Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bad Words

More and more, I get asked why I need to put bad words in my books. This despite the fact that you can walk past any elementary school play-yard during recess, and you won't be able to count fast enough to add up all the fucks you'll hear.

A well-read, educated man once put the question to me. "You write so nicely," he said. "Such good stories, so clever. You don't use a lot of bad words, but they still ruin the experience for me. I really think my wife would enjoy your books, but with that language in them, I can't recommend them to her."

I imagined his wife, down under the covers in bed, shining a flashlight on the pages of First, Do No Harm, as her husband snored beside her.

I just can't understand why you need to use any bad language," the man said. "Even one word."

"Because that's what a particular person - a character - in that situation would say right then," I replied. "Look at it this way: when my wife and I were bringing up our kids, we told them they could use any word they wanted, as long as they knew what it meant. And now that they're grown, they actually don't cuss very much at all - but when they do, you sit up and listen. It's like that with my characters. I draft my stories from the subconscious, and I'm often surprised at what comes up on the computer screen. If I go back and cut out anything a character says that rings right for the story, it'd be like cutting off that character's arm, or leg. I couldn't expect him or her to do anything for the story from then on."

"You could use asterisks," the man said. "Or dashes."

"'Dash you?'" I said. "Go asterisk yourself? Sorry, but I think that might take readers out of the story."

He was determined to be patient with me. "In one of your books, you have a bunch of people walking down a sidewalk, using the worst language I can imagine. I walk on a lot of sidewalks, and I've never, ever, heard a bad word. Have you? Honestly, now."

"Well, one day last week, I was walking along in downtown Seattle, and the air around a bunch of kids was bluer than the sky. Yes, honestly. I hear it all the time."

He shook his head. "It must be different where you live.

I don't think I mentioned: this man lived in New York. I figured there wasn't anything else to say.

Then, there was the pleasant, gray-haired woman I spoke with at a library promotional event. She asked all about my books, their plots, settings, and characters, and she seemed extremely interested. Then she said, "Do you take the name of the Lord in vain in your books?"

"Well, not personally," I said. "But yes, sometimes my characters do take the name of the Lord in vain. All in all, there's not a lot of off-color language in my books, but sometimes it just seems necessary."

The woman's smile became positively materteral. "Oh, I don't mind off-color language in books," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, you can let your characters say fuck all you want. I just don't like to hear the name of the Lord taken in vain."

I tried not to laugh, failed miserably. Fortunately, the woman didn't seem offended. "Well, I guess a person can't please everyone," I said.

The woman was still smiling. "You'd be foolish to try."

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