Times change and so does our sensibilities when it comes to what is offensive. Using the “N” word is frowned upon in polite society. Yet, some of the novels most famous for striking a blow against racism use the word repeatedly. These include but are certainly not limited to: The Invisible Man (The Ralph Ellison version), To Kill a Mocking Bird and Huckleberry Finn. Many classic books are filled with anti antisemitism, sexism and racism.
George Carlin’s stand up comedy sketch about the seven words you can’t say on television is a great example of words people find offensive. I should note, at least on cable television and Netflix, that there are few words left from that list that have not been uttered on television.
I believe that books should be given far greater latitude than television when it comes to being offensive. First of all children rarely seem to read novels anymore. If my children where willing pick up a book, I would put up with all of the words on George Carlin’s list within its covers. Children should be encouraged to read more.
Second, novels may be about entertainment but many also have something to say about society. Sure, some television shows rise to that level but most do not. Television tends to address problems that can be solved in less than thirty minutes minus commercials. Novels, are more likely to address the human condition.
The person uses an offensive word may have an impact on how bothersome it is. To hear the “N” word used in a rap song may not be as offensive as if it were used by a member of the KKK in a speech. In addition, what I find offensive, you may not and vice versa. A person could have been in an abusive relationship where the perpetrator referred to him or her using a distasteful word. As a result hearing the word used again may be even more bothersome. An individuals history impacts what they find offensive.
Some words we generally consider offensive may not be offensive depending on their context. As Mr. Carlin pointed out, “ass” and “bitch” are not dirty words when referring to animals. Unless you are calling your cat a “bitch” or your dog an “ass”. That being said who knows what a cat or dog finds offensive.
My feelings are that nothing should be off limits when it comes to writing. That is provided the purpose of what is being written is not simply to shock the audience but to convey something to the reader. Some characters are racist, sexist and sacrilegious. The language they use and their general attitude should reflect that. Ordinary people use swear words. A person shot with a gun is unlikely to say, “shucks that smarts” when the bullet goes in. Books that are trying to be realistic should have realistic dialog.
In addition violence and gore are also part of our society and are reflected in my books. In part my intent is to show how horrible violence is. Novels are not television. If you are shot you normally don’t get up. If you are repeatedly punched or thrown down the stairs there is a likelihood you will die. Real violence is not pretty and I don’t want to portray it as such.
An obvious point that you, my faithful readers, may bring out, is why am I not using the actual swear words in this blog? The answer is, that I want to show respect for those who don’t share my views. People may not like my books and prefer Cozy Mysteries instead. My blog is for everyone to enjoy, or dislike. My books are for people who choose a book that may not be “G” rated in all regards.
My goal as a fiction writer is not to intentionally offend people. My goal is primarily to entertain. That being said my books do tend to be a bit gritty and swear words do slip in from time to time for the sake of realism.
Books need to reflect the time they take place in. I would expect more crass language in a modern book than a book from the Victorian era. That being said books going way back to the times of Shakespeare and Chaucer had more than there fair share of material that some people would find offensive today. Sex, violence and fowl language go back to the times of the caveman. Assuming cavemen could talk (they could in those insurance commercials).
In some contexts offending people can be a good thing. The First Amendment was created to protect offensive speech. All political change starts with dialog someone finds offensive.Many of the great books that called for social change were controversial. Many of those same great books are banned and censored by schools.
What brought much of the topic of this blog to mind is that Champaign Central High School is performing the play To Kill A Mocking Bird from February 19-22, 2015, They have two separate casts one, as it is traditionally done, the other where the lead white characters are played by African American actors and the African American characters are played by white actors. It is a play where the “N” word is used. It is also a play about race. I am looking forward to a great performance.