Insulting Your Audience – And Today’s Critique

By John Gilstrap

My next book, Hostage Zero (July, 2010) features a new character who happens to be a veteran of the Battle of Fallujah, a 2004 gulf-war maelstrom that evolved into one of the great U.S. Marine urban warfare victories of all time. In relating a story from that time to another character, this very likeable guy refers to his Iraqi insurgent enemies as “Hadjis”—this war’s equivalent of Kraut or Nip. Hey, when you’re trying to kill them, insulting them doesn’t seem like such a big deal. At least I didn’t think so.

My copy editor, however affixed a yellow sticky with a rather passionate note that the H-word was offensive, and that if my character used it, the readers would stop liking him. She suggested that I eliminate all uses of the term. We agreed to disagree.

In a previous book, an early draft included a line of dialogue in which my protagonist (a cop) showed disrespect for the gay community via a throwaway line that dealt with slip-on shoes and reduced gravity. My then-agent’s assistant, himself openly gay, told me that that was a truly offensive reference within the community—I had no idea—and that the line changed his whole opinion of my character. I was stunned, and I deleted the reference without a fight.

The difference between the two instances was that the gay reference truly was a throwaway line that I probably would have trimmed anyway, just during the normal course of editing. Besides, I know a number of really fine people who happen to be gay, and I try not to make anyone uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the remark in Hostage Zero actually plays a part in the course of the story. And if readers don’t understand the honest place from which the epithet arises in my character, then they’re either way too sensitive, or I’m not as good at my job as I need to be.

My question to the blogosphere today is how far are you willing to go to appease readers’ sensitivities, especially when in the POV of a character? Is it possible in today’s literary environment for a good guy to retain the moral high ground even after he makes an insensitive remark?

Okay, now on to today’s anonymous writing sample:


I don’t usually poison someone on the first date, but this time I’m willing to make an exception. Dame Blanchard always said improvisation is a necessary part of espionage and, as Monsieur Hugo crosses the room to the mahogany sideboard, I sense the danger I’m in. His tall, taut frame appears sinewy and strong beneath the immaculately pressed evening suit – he could easily overwhelm me with his physical strength and so I reach out for the beaded purse dangling from the arm of the chair, ready to draw out the vial of arsenic I always keep on hand. Monsieur Hugo turns before I can extract it and I draw out a silver cigarette case instead. I place a Gauloise cigarette to my lips, staining the end with deep red lipstick, before offering him one with an arched look, designed to convey the kind of brazen audacity I hope masks my fear.

“Champagne, ma cherie?” he inquires, dark toad-like eyes bulging.

“Oui, merci,” I reply with my most calculated-to-charm smile. I wonder, was it my accent that tipped him off? Had I inadvertently betrayed the fact that I grew up in the gutters of Le Havre rather than the gilded drawing rooms of Paris? Dame Blanchard had cautioned me that, as a military attaché, Monsieur Hugo, had an uncanny ear for dialect. Had he suspected me all along?

I shift in my exquisite, hand sequined gown to reveal a peek of ankle, the merest flash of a jewel-encrusted silk shoe. Perhaps lust will entice him to draw out this little charade of ours. His eyelid’s flicker even as his traitorous smile remains rigidly in place.

Our glasses clink in a toast. “To the King,” I murmur, seeing my own blue eyes reflected in his black gaze. We may as well feign loyalty to King George – the French are supposed to be our allies after all.

“To the King,” he echoes, watching me closely.

The battle of wits – and my survival – begins.

This piece is a living example of a story with good bones under a heavy layer of fat. I enjoy the setting and I enjoy the character and her voice, but it’s all way too thick and chewy for me. Sentences meander and compound too much. The simple declarative sentence is a writer’s most important tool.

For me, the present-tense telling is a crippling burden here. When used even by experienced journeymen, the present tense is a contrivance; here it’s an albatross, made even albatrossier by the fact that it’s a historical piece.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I’ve taken a stab at a full re-write of the submission to illustrate some tightening and stylistic changes that I think make the piece more engaging. I kept to the original skeleton, and I tried hard not to screw up the voice. This just seemed like the most efficient way to offer constructive criticism and trim over 100 words in the process:

I don’t usually poison someone on the first date, but tonight was a night of firsts.

As military attaché Monsieur Hugo crossed the room to the mahogany sideboard, I sensed danger. Sinewy and strong beneath his immaculately pressed evening suit, he could easily have overwhelmed me.

I reached below the arm of my chair to draw the vial of arsenic from my beaded purse, but when he turned unexpectedly, I withdrew a silver cigarette case instead. I placed a Gauloise to my lips, staining it with red lipstick before offering him one. I hoped my arched look masked my fear.

“Champagne, ma cherie?” he offered. His dark toad-like eyes bulged.

“Oui, merci,” I replied, praying that my accent did not betray my origins from the gutters of Le Havre. Dame Blanchard had cautioned me that Monsieur Hugo possessed an uncanny ear for dialect.

I shifted in my chair to reveal the merest flash of a jewel-encrusted silk shoe beneath my sequined gown. His eyelids flickered even as his traitorous smile remained rigid.

Our glasses clinked. “To the King,” I murmured. The French were supposed to be our allies after all.

His eyes remained locked on mine. “To the King.”

The battle of wits – and battle for my survival – had begun.

18 thoughts on “Insulting Your Audience – And Today’s Critique

  1. Say something liberal and you could offend some conservatives and vise versa; say something religious, you might offend atheists, etc. I think most people aren’t that easily offended; the few who are express it loudly. It sounds like you made the right decision in both cases. I never want to offend just for the sake of it, but if we bleach our characters to PC level, we might as well draw stick figures.

  2. I’m glad you decided to stick to your guns, John. If writers take out everything that might offend someone, they’d have nothing left.

    In the manuscript I’m sending out now, I have some journal entries from a Confederate soldier and he uses the “N” word. In an early draft I used another word, but my son (a historian) insisted I use the “N” word, because that’s what the soldier would have used. Will it offend some people? Probably. But at least it’s historically accurate.

    “Hadjis” is a very realistic reference–historically accurate. And probably not the worst thing soldiers call their enemies!

    I also agree with your critique. The thing that struck me (other than present tense, which I don’t care for) was the overabundance of description.

  3. John, I believe it would be impossible to write a book and not offend someone. There’s plenty of things out there to offend. Hell, I’m offended by this latest ad campaign from Volkswagen encouraging people to physically punch others each time the see a VW. Promoting violence: there’s a brilliant idea to get me to buy a car.

    What I think is important, as we’ve discussed over the last few days, is that the writer remain true to the characters. Now when it comes to disputes between the writer and editor, I believe it’s wise to pick your battles. It’s one thing to stick to your guns and quite another to shoot yourself in the foot. Will adding, changing or removing a word or phrase make a difference in telling a compelling story? Probably not.

    I also agree with your critique and rewrite of today’s submission. Aside from the present tense which is a turn-off for me, the submission was thick and overwritten. We’re all guilty of falling in love with our own words. But a better story can always be told by “killing our children”. Wait, now I’m promoting violence. Maybe I should go test drive a VW after all.

  4. My initial reaction to your first post was, “Would the editor prefer he use the term ‘towelhead?'” If you think Hadji is offensive, try towelhead. A former brother-in-law served in Desert Storm and it was “raghead” and “towelhead” and yeah, it was offensive and demeaning, but since one of the other words he used was “sand n***er” it’s sort of a debatable issue. I would think Hadji would be less offensive and more accurate than any of the previous.

    As for this piece of writing, I agree with the over description tag completely. The writer sort of lost me in the first paragraph with all the detail. On a more trivial note, because I’m sort of “into” poisons, I got a bit thrown out of the story when the character said he kept a vial of arsenic with him. Rather odd that. And the amount of arsenic needed to kill a 150-pound human is about 42 milligrams. Although historically it was used for a lot of poisonings, it’s rather effective for long-term poisoning, i.e., put small amounts in someone’s food or whatever over a long period of time and they get ill, but since it looks like other things (cholera, historically, but there are plenty of others) it’s often misdiagnosed.

  5. John, I have a scene in my first book where a couple of drunk bikers out in Wyoming encounter a Middle-Eastern terrorist. Now the terrorist was on his best behavior at the moment, but let’s face it, at least I don’t figure a bunch of drunk bikers at a bar are the most sensitive guys when it comes to language.

    There’s name calling, pushing and shoving and then a fight. Plenty of name calling including some of the terms Mark Terry described in his post are in the finished product. It kind of goes with Michelle’s post yesterday. We strive for realistic dialogue.

  6. Being gratuitously offensive is one thing; characterizing through the use of (potentially) offensive language is something else altogether. I agree with Joyce and her son, you do your characters a disservice by papering over their faults. It seems “flawed” characters can be drunk, drug abusers, criminals, and any wide range of things audiences will forgive, but they can’t curse of make occasionally offensive comments.

  7. Offend doesn’t mean what it used to mean. These days, we see a married man out with his girlfriend; we tell him he ought to be home with his wife and we say he his is offended. “You have no right to judge me!” That is different than if we were to see a man running around town with his sister and we accuse him of wrongdoing.

    If we are overly careful not to offend someone in the first way, we might as well hang up the quill. There are always people who will think we said too much or weren’t clear enough about a subject. Unless we’re in their club, we shouldn’t worry about those people. But with the second type of offense, we should be very careful.

    If we have any hope of our writing changing people, we’re going to end up saying some things that some people won’t like, but if we aren’t careful we’ll offend people with the little stuff and turn them off before they get to the stuff we want to offend them.

  8. It is easy too easy to offend someone who wants to take offense. I once used the term “Towelhead” during a lecture. The context was actually an attempt to dispute stereotypes, ie “many of those we are fighting against, especially their leaders, are very well educated some even graduated university here in the US and UK. ‘Towelheads’ with PhDs in physics.”

    That statement nearly got me fired from a good paying government job because someone in the crowd found it offensive. Even what was meant to break a stereotype gave the wrong impression to someone who probably was day dreaming during the lecture and only caught that one word.

    This text by the way reminds of late 19th century novels for a pre-video generation. It sounds interesting though if the sluggishness were deslugged.

  9. Such remarks in dialogue might make a character less likable–that’s the risk one runs. Publishers may be leery these days of offending any readers. I have a character in my series (Kate Gallagher’s father), who occasionally voices unPC remarks. I deal with the attitudes head-on by having Kate argue with him in the dialogue. She never changes his mind, though.

  10. I like how you describe the two cases – no blanket answers to cover all offence. And I certainly think you’ve made the right decision. No need to offend, but definitely a need for reality.

  11. I agree, Joe- if you start writing to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. And my friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have on occasion produced far more offensive monikers for the guys they were fighting.
    Great job on the revision, I think it flows much more smoothly with those changes.

  12. And again, I’d argue that in dialogue, accuracy is more important. Sometimes you want a character to be offensive, and by having them spout a derogatory term, that character is defined in the most succinct way possible.

  13. Political correctness and I have been close friends. When someone here referred to me as a “Southern man of a certain age, they were calling me a racist, a narrow-minded redneck, or worse, but I laughed. It showed a marked ignorance of the south (probably formed in her mind while watching “In the Heat of the night”). I don’t at all mind being called redneck, cracker, honkey, white bread, or any other tag people can come up with. I have a thick skin and am not easily insulted. In fact I don’t give a flying damn what anybody calls me as long as they leave my mother out of it.

    That said, I try not to give offense to any group, be they minority or majority members.

  14. John, I don’t think a writer should ever cave in to the endless demands of the PC Gestapo. You can’t use this word, then your character can’t utter that word, pretty soon, there’ll be an approved list of 100 words that all writers are required to use without any deviation.

    In addition to all that, these forbidden words come with letter prefixes. You know, the n-word, the b-word, now with Hadjis, we have an h-word.

    Once you hand over your lexicon to these people, they’ll shred it to bits. A writer should do what he/she thinks is right for a particular book or story. Period.

  15. By the way, John, I got so fired up by all this that I was inspired to post a blog of my own on this topic on my website. I referenced you and TKZ in it.

  16. What a ridiculous comment, John. I think I’d be offended more if you had soldiers talking and they sounded like Davy and Goliath. I’m a huge proponent of verisimilitude. Besides, it wasn’t you saying it, it was your character. And even if the editor is correct, who has the most popular show on the all news networks? The biggest .

  17. Re: John

    If it’s not necessary to the story and somebody complains, just remove it. Best to not be so attached to any particular line or scene anyway.

  18. Wow. I love the opening line. It’s a real winner. Though I was expecting past tense as in “I don’t usually poison someone on the first date, but this time I was willing to make an exception.” Change the tense but nothing more about this sentence. It’s gold!

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