“Stop!” shouted Wardle. “What in the name of all that’s—”
“Inflammable,” mildly suggested Mr. Pickwick, who thought something worse was coming.
~ Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
A much-debated subject that frequently comes up among writers, especially Christian writers, is the use of profanity in literature. I've been meaning to write something about this for a long time, because it's a subject I feel strongly about. I may be opening a can of worms (maybe 'nightcrawlers' would be a more accurate expression), but I can't help it.
I was raised in a home where profanity was not only not tolerated, but never used, so I don't like hearing or reading it. Even an otherwise well-written book littered with profanity leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak, and if it's particularly prevalent I can't finish the book. I know I can't be the only one who feels this way. Yet I'm continually surprised at how many people argue that swearing in literature is not only okay, but somehow necessary to strong writing.
There are a lot of angles to this discussion, but I want to focus on the one argument in favor of unexpurgated language that seems to come up the most often and which irks me the most - the argument that it's necessary because it's realistic. We must convey through a character's speech just how tough, evil, or otherwise flawed they are, and such characters are bound to swear. While they certainly may, I believe there are valid reasons for us not to transcribe their every word.
First, consider the reader. Not every person who picks up a book is so strongly committed to realism in every detail that they are willing to be bombarded with language they wouldn't want to listen to in real life. No one is going to toss your book aside in disgust because there is no swearing in it - but there's a good chance that many who would otherwise enjoy the story will toss it aside because there is. I don't see the point of offending potential readers with something that is of no actual benefit to a story, but simply included because the author feels its 'realism' provides artistic merit.
Which brings me to my second point. I would go so far as to argue that committing to writing dialogue without profanity is actually challenging ourselves to a higher standard of creativity. For the record, I do not think the solution is using a dash in place of the offensive words. Constantly coming upon -----ed out words is like being continually tripped while trying to run. But authors could and did manage to convey the unsavoriness of certain characters in the days before profanity in books became socially acceptable, without resorting to the blankety-blank method. It is a challenge to convey that a character is swearing without putting the words on the page, but when the writer meets this challenge it can actually add something to your work instead of taking away.
"[He] offer[ed] further remarks concerning the fellow's character and antecedents - and he neither minced his words nor relied altogether upon Webster's unabridged dictionary," wrote B.M. Bower in The North Wind Do Blow. Bower lived in the real West and had no illusions regarding the speech patterns of cowboys, yet she consistently came up with some of the cleverest and sometimes wryly humorous methods of skirting this language that I've ever encountered in a book. It's not only more pleasant but more intellectually stimulating to read that a broken spur was "something tangible upon which to pour profanity, however, and the atmosphere grew sulphurous in the vicinity of the blacksmith shop and remained so for several minutes" than to have the salty tirade spelled out.
That was Chip of the Flying U, in 1906. Bower had no choice. Or perhaps, if she was like me, there was no choice to make anyway. Today there are practically no standards, so every author has the choice to make for themselves. If you're a writer, which method will you choose?