"Would you publish work containing bad words?" a writer-colleague asked after apologizing for using crude language in a story he’d set in the inner city. He’d been criticized for it, and wondered aloud how to avoid rough language and still be true to his characters.
My first impulse is to say, “of course”. To refuse to print an otherwise good piece of writing simply because it contains language you’d rather not have your grandmother hear over high tea is priggish at best. At worst, it’s censorship. As a writer, I despise censorship. But how do I feel about it as an editor?
That question got me thinking, something I alternately do too much, and then not enough. I've just said I don’t like censorship, so how do I give writers the freedom of expression they deserve while refraining from alienating the audience? I’m suddenly feeling sympathy for those 1960s television network censors whose list of banned words was well-mocked by comedian George Carlin in his song The Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV.
You know I did it, right? Yep. I looked ‘em up. I. Was. Shocked. No, not for the reason you think. I discovered I’ve used four of the seven in dialog without a second thought. Are they crude? Sure. Sometimes people are crude. But are they bad? Well, I wouldn’t use them in front of my five year old granddaughter, but I suspect she’ll learn them from outside sources within the next year or two. Not the definitions, I hope, but certainly the words.
So ethically—and because I’m certainly not going to ban words I use—we’re down to three. Are they offensive? If they’re being used to describe me, absolutely. But if they’re used in dialog appropriate to the character and the circumstances—they’re still offensive. But they’re also appropriate.
And that’s the heart of the matter, really. Within the framework of the story, the writer isn’t speaking. His characters are. If certain words are appropriate vocabulary for a character, given the circumstances and the composition of your intended audience, then those words are perfectly acceptable. Because there are no “bad” words, just appropriate and inappropriate ones. They change from character to character, story to story, audience to audience, but every author knows what they are.
And I think it’s fair to warn potential readers with a disclaimer if your characters’ speech is a bit ripe. Then the reader has the choice to read, or not read, those stories that might offend.
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