Thursday, July 8, 2010

Profanity in Print by Terry Burns


This is a topic of conversation with writers all of the time, particularly Christian writers. Many believe that strong emotions simply cannot be shown without it, or that really bad men can't be portrayed without it. I agree, bad men use bad language, and I show that all the time. But I never use the language, I simply show them doing it. People know what the words are, they don't need me to spell it out for them, they just want to see the emotions and the body language, to see the people using the language.

But people disagree with me, I get that. So there is a more pragmatic argument. Most Christian publishers simply will not take a book that contains profanity, graphic sex or violence. This seems to anger the people who feel that is taking realism out of the books. They miss the point. Christian publishers are trying to walk the line between taking on relevant, current subjects, and presenting them in such a way that they are appearing to condone the behavior. Showing people in a book using bad language is being realistic, but using the language itself is an appearance of condoning the behavior.

Shouldn't we as Christian writers be looking at it the same way? Shouldn't we be wanting to get as much realism as possible into our work without at any point be appearing to condone what we are presenting in our writing? Shouldn't we want to take on the tough subjects without glamorizing any inappropriate behavior?

Secular publishing houses don't have to worry about trying to walk this line. As an agent I have a very low tolerance for inappropriate material and don't want to have my name attached to it. I am quite frankly more worried about my Christian witness than about making another publishing deal. The Bible is very clear about our being a stumbling block for others and I surely don't want to do that even if it is a work I didn't create myself.

I guess what I'm saying is we talk about whether these things are or are not needed in a work, and that discussion could go on ad ifinitum, but the bottom line is we are ruling out an entire market if we do it, the fastest growing market in the industry today. Can we tell the story just as well without it? I think so. So why turn these readers and publishing houses off if it isn't necessary?

32 comments:

Joan Linbeck said...

I could not agree more. It has bothered me for a long time that I can't pick up a book (secular) and not have that kind of profane language thrown in my face. To me it shows a serious lack of creative talent and just plain laziness when book authors seem compelled to throw in the profanity because they are not adept at writing emotionally charged situations without them. I deeply appreciate your personal desire to stand firm in your commitment to Christ's standards rather than the world's.
I read your post as a result of following a link on Twitter from JT4novels (Jennifer Taylor). I am glad I did.

Keiki Hendrix said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Profanity in a novel or non-fiction work does not reveal depth or realism.

When I encounter such language in a book, for my own protection, I immediately drop it. I, as the reader, do not need nor want to be exposed to it. I have a hard enough time avoiding in all other media.

I will end up repeating the words I've read, no doubt. So, I must limit my exposure to it.

I wrote a short piece that included this issue of profanity from my favorite author:
http://vesselproject.com/?s=willful+disobedience

Timothy Fish said...

As you said, our Christian witness is far more important than a publishing deal. Besides, we have plenty of evidence to show that profanity isn't needed. I've mentioned Bill Sikes before and people dismissed him as being a character written in a different era, but whatever the reason he didn't you profanity he stands out as one of the badest characters, even when compared to the profanity spewing villains of today. Even if we do decide to use profanity in our writing to show just how bad the character is, we have a problem because we’re only showing short segments of his life. A character that may use profanity five times a day may appear to use it all the time because the only interesting part of his day was those times when he used profanity. If that’s the case, including it is not more realistic than leaving it out.

Jeanette Levellie said...

"I am quite frankly more worried about my Christian witness than about making another publishing deal."

Yup.

Eph. 4:29 is clear. As writers, our words on the page equal our tongue. If I pollute rather than salute, I draw attention to myself or the filth of this world, rather than the Lord.

I commend you for this stand. And Jesus is proud of you, too.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I wholeheartedly agree and feel that all of us need to as you say be more worried about our witness than making a deal or getting published (for us writers). For isn't the whole purpose for God to be able to use our fiction to minister to a hurting world?

Linda said...

As a reader of Christian books, I totally agree. I read Christian books to get away from raw language and sex. Thanks for writing this.

Mark said...

I agree, and it bothers me that some Christian publishers and authors are allowing some curse words in their books, and it bothers me more that they defend it if you complain - they don't seem to care about offending people like me who find it offensive

Shmologna said...

The moral issue is the biggest one. We answer to a higher authority than just readers and publishers. What does God say about it? So you are right in being more concerned about your witness.

But I also think crude actions such as sex or cursing is an easy out. Take movie scripts, for instance. Quality films have a story. If they aren't sure of themselves, they plug a four letter word in every few sentences and a whole lot of nudity. It's lazy. It's worldly. And it's low quality.

That's why I think Christian writers are some of the best in the world. We have a harder, more noble job. And I love it!

~Britt Mitchell

Annette W. said...

I agree...and was hoping someone would post a comment with a logical reason to disagree so I could understand why it's acceptable a bit more, bc I don't think it is.

Jeanette Levellie said...

When my husband does house repairs, he can make "boogars!" sound as lethal as any swear word.

Caroline said...

I appreciate your stand, Terry. As much as I love certain ABA writers, I cringe at some of the language. NOT needed, and their writing would be just as effective. Thanks for writing this post.

http://sunnebnkwrtr.blogspot.com

Raquel Byrnes said...

Some of the most romantic, heart wrenching, and moving movies got their point across with more stringent rules than we have in the Christian publishing industry.

Freedom to put in risque or shocking material doesn't make you a better writer. Rising to the challenge of exploring a hard topic while maintaining integrity WILL make you a better more creative writer.

I want to be proud to have my name on the cover of a book.

Kim Vogel Sawyer said...

Here is what I believe for ME and MY WRITING: My goal as a Christian (which trickles over into everything I say and do) is to walk as closely to God as I possibly can, not see how far I can stray and still be "okay." As a Christian, I'm called to holiness. How can my work honor Him if it matches what the world would do?

Margo Carmichael said...

Good thoughts, Terry. I think about "whatsoever things are pure...lovely...." think on these things. What a challenge for readers and writers. I think how Jesus said if we love and obey Him, we'll see Him in our lives more. What a goal. I'd love that. But I'll never completely do either in this life. I hope I won't be tempted not to try. And I hope I'll never tempt others not to. Lead me not, let me lead them not, into temptation. Oy.

Margo Carmichael said...

Good thoughts, Terry. I think about "whatsoever things are pure...lovely...." think on these things. What a challenge for readers and writers. I think how Jesus said if we love and obey Him, we'll see Him in our lives more. What a goal. I'd love that. But I'll never completely do either in this life. I hope I won't be tempted not to try. And I hope I'll never tempt others not to. Lead me not, let me lead them not, into temptation. Oy.

Terry Burns said...

Sorry Jim, but I deleted your post. As I said I do not wish to have my name associated with profanity and that includes here even if I understand and agree with the point you are making.

Terry

Kevin said...

On the use of profanity in Christian books: Jesus needs to be at the core, not just a varnish; too many Christians live that way anyway.

Kevin Don Levellie, The Book Of Opinions 4:212

Anonymous said...

This is a good post Terry. I'm seeing more slang and even some swear words from some of my favorite CBA publishers and authors. One editor told me that the younger generation just talks different than I do and that some of these words that I don't care for are part of their every day language. I don't quite know what to think about this, but I hope it doesn't go too far. I read a book recently that I loved, but there were a few questionable (to me anyway) words in it. It is published by a very conservative publisher.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Burns, you said
*I agree, bad men use bad language, and I show that all the time. But I never use the language, I simply show them doing it. People know what the words are, they don't need me to spell it out for them, they just want to see the emotions and the body language, to see the people using the language.*
*How* do you *show* them using the language? Thanks

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I agree Terry. Using profanity is cheap writing just for the shock factor.

But great writing is making the audience feel and know the word without saying it.

My Pastor often says about the outside world and their profanity...that they are just speaking their language.

God says we are a peculiar people, set apart from that nonsense.

Timothy Fish said...

Someone asked about the logical reasons for using profanity. The justification I usually see is something along the lines of that’s the way the world talks and since we have to have worldly readers if we want to reach them for Christ we must speak to them in a way they understand.

Anonymous 4:52 asks a good question, “*How* do you *show* them using the language?” First, this question seems to assume that we much show everything. Despite the popular misunderstood rule, some things are better told than shown. I think Gerald cursed the day of his mother’s birth, is a much more interesting sentence than anything I can come up with that has profanity in it and yet we get the idea. We can also show people’s reaction to profanity and get far more meaning than what we’d get from the word itself. I learned to choose my words carefully at an early age. I thought I was cool when I said that word to my mother. I watched her face turn red and then a dark maroon. “Young man, I don’t want to ever hear you use that word again!” She marched me straight to the bathroom and I spent some quality time with a bar soap in my mouth, after which I got three on the backside.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Terry, I agree with you. Profanity has no place in Christian fiction, plus, you might alienate potential readers if they open the book and see that printed on the page. They might get upset and think..."But I thought this was a Christian book." There are ways to show cursing without using the actual words, letting the reader fill in the blanks for him or herself.

Terry Burns said...

How do you show it? Let me tell you a true story. The entire family agrees my grandfather never said a cuss-word in his entire life. One day he was working on his old model A and nothing was going right. The more things messed up the madder he got. He got so red in the face and neck and so agitated that the kids were actually afraid and cowering on the porch. Then he twisted off the head of a bolt. He stepped back, threw the wrench he was holding completely out of sight. He stood, sweat pouring from him, shaking both fists at the sky, and in a huge voice screamed "Gee!!!"

What word of profanity could I put in there that would make that image stronger? Like I say, true story.

by Pegg Thomas said...

Profanity is nothing new. Many great books have been written by the masters who did not feel the need to use it. That says something to me. Perhaps we're just more shallow in this day and age. Profanity does not offend me, I suppose I'm "used" to it. I do not use it in my writing because I don't want to. For me, it's a personal choice.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

I agree with you. The world knows how Christians are supposed to act. If they pick up our books and find the same trash, they'll immediately brand us hypocrites. And you know something? They'd be right.

I answer to God, not the market or any man's opinion. God says He'll judge every idle word. Christian writers use many words, and we'll have to account for them all.

Anonymous said...

I found the story about your grandfather comical, but I think there are plenty of words which would be far more effective than "gee" in getting across the point. The use of "gee" makes me think that he's a lovable creature and not truly vexated beyond bearing - as he's so controlled in his language.I also feel it completely undermines the skillful build-up preceding it; using such a diluted word makes me want to giggle when I read it. It just seems "off", somehow askew.
How can we portray real people without using their real words? And how can we show their words to be wrong/shocking unless we present those words and they strike the reader as wrong/shocking? To say "he cursed" is a much more forgivable, easy-to-brush-over statement, which I would even argue, makes it seem MORE ok to swear: if we can complacently say "x or y swore", there is similarly no sense that the author disapproves.
And surely the biggest problem is conflating the views and actions of the characters with those of the author: nothing could be further from the truth or highlight a bad reading practice. Bill Sykes may not have sworn, but Dicken's work signally fails to reach the highest levels of "Art" because he has a tendency to sentimentalise, to portray the world in a skewed, exaggerated manner. It certainly isn't realism, in its strictest sense.
If we want to impact people, it can be just as effective to show the emptiness of certain ways of life, as to insist on glossing over them. An accurate portrayal - one that a reader can relate to intimately - will do much more to make them thing than a "censored" or "clean" version. Again, if a character swears, it is not the author who is swearing, or condoning swearing: it is the character alone.

Anonymous said...

*will do much more to make them THINK, not thing...

Terry Burns said...

There certainly might have been a better choice of words, but the point is that was the word he used. And I can see you are one of those people that think profanity is necessary and I could not disagree more . . . and will not represent it. It is easy to make a case for why it needs to be done but it takes a real writer to write effectively without resorting to it.

You are free to write whatever you think is appropriate and I am free to choose what I will represent and what I won't.

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to accept that leaving out profanity makes for a more skilful writer. Surely, good writing means using THE correct word every time, the most accurate and effective word. Sometimes, and not always, this will be a swear word. But i completely understand your viewpoint, and of course you are perfectly within your rights to select what you represent, especially as you hold such strong convictions. I just thought there was very little by way of comments on the opposite viewpoint! I did find the article useful, so thanks

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous, it is my opinion that it is the story that is the most important thing. If a story is so weak that word choice makes a significant difference, then it isn't worth our time anyway. The use of profanity is a lazy way of writing, just as it as lazy way of telling jokes. The standup comedians who use profanity get a lot of laughs, but there is no meat to their jokes. The guys who are truly funny are the ones who leave off the profanity and still get laughs. The same is true of writers. A truly skilled writer can move the reader without the use of profanity.

Anonymous said...

When you say story, do you mean plot? A good story can't be told in poor or lazy words! A good choice of words is necessary to bolster/complement a good plot: one without the other makes for bad balance. And I think it's just as lazy to ignore the wording of one's writing, or consider it as second-rate. The choice of words is all about HOW the story is told - and let's face it, if it's told poorly, then the story will not interest (unless it itself has an racy or unrelentingly exciting plot). But it depends on genre. For much writing, it's key to use words carefully. And if I decide to use a profanity, it is not down to laziness. That's hard for me to swallow. It's down to a considered choice, based on each individual word: if this word most effectively reveals who my character is, how they would act/react, then it stays. I would never include a swear word as part of the authorial voice, because that's a different issue. It depends on the genre again: the writing I attempt is neither for laughs or to entertain solely with a fast-paced plot. I want it to be true to life. and not to gloss over or elide aspects of life that do happen.

Terry Burns said...

As I said you are certainly free to write as you wish. I assume that you are writing for the mainstream market as most Christian market editors that I know have as low of a tolerance for profanity as I do.