Anyone who has read my work will know where I fall on the side of the swearing versus not swearing debate when it comes to fiction. My writing is littered with it, at varying levels between different characters, with Emily Nation prone to the odd curse when things have gone wrong up to Jemima Clayton, whose Profanisaurus is permanently set at Defcon 5. Or 1. Whichever one means it’s time to kiss the kids and hope Ikea designed the kitchen table to withstand a nuclear blast, because Trump and Kim’s erectile dysfunction-a-thon has reached critical mass and it’s time to pack our bags for our stay in thermo-nuclear hell.
When I’ve discussed profanity in the past I’ve heard it described as a seasoning, where too much or too little can spoil it, and that as writers we should aim for that happy ground in the middle somewhere – a place we can call perfect. Like if Baby Bear was the one doing the swearing it’d be just right – it’d let out a hearty bollocks when it whacked its thumb with a hammer, while Daddy Bear said piffle and Mummy Bear was so salty, she threatened to hunt down all hammer manufacturers and fuck their fucking shit right the fuck up, motherfucker. COCK.
When we decide how much or how little swearing we’re going to use, obviously we have to consider who our audience is. Nobody wants Mr Happy and Mr Bump to be joined by Mr Where The Fuck Are My Keys, Margret? but when it comes to an adult audience, there is still a hell of a lot of scope to offend the casual reader with the occasional errant twat. In fiction and in real life there are people who just don’t like it, and some people will put down a book or change the channel the moment a naughty word enters their brain flaps. Some people have a particular dislike for blasphemy, while for other people genitals are a sore spot. For some people it’s context and for others it might be a particular word, and for no more complex reason than that they don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that several people who have started reading this have now stopped because I’m too immature to keep my bad language out of this post.
On the other side of that, you’ve got those who love the stuff. These are the people for whom swearing may be a seasoning but from the curry menu that is literature they’d like the one they call The De-Sphincternator. They want the dish that comes with pictures of a crying child, standing next to a grave that burns from within like a subterranean coal fire. These are people who would listen to The Aristocrats as a masturbation aid. If swearing was foreplay they’d like you to push until your fingers come out of their mouth and they look like Doctor Zoidberg. If swearing was another graphic metaphor they’d like it so graphic that its graphic nature wouldn’t fit on a graph.
AND SOMEWHERE… Floating in a nebulous expanse between the two extremes, there’s you, clutching your little manuscript, not sure which way to turn.
The answer I came to for my own work was to consider the context and to consider the character you’ve created. If you don’t know if they’d swear then it’s something to think about – something to add to the profile you have in your head and in your notes about who they are and what they would do in a given situation. It has to be real to them and that doesn’t mean that everyone would curse wildly under stress. I’ve seen my wife swear like a docker while feeling overwhelmed or just while doing the shopping, but I’ve also watched her give birth twice and she barely swore at all. I swear in my day to day life more than almost anyone I know, but when I’m under real stress and in confrontations with other people I go the other way. Unless I’m making flat-pack furniture, because then I swear with enough force to shatter chipboard.
To leave you with a final thought, there really is one major thing above all that you have to consider when deciding on how to approach profanity, and that is who stands between you and your intended audience. You might love it, your friends and beta readers and intended audience may love it, but if you take a story full of bad language to an agent or a publisher who doesn’t, you could harm your chances long-term. There are few hard and fast rights and wrongs in writing, but if there is a no-no to avoid it is in ignoring guidelines for submissions. When you go to shop a manuscript around you have to find out a bit about your target agent or publisher, if they’re the kind of person who will like or be put off by what you’ve written. If they’re right for you and if you’re right for them. All of these people have slush piles to thin down, and if you’re sending Captain Shitbeans and the Sword of Wank to an agent who doesn’t deal with such things, and you really should know that before submitting, the next time you send something to that agent your name is going to be picked up by their mental or very real timewaster algorithm and off you pop, into the bin. You wouldn’t send a letter on growing Chrysanthemums in window boxes to Hustler and you wouldn’t write An Ode to Rimming and send it the National Trust.
You can write what you like, art is great like that, but if you put it to the wrong people it may not only keep this story from getting to your audience, but it may harm your career in general. The world isn’t split into just sweary writers and non-sweary writers, but they don’t necessarily send all their manuscripts to the same people, and the crude and the not certainly won’t be marketed in the same way.
I thank you. Programs and sweets are available at the kiosk and my book, Emily Nation, is available here.