Hey gang. I've excerpted a piece I wrote last year for Crimespree. It's an issue that I seem to still find myself battling over - cursing. Hope you enjoy it and love to get a rousing discussion up in here on the matter.
-Todd-


What the %&@#?
One man’s war on language and decency.



There’s an ongoing war within the writing community. At two consecutive BoucherCons, I have found myself on the front lines in this battle. It is a war of words.

Round 1: BoucherCon 2004 - Toronto The first shots are fired.

In a forum on short stories, I posed what I thought was a simple enough question: Did the writers on the panel feel limited by the paying markets in their ability to use modern-day cursing in their stories?
Simple enough, right?
The answer from an angry woman on the panel who was dressed like a lumberjack (observation and description, not judgement): “You have to check the markets to see if your story is right for them.”
Well, okay. That was a good answer, just not for my question. Maybe she didn’t hear me correctly.
Yeah. That’s what I thought too.
I asked again. Do you feel like your word choices are being censored by the prominent paying magazines? For instance, if I have a drug dealer being beaten with a pipe (we are writing crime fiction, after all), the strongest language I can use is ‘oh fudge’?
I got a laugh. Huzzah. I got some dirty looks too, most notably by the grandmotherly demographic in the room. Nervous glances passed amongst the panelists and some looked uncomfortable. The lumberjack looked like she might take her chainsaw to me. She responded with more (angrier) grumblings about market research.
Why was I being so misunderstood? There were a couple of representatives from those paying markets in the back of the room. Maybe their presence had everyone so shaky.
I wasn’t making accusations; I was just trying to get an honest opinion from some writers who have had more success than I within those markets. If the question made some in the room feel like sell-outs against their own voices, that was their choice. I was pointing no fingers. However, there was an air of guilty conscience in the room.
When I tried one last time, the lumberjack snapped at me; “Why don’t you start your own magazine, then?”
So I did. (Shameless plug: Said online magazine can be found at www.Thuglit.com )

Round 2: BoucherCon 2005 - Chicago The war continues… with the Grumpy Old Man

Another forum on short stories. I’m there again. I ask a question. Betcha can’t guess which one? Since I never got an answer in Toronto, I figured I’d give a whole new panel a shot at answering.
I was so close.
I really feel I was.
One panelist got so far as to open his mouth and raise an index finger.
Then the Grumpy Old Man chimed in.
For the record, this jackass (description AND judgement) wasn’t even on the panel. For the benefit of the reading audience, I offer commentary and corrections in parenthesis.

Grumpy: I don’t know why people think that a character has to talk blue to be tough. Philip Marlowe didn’t curse, and I don’t think anyone could say he wasn’t tough.

Me: I never said anything about it making a character tough. It’s a language choice that…

Grumpy (Interrupting again): It’s easier to go with an easy F-bomb than use clean language. It doesn’t make a character tough if he swears.

(I look to the session moderator to allow the panel to answer, but now both the panel and the moderator seem to be more interested in the war on the floor)

Me: Okay, again – I’m not saying that it makes a character tough. I’m saying that there should be modern allowances for language that has been accepted by the mainstream. It can be used to make the character that goes for the ‘easy F-bomb’ ignorant or crude. Besides, Maltese Falcon was what, 1940? (It was actually 1939 – sue me) What year is it now?

Grumpy: (incomprehensible grumpy grumblings) Yeah, well, Deadwood is popular, but give me Bonanza any day.

(Some members of the audience nod in agreement. Others look at me encouragingly to respond. Finally, the moderator interrupts the argument… to end the session. I never got to reply. If I had, it would have been something like this:)

Me: Bonanza was cancelled 30 years ago (it was actually 32 – sue me). Deadwood is popular today. Popular with a younger audience that the mystery community stubbornly refuses to acknowledge. An audience that laughs at what is made available to them.

When I say that I write mysteries, I get chuckles and replies like ‘What, like Murder She Wrote?’ That is what the younger audience thinks of us. The audience that loves noir, but doesn’t even know it until I make comparisons to Quentin Tarantino and James Ellroy. When they go to Thuglit, they invariably love it and ask why more like it isn’t made available.
Then I tell them that the decision makers say they don’t exist as a market. It pisses them off. It pisses me off.
Not that it elevates me in any shape or form, but I worked at the biggest scumbag bar in Boston. I now live in an area of New York where gunshots, not tap steps, echo up Broadway.
I’ve spent my time around some real criminals. I’ve clinked glasses with some men and women who have committed some awful acts upon their fellow man. I was real close to becoming one of them. Instead, I chose to step back and write about them. These people are real. Yes, the word fiction tags along after the word crime in my chosen genre, but my base is reality.
Lo and behold, these people swear.
When the East Village coke dealer got rousted by the dirty cops, he used some blue language.
When the reformed skinhead bartender got the knife pulled on him by the Mafioso wanna-be, he dropped some F-bombs.
To me, this is the reality I try to write. Crime, criminals and language have evolved. I sincerely feel our genre hasn’t. Why? We’re not allowed to. The publishers flood the shelves with mystery solving cats and cozies (my apoligies to cozy writers, if you're making a living, good on ya. I don't like 'em) because that’s what the quilting circle can handle. Is it ageism? Maybe. Is it any less ageism to handcuff the younger writing generation by censoring them? None of us may be around in 30 years, but the majority of the currently targeted market definitely won’t be. What is being done to draw in a new audience? Not much.
Am I able to write a story without cursing? I do and I have. I just don’t like being told what my creations can or cannot say. We’re supposed to be an art form. We all have our preferences. We have them at Thuglit. The gratuity line moves from person to person. But we make no insistences. That would be censorship, in my book. A lot of newer authors, writing some spectacular fiction, aren’t allowed to use their full voices, because the medium is not progressing into the current time and day.
There, I said it.
If your feathers are ruffled, ask yourself why. Are we an art form or a job? If you’re in it simply for the buck, YOU ARE A SELL-OUT BY DEFINITION. If you do what you do because you love it, than continue to do so.
You do not have to go blue to write well, but no one should tell you that you can’t if you choose to. Words are weapons. Choose the ones that work for you.

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Well, I think that's shaping up again as a criticism of EQMM and AHMM standards for accepting stories. I have to wonder if your stories were rejected explicitly for language. I write for AHMM, but I'm not a good example. It so happens I write historical mysteries set in 11th century Japan. Cursing was not (alas!) customary then.

My take on language is that it must fit the character and the circumstances (as well as time and place). What I don't like is a free-for-all just because authors want to make a point about how liberated they are language-wise.
Sorry. Haven't actually been grossed out by language in books (though there have been other things), but there are web sites (by authors or visited by authors and would-be authors) that make name-calling and the f-word de rigeur in every sentence. That is boring and childish. I have to believe that this is done as some sort of gesture.

As for EQMM and AHMM, I have, as I said, no experience with what has been rejected. I'm also not a short story reader, so I don't read all of the published ones, but I do read some and all those nominated for awards, and the latter have all been excellent. Nothing stagnant about any of them. Furthermore, from what I can see, both venues publish across a wide spectrum.

Actually, there's probably a lot of stagnation in the entire genre, short or long.
Oops. Haven't been to your web site. I'll take your word for it. I'm stepping rather heavily on some toes here. My apologies. I don't mind the word in its place, by the way.

The thing is that this discussion about unfair treatment of some authors by EQMM and AHMM has gone on for quite a while, and I just don't have any evidence that the use of "fuck" was the reason stories were rejected. It is equally likely that there were objections to very graphic violence, or any number of other things.
I think you're right that there are other ways of breaking into publishing. But in my case it happened to be via short stories -- after I had bashed my head against walls for 10 years. I don't remember reading any guidelines. I much prefer writing novels, by the way. And there's no money in stories or novels -- as far as I can see.

Don't know Maclean. Do know Kevin. And you're on my TBR list. (I like Bruen and MacBride a lot !).
I have a question, if we are talking about movies, not just crime movies, but any movies, is the languaged censored? Sure, there is a warning via the movie raing code, but I can't think of an example when the language was changed to fit the audience.

So if the writing represents the characters and the time an place, I have no problem with whatever type of language that is being used.
This kind of thinking applies to publishing as well.
That was a brilliant marketing decision, IMO. The catch phrase is so well known, everyone (including most of the thirteen-year-olds) simply filled in the blank, and the film got the wider PG-13 audience.
"Yippie-ky-ay motherfucker" was cut down to just "yippie-ki-ay" during post in the last Die Hard movie to secure a PG-13 rating.
With my novel, I've gotten some schitzo advice. One editor told me to tone down the language, another to let 'em fly as a saw fit for the character.

Keep in mind, when these incidences occured, there were VERY few webzines or any print publications with that allowance. now there are dozens online and a couple of outstanding examples in print.

And while not directly bashing EQMM or AHMM, ask yourself why those titles leapt to mind when I presented the problem?

My point being exactly as you say, L.J. - that there's no money in short stories. Well, market dictates price, no? The new market for short edgy fiction was being completely ignored three years ago. The Akashic Noir series has shown that the short story anthology market is healthy.

I don't think we'll ever be able to go back in time to when a short story writer could earn a living from just that medium. The breadth of what was once that market is anorexic at best. But it would be nice to be able to pay our writers (and earn the odd check) competatively or short fiction. This will only come from working our way into a market that won't be six feet under in thirty years.
I don't know if there's censorship on the genre as a whole, though I kind of doubt it. But I do think there's censorship on an individual (either person or venue) basis. It's inevitable.

When it comes down to it, even if things are discussed in committee, initial, and often final, decisions are made by an individual. The guy who opens the mail, the one editor who does (or doesn't) think "fuck" should be in a story. It has to do with that person's individual tastes.

Not to say that prevailing attitudes (or rather the perception of them - because I think a lot more readers are okay with swearing) don't influence editors. They absolutely do. Like you said, you've gotten some schizo advice.

I think the only way those attitudes are going to change is by doing exactly what you've done. The more popular venues like Thuglit become, the more they will chip away at the idea that swearing shouldn't show up in fiction.

Of course, you could always go the Hammett route and use words they don't know, like gunsel.
The Hammett route is next. What do you think of the words:

Perquackity (to describe an unusual duck)

Flaggin' (general curse)

Giving somebody "the Blackmoore" (to assault one with a gun-toting chimp)
Well, EQMM and AHMM leapt to my mind because I'd read this sort of complaint on blogs for years now. I have no personal knowledge of any restrictions because I never saw any guidelines and never had a story rejected.

I hope I write plenty of "startling" stuff, and I don't quite understand the "wishfulfillment" thing because one never knows what a reader's wish might be. I do write stories with a beginning, middle, and end and try to put the emphasis on character. And, oh yes, a crime (maybe more) is committed and the guilty party is identified, but that is rather beside the point.

We need to remember how many short fiction magazines have gone under. EQMM and AHMM are still alive. Maybe they do what they do in order to stay alive.

As for what sells: the movie examples would imply that violence sells best.

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