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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Sigh...okay Jude, you win. You must simply be that much smarter and more professional than I could ever hope to be. So you can just keep on picking and choosing the phrases you don't like, take them out of context, then say thet the context is 'too inane' for you to comment on. You can keep on imagining that I'm saying certain things and comment condescendingly on that. I'm getting sleepy defending the words that I feel are pretty clearly phrased and having to defend the point of those words when it's spelled out in the sentences that come before or follow them. I'm unprofessional and can't figure out no-brainers, apparanttly. I exist in a bubble and only want things that I want. Happy?

But since I'm here, I'll just say certain things one last time.

1) The markets for edgier material, be it looser restrictions on language or sexual content or theme didn't exist even four years ago as they do today. There simply weren't that many to choose from (pretty much any, really). A lot of witers I spoke to DID feel that they were being told what they could and couldn't write if they expected their work to see that light of day in any shape or form. They were told that there was no market for it. The new publications have proven that to be incorrect.

2) Paul and Sophie are the first people here to actually and simply take my question as it was asked and answer that question. I'm not encouraging literary anarchy or that writers don't 'play by the rules.' I AM questioning where those rules are taking us (or not taking us) as a medium. All I ever encouraged was writers to open up their short fiction and attempt to forward the medium into a 20th century vernacular, so the wouldn't feel like they had to use 'boatwain' in their metaphors about crack dealer beatings, which is just silly.

3) I never knocked guidelines (And I DO SAY "We all have our preferences. We have them at Thuglit. The gratuity line moves from person to person. But we make no insistences."), but I do knock outdated moralizing. If you can't see the difference between a thematic preference or word limit and censoring word use, then I can't explain it to ya.

4) From word one, all I'm trying to do is encourage fellow-minded writers to not be afraid of the words they want to use. I'm sure you think that's unprofessional and inane (your favorite descriptions for me), but some writers still fear cutting loose. I happen to think that it makes for some exciting fiction, but what do I know? I'm unprofessional and inane.

Fire away, Jude. Have a good time.
So you can just keep on picking and choosing the phrases you don't like, take them out of context, then say thet the context is 'too inane' for you to comment on.

Bullshit, man. You pulled the phrase out of context and told me I must have "missed the bit." Now you're going to act all wounded, as if I unfairly attacked you. Whatever.

Here's my original post:

Sorry, Todd, but I think Lumberjack Woman gave you a perfectly reasonable answer.

"You have to check the markets to see if your story is right for them.”

Publishing is a business. If you want to survive, you have to treat it as such. It's not selling out. It's called being a professional.

If you want to write for a market that restricts the use of expletives then, by golly, you restrict the use of expletives. It's a no brainer, IMO.


The only thing a wee bit snarky is the very last sentence. If you took that as a personal attack on your intelligence and professionalism, then I apologize. It wasn't meant that way.

Here's the question you asked (paraphrased): Do writers feel limited by the paying markets in their ability to use modern-day cursing in their stories?

You said you wanted a rousing discussion, but now I'll just answer the question like I should have in the first place:

No.

I guess that's all I ever really needed to say.
Wow, finally a topic i have strong feelings about!

Yes, I *do* feel limited by the guidelines at EQ and AHMM. That said, I also study the markets carefully and submit judiciously. Occasionally - not often - I manage a story without a lot of cussin and then I know where to send it.

In the romance writing community, there is this perennial argument between those who say "why does there have to be so much SEX in the books, what is the world coming to" and those who push that envelope (and lately are pushin it hard to the delight of a burgeoning audience that shows no sign of abating.)

(Another parenthetic comment: romance editors are extremely market-focused, as they should be. If sex is selling, there will be more hot books. Vampires, ditto. etc. I agree with what others have alluded to in that I think there are markets - and the above mentioned may be among them - that are a little lazy with their finger on the pulse. Before you flame me for this, consider this: why do you suppose black mask is coming back? And I, for one, thought they dipped a rather tepid toe in the water with that first issue - the stories were FINE just not perhaps zesty enough for an editorial decision that used words like - and I don't remember the exact description - "edgy" and "dark".)

The answer comes straight out of every twelve-step meeting ever held and it's this: Take what you want and leave the rest. To every reader who misses bonanza and is appalled by deadwood, i say: netflix, baby.

OK, Point 2. (or 3 or wherever I am here.) Language is expressive. It invents itself to fill needs. As my kids were growing up, and they learned "bad" words, I always told them to use them *as needed*. When Mrs. Smith is ten minutes late picking you up for carpool, keep your mouth shut. If you drop a brick on your toe - well cut loose, for heaven's sake! And I think that the minority among us who *don't* dance around going "oh fuck, fuck, FUCK" in that situation is tiny...

3. And again others have alluded to this: we write crime. It generally ain't pretty. Doesn't it seem, well, a bit disingenuous to y'all to fuss over a few words when we're talking about acts so raw that most of us will only ever write about them? (This extends, at least to me, to an impatience with some markets' Victorian sensibilities about sex. To paraphrase Eddie Muller, though I'll probably screw this up, nothing gets you straight to the heart of character faster than sex and violence. Denying yourself half of the toolbox strikes me as ridiculous. I AM NOT telling anyone to write sex who doesn't wish to - only pleading for tolerance for those of us who do.)

4. Everyone should pop over to myspace and see how the 15-year-old crowd communicates with each other. If any of you still hope to be selling books ten years from now, you might want to consider the vernacular of your future readership. This is easy for me to say at the moment because I have 2 teenagers in the house....even "nice" kids, and I happen to be biased but I think mine are, who can charm their grandparents and are candidates for Eagle Scout, text each other messages in which "fuk" and "fukn" are as dense as the sprinkles on the cupcakes i feel like I was serving them just yesterday.

Thanks for opening up this can of worms. Brave and laudable. - sophie
Since I use both sex and violence in my books, I can't disagree completely, but God knows there are more things in life than those two -- both of which tend to get pretty repetitive after a while. Still, they sell. But then I do hope that they are not the reason my books sell.
If you just had sex and violence in your books, my dear, then it wouldn't be much of a book at all. I'm sure that they sell for the qualities you posess as a writer.

My repeated (and still unheard by certain other people) point is that short fiction wasn't keeping up with his big brother in the long form in allowing for those same spices of sex, language and violence.

I'll have to disagree with you about sex becoming repetative, though...
Okay, I guess what I heard was, are AHMM and EQMM out of touch? And the answer is, for me, yes. But short fiction that appears in Out of the Gutter and on Shred of Evidence and Muzzleflash and Powderburnflash and Thuglit and Spinetingler and Crimespree and many other places isn't out of touch. I don't feel restricted because I never even think of AHMM and EQMM as markets for my work. There are lots of places that just aren't for me. But there are lots of places that are.

Now, I admit I'm often pretty dense (I once started a thread here at Crimespace about swearing because personally I find a lack of authentic language too annoying to read (of course, I find the whole idea of cozies scary) and I'm probably inane, too.

But, if you want to talk about creeping censorship, that's a whole other can o worms I think really should be opened. There's lots to talk about there. We can start with, is publishing heading towards the kind of moralizing 'code' that ruled Hollywood from the '30's to the '70's? In that case, of course, it was actually written down and enforced.
So many worms, so little time. Truth, brother, truth...

Next time, you hold the can opener. I'll be right behind ya, inane and unprofessional as always.
You can stop putting words in my mouth now, Todd. I said the statement was inane, not YOU. And I never said YOU were unprofessional. I don't know anything about you. My comments here were critical of your essay, not YOU. If you can't take criticism about a little post on a forum without getting defensive, then you're in for a long and disappointing haul in this business.
You're an angry, angry man, Jude.
I am fucking not!!! ;)
CURSES!!!! J'ACCUSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I do loves my can of worms.

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