may be the perfect way to show, rather than tell, her feelings. And if a character would naturally use it frequently, don't try to force him or her not to.

    On the other hand, I've learned that profanity is like "um," "yeah," and "like." We may say these a lot in real-life, but reading it that often becomes tiring.

  13. F word doesn't bother me. GD word - written or spoken - does bother me. Go figure.

    I have a friend who repeatedly drops the F bomb. Repeatedly. I rarely use the word.

    So, in writing, it depends on the use, the frequency, in/out of character, etc. I think the use of the word also depends on the setting. An Elf in mythological time wouldn't use the word. : )


  14. Words are words. They are a combination of sounds that are used to communicate with other humans. I am writing a story now that stars a 15 year old computer hacker, and she uses the colorful language of youth. I have another story about a 40 something suburbia wife, and she wouldn't ever use swear words. So basically, it depends on how you want your reader to feel about the character or situation.

    John Stewart does a great job of using low brow language to convey comedic light on otherwise grim and dull concepts. It gets people to listen, but keeps him out of trouble due to the lack of seriousness most people give any diatribe that includes the seven dirty words. In many ways, I feel the Stewart is picking up where Carlin left off.

    Penn and Teller do the same thing. Swear words as armor to protect themselves from verbal criticism. It's a little hard to quote someone who is using offensive language to make their point.

  15. I don't like the f-word in life or fiction. I will tolerate one or two if the writing is really good and I'm into the story, but it pulls me out and I cringe every time I have to read it. I feel the same way about too much sex or violence. I understand that people feel some books call for it, but I don't like to read those books. I think an intelligent writer can get the point across without most of what goes into books. I don't even really care if authors choose to have edgy content, but I really wish there was some way to know it's there before I start reading. I wish books had some sort of rating system or something that would let me know what's in it before I began.

  16. I understand that language is a way of defining a character, and I am open-minded about expression. Yet, as much as I love Carl Hiassen's books, I had to switch to his YA novels because I was sick of the swearing.

    Then again, I cringe as easily at words overused/misused to the point of having no meaning - awesome, absolutely, literally - as I do at GD, F*K, the casual use of shit, and you get the idea.

    Then, maybe I just get crabbier with age.
    JP Memoirs Of A Misanthrope, Madame Perry's Salon

  17. Swearing, like violence and sex, is part of reality. If it fits the circumstances in a novel, it is fine, in my opinion. If it's overdone or just there for effect, it achieves the opposite of the intended result. Then the work becomes cheap and boring. I'm sure we have all listened to people who say "f**" every second word. How more boring can you get? At least, introduce some variety in your cussing vocabulary, such as ?? never mind.
    Fun discussion.

  18. When we moved to the States I was surprised by swear words our sons were picking up. Like Cold as heaven, I guess I came from a place where religious swearing was more prevalent than sexual. More recently I read a book set in my old stomping grounds and was surprised to find religious swearing. But pretty soon I was hearing the old voices again and it wouldn't have been as real a story without it.

  19. I don't use this language because it isn't natural to me, but also because I want anyone to be able to read my fantasy. None of my characters are stupid.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  20. When I was in my 20s, a time you'd think would be age appropriate for dropping the f-bomb, I was always shocked to hear someone use it.

    Now that I'm three times that age, I'm used to hearing it as an adjective and find myself dropping it sometimes when I wish I hadn't.

    Still, I don't drop it on blogs or online. I do use it for bad guys in my novels, but I don't overdo it because then it would lose impact.

    Morgan Mandel

  21. Watch the "old" movies and read the "old" books, the great literature of the past, and see how much vulgarity there is. Not much.

  22. I'm struggling with this same question with one of the really bad guys in my wip. Since my first two books were cozy mysteries with very little profanity, I hesitate to throw this standalone suspense novel out there to the same audience. Maybe if I hide behind a pseudonym...

  23. Wow, I could have used this series earlier. I am in the camp of, "If it fits the character and the circumstances, use it." I did get some flak for it in my book,* but it was the character's voice.

    The book I'm writing now, much much much less (though there is some), because it's not how the MC speaks.

    (*Rock Paper Tiger)

    Lisa (Brackmann)


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