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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And I gots plenty of both, I.J. I'll settle for two grins and a cookle.
I'm totally late to this party, and I admit I haven't read all the comments. But as a writer whose journalist protagonist curses like a trucker (and she's a woman), I do risk losing readers and markets. However, I will not change the way my protag talks, because it's not gratuitous. I think we all have to be true to our characters, and if they curse, they curse. (I do get my share of emails from older women, usually, who are quite offended and don't think anyone has ever used the f-word in New Haven, which makes me chuckle.)
That kills me! I once got a complaint that my protagonist spoke like a course, uneducated person.

My protagonist is a bouncer in a Boston rock club.

Duh....

I guess only Rhodes scholars are acceptable characters for some.
Wow. I guess some readers have some preconceived notion about how educated/uneducated people talk. I've known professors who cussed like boatswain's mates ;) and people who never finished high school who say "fooey!" when they hit their thumb with a hammer. Education has nothing to do with it.

Let me just say...I do know what you're getting at here, Todd, and I apologize if my former comments were offensive.

I'll settle for two gins and a cookie. :)
Yup, professors cuss plenty. It's part of the spirit of liberation. :) Will readers believe in a character who is a white-haired professor of literature and a kindly person but who curses and intersperses lectures and conversations with liberal sprinklings of the f-word? I doubt it, but I have known such professors. They were my colleagues.
Way back in the day, there was a small rock club in the East Village called Brownies. The man who owned the joint (Brownie, of course), probably had an education that topped out somewhere around the third grade. Now, this was back when the East Village had a heroin junkie on every corner and the club was throwing hardcore punk shows five nights a week.

But if Brownie EVER heard ANYone cursing, you were tossed out of his club.

No worries, Jude. I said I wanted rousing, and wound up with a limp. I need to be careful what I ask for.

And yes. Gins does sound muuuuuuch better. Chalk up my last request as a typo and pass the booze
After reading the first chapter of your book, the character came alive for me. Junior and 'the Bouncer' came alive through the language that you chose.

I can smell The Cellar. Consequences and repercussions...... I want to read the rest of it.
Serling was a master. Old Twilight Zones hold up well as stories even today; only the clothes and some of the production conventions date them. The stories about his sponsors also show that these questions are not new, or unique, to our generation of writers. I suspect we can find examples of Dickens being asked to provide more "something" by his publishers.

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