Hello! 🙂 This week’s guest post comes from crime writer Mark Bacon.
But let’s hear from the author himself. He’s coming soon to the Crime Cafe podcast!
Profanity — or is it obscenity--in mystery novels
Mark S. Bacon
John Grisham uses them sparingly. John Sanford uses hundreds, but of necessity he repeats himself. Many mystery, suspense and thriller writers use them. But some don’t.
Agatha Christie didn’t. Neither did a whole generation of cozy authors from Dorothy L. Sayers to Charlotte MacLeod.
I’m talking about swear words, dirty words, four-letter words, cuss words or however you describe them. They’re the way many people-including mystery writers-express themselves. Are words like f*** and s*** appropriate in mystery fiction? Or does avoiding profanity altogether make present-day dialog sound tame and artificial?
Certainly some readers object. I’ve seen posts on Goodreads, Yahoo, LibraryThing and other places decrying profanity and asking for the names of authors who don’t use it. And I have friends who have never spoken a coarse word.
Use or avoidance of profanity in literature is fascinating, but before I go further, a few words about four-letter words. While I eventually decided in favor of what’s delicately called swear words in my fiction, I’m still a journalist when I’m writing articles online. My inner AP Stylebook doesn’t permit me to use words you won’t find in your daily paper. Therefore I resort to f*** and s*** for two words everyone knows. Bear with me.
A friend of mine has published nearly 20 conventional mysteries and has never once used the f-word or the s-word. And I respect that. It’s his choice, and he has legions of readers who like it. To the best of my knowledge, the most vulgar thing he’s ever written in all his books-and this was only once-he said, go screw yourself.
But many of us do say more than that. Why?
Author Christina Larmer put it this way in a 2015 HuffPost article,
“Adding profanity is just a natural, fluid part of the writing process. I hear the character’s voice, I spew it out. Sometimes, when I read back through the copy and the language feels jarring or overdone, I remove it, just as I remove clichés and adjectives that don’t work. But I never remove it so my readers can feel more comfortable or content. This ain’t Chicken Soup for the Soul, guys.”
I agree. Before I’d finished my first mystery, I decided I would use profanity, but judiciously. My villains are often mean, cruel and brutal. They don’t watch their language. They are not likely to say, “Excuse me sir but I feel your attitude does not reflect sincerity.”
In addition, when my ex-cop protagonist, Lyle Deming, faces a troublesome situation, I want him to be able to say, “Oh s***.” Maybe that’s because it’s the way I often react to adversity. Perhaps writers who don’t swear themselves, don’t have their characters tell anyone to f*** off.
And now, gosh darn it, thanks to an article by novelist Elizabeth Sims in the online Writer’s Digest, I have to admit that profanity is not exactly the correct word. Even naughty is not quite right.
Profanity, as Sims points out, is the word frequently used to denote any objectionable word, but profanity literally means words prohibited by religious doctrine. In other words, terms that are profane. Generally this would cover Jesus Christ or God as epithets, but not necessarily f***, etc. The term blasphemy comes to mind.
Obscene and obscenity are better, more exact terms to describe most cuss words or coarse language. Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines “obscene” this way: “disgusting to the senses: repulsive.” This could be an eye-of-the-beholder situation, depending on the words’ use, but let’s not split hairs. Sims notes that obscene words often refer to sex. The f-word is the most objectionable example, she says, and she concludes with the understatement, “Adding mother as a prefix ups the ante.”
Decades ago in the golden age of noir, contemporary mores restrained authors from using anything close to today’s vulgarities. Yet it didn’t limit authors such as Dashiell Hammett. Here’s how he described one of Sam Spade’s explosions, “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously in a harsh guttural voice.” You get the message.
Today’s readers are different. Many mystery writers use obscene language because, like it or not, it’s become a part of life. We use swear words occasionally for the same reason we don’t use “forsooth” or “verily.” We want our dialog to be contemporary and realistic.
Mark S. Bacon began his career as a Southern California newspaper police reporter. From there he wrote mattress commercials for an LA advertising agency and later was an ad copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm. He taught journalism at UNLV, Cal Poly University — Pomona, and the University of Nevada. He wrote business books for John Wiley & Sons, travel, and entertainment articles for the San Francisco Chronicle and a book of flash fiction mysteries called Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words. His freelance articles have appeared in the Washington Post, San Antonio Express News, Orange County Register, and many other publications.
His experience at Knott’s served as inspiration for his mystery novel series set in Nostalgia City, an Arizona theme park that re-creates an entire small town from the 1970s.
Death in Nostalgia City, the first book in the series, was recommended last year for book clubs by the American Library Association. Bacon is currently in quarantine working on the fourth book in the series.
He is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers has was a panelist and speaker at the Left Coast Crime conventions in 2018 and 2020.
Originally published at http://www.debbimack.com on July 8, 2020. This is an edited version of that post.