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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Yes. It's an interesting topic. All censorship topics are. Having looked over the more recent responses, I'll clarify that I do not feel limited as a writer by that sort of thing.

The marketing problem is broader than language, or, violence, or sex. In spite of the fact that I get great reviews, I have two unsold books. one a historical novel (with sex and violence), the other a collection of short stories. The first one is long. That is one reason given for rejection. The other is that my sales at that point discouraged editors. All other comments were glowing praise. The other book never made it to editors. My agent's verdict: short story collections don't sell. I take it that that also has something to do with my past sales.

So, you see we all have our worries. In my case, I cannot control them by writing something different.
Hear, hear, Sophie! And thanks for actually answering my danged (See? I can write curse-free) question.
Damn, I hope ink doesn't die completely before I get my piece -

Y'know, I never thought of that particular Wal-Mart hypocrisy. Hmmm. Regarding the kid/$ aspect, it can't be overemphasized. I *live* with members of that tribe and I'm still shocked at how sophisticated both their humor and appetite for dark themes is. The best YA gets this - my favorite recent title is King Dork by Frank Portman. Worth a look just to see where the kids are at home, lit-wise (no, it's not mystery/crime, but I'd submit that this discussion is or should be cross-genre)

Personally, I think I'm just beset by a yawing middle-age impatience with anything that smacks of equivocating, simpering, prettying-up, euphemism-izing ... who has time?

Interestingly (to me, at least) I recently sent in a contest entry that is the darkest I've ever done. There's language and scene in it that makes *me* blush just thinking about it. I figured it was a sacrifice on the pyre, but no, it's actually in the final round. This has made me quite happy; I figure there's at least a few readers out there with the stomach for it.

- Sophie (who won't be working at Wal-Mart any time soon)
Don't worry, Sophie. At my current rate I'll be FEATURED at Wal-Mart. In their shipping department.
Dammit! That one didn't cross my desk! It reminds me of one of my favorite jokes:

What's red and orange and looks good on hippies?

Fire.
Niiiiice.
Um... who fucking cares?

Obviously, you're talking about EQ and AH because that's pretty much it in the short story for profit world. Small profit, but porfit nonetheless. Thing is - they are private companies in the business of making money, and they have every right to put whatever guidelines they want on material. They don't exist to help new writers, or develop talent, or any of the other crap I've heard - not from you.

They exist to make money, and if they thought that encouraging the bluest language or stories would make them more money, they'd do it. But they have their business plan and their target demos, and good on 'em. I don't write stuff like they publish, but if I wanted to try and be published in their mags, I'd write within whatever guidelines they gave me. No issues, no censor, just me making choices. I pride myself on not writing the exact same thing all the time.

I think that's what some people are trying to say here. Your original question was: "Do you feel like your word choices are being censored by the prominent paying magazines?" Well, for me the answer is no. Nobody censors me, but me. If I want to write a story for EQ, then I'll make appropriate language choices. If I want to submit something to Thuglit, I'll make those choices. But nobody is censoring me. I'm not being dishonest with myself. I'm writing different stories for different readers.

If you (meaning anyone) thinks that EQ or AH could be making more money by going after a more "contemporary," more in-touch-with-today's-thugs demographic, well, maybe so. Or maybe not. It's not up to anyone but them what they do or don't do.

I don't give a fuck about any marketplace, or worry for one second what any publisher/editor/studio/network thinks. I write for myself. I'm a television writer and, if I want to sell a pilot to the Lifetime Channel, I write a squishy thing with cats. Does that make me a sell-out? If getting paid is selling out, then sure. But to me, compromising your own morals and beliefs and integrity is what selling out is. Not writing for a particular marketplace.

I've written something sick and dark and fucked up for Showtime and got paid. I wrote something squishy and kitty-like for Lifetime and got paid. It's my choice. Because I'm a writer, and I write whatever the fuck I want.
Very funny about Lifetime, Paul. That channel has irritated me with the endless list of women's sufferings. Squishy? Maybe that's what it is. Now and then something decent. Must be yours. :)
Yep. Very well said, Paul.
Damn straight! My whole point exactly! WRITE WHAT YOU WRITE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Writing for money, DOES NOT make one a sellout, but if that is a person's only motivation at the expense of their true and/or full storytelling ability, well, then, that's another story in my opinion.

I was recently asked to write a book - potentially a series for a publisher that I turned down, simply because I don't choose to tell those kinds of stories. Does this mean I have integrity or a mental deficiency? Even I don't know at this point. But I can say that I made the choice to not make the money in order to continue on the creative path that I have chosen. Not one that has been chosen for me.
And I apologize if you feel that what I have to say on the matter was crap, since I'm in agreement with your points.
Don't apologize! We all have plenty of reasons to feel angry. Anger is good. It beats apathy.

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