The Great F-Bomb Debate


In John G’s Friday post, he gave us clips of his most recent editorial letter. One of the admonitions in it was to lose the F bombs, because “some people will object to it.”
I happen to agree with his editor. We’ve had this discussion before, but this seems a good time to focus on it a bit more, and get specific. Yes, artistic license and the First Amendment allow for its use. We’ve had decades of rants and even lawsuits defending the F bomb. Well, maybe it’s time for some arguments against it. Here are three for your consideration:
1. It might affect your market share
I think it’s more than some who object to the F bomb. I think it’s a lot. In today’s culture, there’s enough that’s offensive, from the slacker at the counter to the boor cutting you off in traffic and delivering a one finger salute.
People are pummeled enough by life. How many want to get whacked with F bombs when reading for pleasure?
So purely from a mercenary standpoint, why shrink your audience? As John’s editor said, no one ever complains that there aren’t any F bombs in a book. (I note here that I do believe there is a valid distinction to be made between this word and “milder” swearing. It’s the same distinction George Carlin made in his famous routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. You may research that one at your own risk).
2. It’s not original
When Lenny Bruce started using the F word in performance, it had shock value. When novelists and filmmakers picked up the practice, same thing. When Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Bros. tried to make an art form out of it, the tide started turning. It’s been done. No one is going to marvel at the creative use of the F word anymore.
You want to know what’s original? Finding ways not to use it. That takes more skill, just as it takes more skill for a comic to get a laugh without resorting to the word.
3. It’s not necessary
But, the protest will come, I write about reality! The F word is real. How can I write about gangs or mafia types without it?
Well, let’s see. How did one of the best TV shows of all time, which ran, what, 20 years, do it? Watch the early seasons of Law & Order. You will get a lesson in how to do gritty without F bombs. (Without, in fact, using any of those infamous seven words you can’t say on TV).
Here’s the thing: fiction is not a re-creation of reality. We have documentaries and non-fiction for that. Fiction is a stylistic rendition of reality for emotional effect. You want readers caught up in a fictive dream, and to leave them with an emotional wallop. You do this by being creative with language. If you use the F word, however, you’re liable to take a lot of readers out of the dream.
Now, maybe you’re a writer who doesn’t care, because you are, by thunder, going to write the word if you think you need it. Fine. I’m just saying we are the masters of the language, not the other way around. Are we shaping our book or is our book running us? The great film noirs and crime novels of the 40s and 50s managed to be every bit as suspenseful (and, to be frank, were usually better written) than much modern fare. Did lack of the F bomb hurt them? Do we think, Ah, that Dashiell Hammett, what a bore? Chandler, what a rube? I didn’t think so.
So what’s your take on the whole F bomb thing? And please, no comments about “censorship” here. That’s not even close to what I’m talking about. I’m a First Amendment guy. You’re free to use it if you want to.
Do you want to? 

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Pardon my french

by Michelle Gagnon

During our first page critiques, we discussed the danger of incorporating strong language on page 1 of your manuscript. Encountering an f-bomb at the outset of a novel can turn off a lot of readers, so editors are understandably leery of acquiring works with it.

However, I think that strong language does have a place in novels- at least in mine. I frequently get emails or reviews from people who say things like, “I loved this book, but wish that someone had gone through and crossed out all the f-bombs for me.” Equally perplexing to me are the people who claim that they “didn’t mind the f-bombs, but at times Gagnon takes the name of the Lord in vain.”

Here’s the thing: I’m not the one doing it. My characters are, and they’re doing it because in real life, that’s how people in their particular professions and circumstances talk.

I understand that we don’t all approve of strong language- I certainly don’t use it frequently. But then, I’m rarely chasing serial killers, or trying to stop a domestic terror group from destroying Phoenix. When my characters are staring at the timer on a bomb, I don’t think “gosh” is going to be the first word to leave their lips. I try to be judicious with the swearing, but it’s most important to me to remain true to the characters spouting it. From my admittedly somewhat limited exposure to them, gang members and ex-con skinheads tend to have foul mouths. So do many law enforcement officers, especially when they’re talking to each other. I strive for accuracy in every other facet of my books. So why should I be expected to compromise on this one?

Maybe I’ve simply become inured. The places I’ve lived (including San Francisco), it’s rare to get through the day without hearing random swearing (and now that people are constantly talking loudly into their cell phones, they really seem to have lost their filter). I’ll join in on any bemoaning of what that means for us as a society. But since that experience informs my work, I can’t pretend it’s not the current reality, allowing my characters to speak as though they just stumbled off the Leave it to Beaver set.

I was raised a Unitarian, which is a religion that promotes tolerance of all beliefs. So I empathize with people who don’t condone taking the name of the Lord in vain. And yet, I can attest that my characters harken from a wide range of religious beliefs. Because of that, chances are they’re going to use such terms from time to time. And in the interest of realistic dialogue, I believe in letting them. If I were writing Inspirational thrillers, it would be an entirely different story. But I’m not.

I’m curious to hear what people think about this. Does strong language have a place in thrillers? Does it bother you, or not?

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