Monday, August 24, 2009

Watch Your Mouth, Young Man

Let me take you back to Friday, August 14 on this blog, to the insightful (and incitive) guest post by Zondervan editor Andy Meisenheimer. Do you remember all the conversation he stirred up by implying that a writer might find better ways to spend her time than hanging out on Twitter or Facebook or even (ulp!) her blog?

Well let me tell you, that was nothing - nothing - compared to the kerfuffle raised amongst us bloggers here at Novel Matters before his post even went live. Really, you have no idea. Well - If you were observant, you might have noticed this phrase: “this book sucked but they have such a (killer) brand" If you were impressively astute you might have guessed at the reason behind the parentheses.

But probably not, so I'll tell you: In the original, Andy didn't say "killer." He said something that started with the same letter, only... less seemly.

We couldn't believe it.

Because Andy and his ilk had told us more than once that this word or that word was unacceptable to a Christian audience. And I'm talking about words a lot milder than (killer). So what would we do? Edit the editor?

Believe it or not, we didn't all agree.

I'm a non-swearer myself - mostly. I hardly ever, almost never say a bad word. There have even been memorable occasions when I dropped heavy objects on my foot and bravely clenched my lips against the barrage of expletives clamoring just this side of my teeth.

However, I was raised not so much in church as in Alcoholics Anonymous (my mother stopped drinking when I was seven). And growing up, I knew a lot of very good and brave people for whom naughty language was the native tongue. To this day it's hard - though not impossible - to offend me with swear words.

Not only that, but my personal take is that we Christians sometimes get a bit too precious about the whole thing. Because Jesus said if you call your brother a fool you are in danger of judgment. "Fool" is not a cuss word; it's a put-down. And there are those among us who would never say (killer) but would call you a fool twice a day. So my first reaction to Andy's transgression was "Oh, what the heck."

Oh boy. I didn't even notice Andy had used a no-no word. Let me explain.

Soon after becoming a Christian, I abandoned my bad-girl vocabulary and thought less of anyone who used swear words, whatever their belief system. I asked people not to use certain language around me. The result? I became a holier-than-thou personality and a caricature of a churchgoer. My zeal for the menial built a wall between me and those around me.

And night at Bible study, a young man said something like this: Our most powerful witness is to walk humbly alongside the lost as sinners saved by grace.

As I grow in my ability to walk humbly in this world, my need to edit people's vocabulary has lessened. After all, Jesus probably heard swear words as he hung on the cross. His response was to die for them. This is why I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to swear words.

But I don't use swear words in my novels.


Because they would be a stumbling block to readers, and I love my readers. We are the body of Christ! Besides, creativity without any strictures is not creativity at all. The challenge for the inspirational writer is to convey intensity of emotion with truly powerful language and action. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to use swear words.

And so, I voted to leave Andy's original words. There are so many other things more worthy of our passion.

When Andy sent me his guest post via e-mail I read it through - not with the intention to edit, but because, well, because I could. I loved its meaty goodness, it metaphorical bent, and its insider fun. This, I thought, is (killer).

I set about scheduling the post, but a wee voice in my head said, "(Killer) though it is, some may not appreciate the vernacular [My inner voice sounds very much like Stephen Fry]. I sent out a quick e-mail to my co-bloggers: Andy's post contains the word (killer). Are we okay with that? The six of us took the back roads getting to the answer.

Whenever you ask a novelist a question, expect a long, well thought out multi-dimensional response. It's to be expected. Ask six novelists and, well, I hope you packed a lunch. Those of us who agreed to leave in (killer) agreed for very different reasons. Those who preferred an edit did so for very different reasons. Me? Well, I was more like Pontius Pilate, trying to wash my hands of the whole thing. Edit Andy? Well, gee - how would that go over? I actually like this guy as a person as well as an editor. But risk offending readers? No!

It was a gong show for awhile there. What if I just posted a disclaimer? [Early risers may have seen it Friday morning before it was unceremoniously deleted]. What if we added dashes? If Lisa Samson* can get away with it, why not us? So many issues to consider. For me, the decision to change it became clear when I asked myself, "What compelling reason do we have to leave (killer) in? What great purpose is the word serving?" The word didn't strengthen Andy's idea, wasn't necessary to convey meaning - it other words; editable.

We want to hear from you - naughty language in your Christian fiction? Where do you draw lines? [Keep in mind, in an interesting and deliberate oversight, we left in the word "sucks"] Do you put a book down if it contained certain language?

*Lisa Samson employed the use of dashes for profanity in her latest, The Passion of Mary Margaret.
I confess to objecting to the questionable word Andy used in his guest post a week ago Friday, the (killer) word that was edited out. I respect the opinions of those in our NovelMatters group who voted to leave Andy's post as it was submitted to us, but I also appreciate their willingness to edit out the offensive word.
Profanity has become so commonplace in our society that it's easy to become desensitized to its usage. The argument for or against profanity in Christian literature is endless and one we'll never all agree on. We don't even agree on what constitutes profanity. But here's where I'm coming from. As a Christian author I feel my books, my blog, my website, whatever I put out there from a professional, public platform is my pulpit. I believe I'm held to a standard of conduct of which Christ would approve, and to me that means taking care not to offend those who read what I write, not to place a stumblingblock in anyone's path, and most especially not to offend the One I represent. Liberty isn't always license.
Yeah, we rub shoulders with the world, we don't live in a bubble. But who's supposed to be influencing whom? I have a feeling this will generate a lively debate. We look forward to your input.


Nicole said...

I finished my second novel in 2004 but it wasn't published (by moi)until 2008. Some characters used a few expletives and I used a similar method to Lisa Samson's and was pleased to see her choice was very similar to mine.

I, too, left my four-letter language skills when I met Jesus. I'd worked very hard to force those nasty words out of my mouth--they didn't come easy in my case.

I rarely read outside of Christian fiction these days because it's the market I choose. However, I'm reading a secular cop mystery right now (because I won the novel) and getting the sexual metaphors and four letter words splattered into the story. And, yes, they seem "natural" to the story, but necessary? Not really. Any writer can plug in expletives and sexual innuendoes--doesn't require any special writing. And this book reminds me why I left the general market.

All writers must choose their words. As Christians, we serve God not man. That usually makes a difference in the words we choose. This author won't condemn those who write one way or the other--it's God they answer to, not me.

However, I will not throw in the F-bomb just because I can. And, frankly, I don't want to read it. Everyday we hear it if we go out in the world. I don't mind eluding to it or other cuss words, but I don't need them on the page to figure out the attitude.

I think some of the younger set of Christians think they can talk however they please and do so just to offend judgmental Christians. Says more about them and their choices than it does about making a "grand statement" about life in general or publishing at large. It also speaks to their interpretations of sin . . .

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

Interesting! I read Andy's post early in the morning, and never noticed the word, it may have already been changed. In any event, I wasn't offended. The argument could be made that I have just become desensitized to the use of bad language. It would certainly have legs.

I don't know that words can be evil in and of themselves. It is all the meaning and context conveyed on them by both writer and reader. Unfortunately, everyone comes at words with a unique perspective based on their experiences, so there isn't really any way to ensure that everyone is reading something as you intended.

On the whole I think you all were wise to err on the side of gentleness. It typically turns out that way when we choose to act in love rather than the desire to shock.

Janet said...

I've used a couple of mild words in my novel, because I just couldn't imagine the character speaking any differently. The odd thing is, I don't use that language myself and would probably be embarrassed if asked to read the passages in question aloud, mild as they are. If an editor objects, I'll change them, but it won't be easy.

Along the same lines, my husband and I both have a word in our vocabularies that we staunchly insist is not swearing that the other person just as staunchly objects to. I have another rarely used word that some people consider swearing and others do not. Dictionaries are equally divided. So there definitely is a strong element of subjectivity in all this.

Latayne C Scott said...

Well, the blogger gremlin ate my post. Really.

What I wanted to say is that I've always really appreciated editors. I tell them they're like the friend who tells you your slip is showing before you go out in public.

So, applying the golden rule and my prodigious seniority in life...

If I were Andy, I wouldn't want to have that in print when I looked at it, say ten years from now. I believe he would have had to know that anyone who asks him to guest blog would have some say about anything he said that would be offensive to some of our readers (and to some of us.)

And he was unoffended by our editing -- to this worked out great.

Latayne C Scott said...

Um. The last sentence of my last comment was supposed to read,

". . .so this worked out great."

Toldja I appreciate editors.

Unknown said...

Let me make it clear that the word Andy used isn't one most would consider especially vile. No F-bombs were detonated anywhere near his guest post.

It was mild enough to warrant a discussion about the word and its inclusion.

Andy is a wonderful guy, a strong Christian with a great sense of mischief and fun.

Just to add some perspective to what we are discussing.

Andy said...

Thanks for sticking up for me, Bonnie.

True, I wasn't surprised to have the word edited, but I was the one who pointed out to Bonnie that not only did "sucks" make the cut, but killer is actually more violent of a word than (killer).

The more important question, I feel, regarding language is about what the author intends. If the author intends offense, then editing because it would cause offense is missing the point. Problem, as it's been pointed out, is that language changes, and therefore so does offense.

I did not intend offense, so for the sake of the post, the edit was cool with me. Everyone needs an editor.

PatriciaW said...

by the time I saw it, the post had been edited. I'm glad Andy wasn't offended by the editing. After discussing it amongst yourselves, was he consulted before or after the edit?

I occasionally edit author interviews for my blog--correcting spelling or obvious grammatical errors--because I want the authors to put their best foot forward, and so do I. However, I'm not sure I'd edit someone's choice of words, even if I didn't agree with them.

Writing is about expressing one's self, and that was how Andy chose to express himself. More than likely, he really didn't give it a lot of thought. Perhaps he should have, given the context for the post. But in the end, it was his choice.

As to whether he would hate to see that in 10 years in print, I don't think anyone, including Andy, can say how he'll feel then.

In fiction, I have a problem with profanity used gratuitiously. I don't expect my fiction, including Christian fiction, to be sanitized. I do expect the vocabulary to fit the character, and for the author to be selective about how "choice" words are utilized.

PatriciaW said...

Raises a publishing question for me. Authors and editors go back and forth on edits. Who has the final say? Do authors ever find that words were changed after the "final" edit without their knowledge?

Connie Brzowski said...

I have a soft spot for people who curse. Back in the day, we had new believers coming in bunches with mouths in need of Irish Spring. (My husband should be raising his hand at this point.)

You have no idea how sweet it is to hear these babies cursing for Jesus. (Man! I bleeping love Him!) Just couldn't bring myself to curb their enthusiasm.

These days we have a sanitized bunch of pew sitters who rarely get excited about anything.

(Man! I bleeping miss the old days...)

Steve G said...

Like a diamond with so many facets, so is this conversation. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, so my language is conservative. I don't have an urge to swear if I hurt myself. I usually say, "Owww! That hurts!" or, "Man!". For me, it is about my understanding of personal holiness. What do I think Jesus would do? That is what I want to be like.If he was writing my book, what would He do?

That doesn't mean that others have to live by my standard, though. What is the connection between personal holiness and public integrity?

As a pastor, would I use those words from the pulpit?

The other thing about language, is most swearing is lazy. Is that really the best word you can use to express your emotion? Some guy used a swear on a blog - both Christians, the blog about emerging church issues. I stopped reading the blog because of that. They don't miss me, and I don't miss that particular conversation. I asked them about it, but they were convinced it was the best they could do. I think it was laziness to resort to "base" English for discussion.

Does it really add depth to a character? The more chilling villains are the one who on the surface are quite polished... just some thoughts.

Word verification: Hymestly - Speaking in such a way as to use 4 stanzas and a chorus (exptra points for organ music in the background)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Unfortunately, the blogger gremlin also ate my post. Honestly. Hotel internet connections are overrated.
I had written a baseball/potty-mouth analogy about our blog decision to bunt rather than to risk a pop-fly, so maybe it's best that the whole thing disappeared.

While I am not offended by mild language, I prefer not to read it. If it's in character, a simple, "he swore" can suffice, if used sparingly.

In real life, my own kids (20-somethings) have always had friends who came from disadvantaged backgrounds, and most of them know that my husband is ordained. Some of these kids even lived with us a time or two when their parents told them to leave. They usually tone down their language around us, but I always listen through the words and turn off my filter. Their language is such a minor issue compared to the rest of the stuff they deal with. It's just not that important. But I realize that I need to extend the same consideration to readers who are offended by language.

Annette said...

Great post and not one that anyone else I believe have discussed.
Rarely do I curse, when I do it is because the word falls out of my mouth before I had a chance to zip my lips.
Why would we want to be like the world and use language that might would tarnish our Christian witness.
The world does a lot of things that we as Christians don't need to be doing.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

One of the reasons why I write and primarily read Christian fiction is because of the language and romantic scenes I might encounter in the general market. I had an experience a few years ago where I was given several highly recommended top bestsellers that had very explicit scenes in them. I trusted the person who gave me the books, and put them away when I realized what was happening. But I can't "un-read" the little bit that I did. It will forever be in my memory, unfortunately. So will the language in my 11th grade required reading, like "Of Mice and Men". Actually, I didn't finish that book simply because of the language in it.

I feel the same way about cursing and sex scenes: they just need to be appropriate to the novel. You can say a lot without saying too much. You can say enough without going all the way, whether that is in language or in depiction. Sometimes cursing can be appropriate to the scene. Lisa Samson's novel is an excellent example of that. She took several risks in that book and I was really impressed--and appreciative--by what she wrote.

I personally don't curse because I feel that it is very extreme language and that if I were to let one fly, I'd want the situation to match the degree of the word. If I curse after I stub my toe, what will I say if I'm in a car accident? That being said, I have no problem with my friends who do curse mildly. If I'm around someone who only seems to speak in profanity, I do everything I can to leave. It's not so much offensive as it makes me want to go out and buy that person an excellent thesaurus.

Karen Schravemade said...

Language use is so cultural. Perhaps it's just my generation, or the fact that I have non-Christian friends and read widely and even watch TV on occasion, but honestly, I don't think I'd even have noticed if (killer) had been left in. Actually, perhaps I would have, if I thought twice about the context. It might even have raised a giggle, cos I appreciate people who keep it real - especially when said people are on a very visible pedestal in a notoriously cleancut industry. :)

There are some words that are a little bit cheeky and others that are simply ugly. IMHO, there's a difference. Perhaps there's something of a devilish anti-establishment streak in me, but I enjoyed the thought of Andy's cheekiness, even if it did get edited out in the end. I think we can trip over ourselves trying not to offend anyone or pursing our lips at those who insult our own sensibilities, but to me it all seems a wee bit Pharisaical. As Patti pointed out, there are bigger issues in life. Jesus certainly offended plenty of people with his choice of words, and I know we all agree that he was still a pretty (killer) guy...

Unknown said...

Loving the conversation we're having here. Just last night I was reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and came across this gem (the book is chock-o-block with gems and I highly recommend this slim yet weighty book) She writes: "[. . .] how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next."

This speaks to Andy's point as well as many other's who have mentioned cultural shift as a factor in which words Christians find acceptable - at least in print.

We will always wrestle with the seed of subjectivity, I think.

Unknown said...

I think this is a good point. The younger generations (mine included)are desensitized to the most harsh curse words, even Christian youth. I think it's important not to compromise our standards but it's hard not to look like a "holy roller" either.

I like to be real in my writing though. I just wrote a short story in my blog about a women I encountered at my job. I struggled with putting in a curse word in the story (that came from her), and ultimately used it because I wanted the reader to feel as awkward as I did when she said it to me. Now that I read this, it makes me question my decision. I like that. This is keeping me honest. Thanks!

Jennifer AlLee said...

I wouldn't have been offended if the word had been left in. As it was used, it was defining something in a positive way (meaning that the brand was REALLY good). While I understand the decision to make the edit, I think in general we get a little too hung up on things like this. But that's just me :+}