By Mark Alpert
Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s perhaps the greatest short-story collection ever written, and yet Joyce had to struggle for eight years to get it published.
Why did it take so long? For one thing, publishers objected to disparaging comments about the English royal family in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” They were also worried about the sexual references in “Counterparts” and “Two Gallants.” But one of the strongest objections was to Joyce’s frequent use of the swear word “bloody.” Joyce eventually agreed to remove the offending word from some of the stories, but not all of them; it remained, for example, in “Two Gallants” (“two bloody fine cigars”) and “The Boarding House” (“if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would”). Joyce insisted that in those instances no other word would do.
But Joyce was a genius, so he could take certain liberties. What about the rest of us, the merely mortal writers? How do we walk the fine line between underuse and overuse of vulgarities and swear words? Many characters in thrillers are unsavory types, and in the real world such people often use words that are a lot more offensive than “bloody.” If we’re going to show their dialogue and thoughts in a realistic way, we can’t avoid typing “shit,” “fuck,” “piss,” and all the other dirty words on George Carlin’s famous list. And yet many readers strongly object to the foul language.
I confronted this issue a few years ago when I got an e-mail from a reader who enjoyed my first novel Final Theory. She wanted to share the novel with her 13-year-old son and asked me if there was a kid-friendly version of the book with none of the swear words. I had to tell her there was no such animal, but I made a solemn vow: if I ever wrote a Young Adult book intended for the twelve-and-up crowd, it would contain no swears whatsoever.
I started writing a YA novel a couple of years ago, and in the beginning I had a hard time complying with my no-swears rule. For instance, I’d developed the bad habit of having my characters either think or say the word “Shit!” whenever something shocking happened. I realized that I was using the word as a crutch, an easy way to signal strong fear or surprise. When I forced myself to avoid the word, I came up with more imaginative ways to convey these emotions.
In the end I wrote nearly 100,000 words with nary a vulgarity among them. The most offensive word in the whole novel is “freaking.” The book is scheduled to be published a year from now. (We haven’t officially announced it yet because we’re still trying to choose the title.)
I’m still using swear words in my thrillers for adults, but now I’m trying to exercise some restraint. I’ve learned that less can be more. As Joyce might say, you better bloody well believe it.