Generally, I don’t have a problem with profanity in a book. I’m not going to run shrieking away from a character who drops the f-bomb or uses cuss words when he/she is particularly agitated. I prefer my characters to be as real as possible, and a lot of real people do swear.
However, I recently read a book where, for the first time, the characters’ use of profanity actually colored my perception of those people. Both the hero and heroine employed a range of common swear words as part of their normal speech patterns, and since the writer used third-person viewpoint, the characters also thought and viewed the world using the full spectrum of profanity. I found that I didn’t really like either the hero or heroine all that much, however, I couldn’t really put my finger on why that was. Neither one had done anything particularly unpleasant, nor did they have a tendency to whine or throw self-pity parties. They treated those around them with respect. Generally, there was no real reason I should have any opinion of them at all.
Then I realized that part of my distaste for these fictional people was their constant use of profanity. In my review (not yet posted), I likened the situation to having met a person for the first time and being a bit put-off when they used salty language without really knowing me or how I’d react. Or, perhaps more apt, how I feel about foul language in a public setting as opposed to keeping it to their personal world.
As a reviewer, I wondered what responsibility I had to alert potential readers to the amount of profanity in the book. Since the story is not classified as erotica or urban fantasy, where perhaps one should expect a little more latitude as far as language, some readers who find profanity offensive might pick up the title only to be put off by the language.
Several of us here at AAR starting talking about what we thought of profanity in today’s romances. Given our wide range of ages and experiences, I was actually a bit surprised that we all had basically the same thoughts.
Dabney Grinnan summed it up nicely. “I read a lot of contemporaries these days where profanity is the norm. It never bothers me because it seems appropriate to the characters. There isn’t a word I can’t stand–not even the dreaded C word–as long as its use feels inherent in the writing.”
Reviewer Caroline Russomanno pointed out that judicious use of profanity can even enhance the storytelling. “Sometimes, profanity can provide a great character moment. I remember going all giggly at the end of the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Bridget tells Colin Firth as Darcy, ‘Nice boys don’t kiss like that,’ and he says, ‘Oh yes, they fucking do!’ How hot was that? It was the perfect way to show that sure, Darcy was nice, but he was also going to be good at being dirty. I saw the same scene on a TV broadcast, where they redubbed the line to freaking, and the whole thing fell flat on its face.”
And sometimes, a writer may use profanity to give personality to a character. “[T]he hero from Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far, Sam Starett, swore like a sailor and it was so much a part of who he was that if he didn’t use a profanity it would have been odd,” Cindy Smith pointed out.
Additionally, certain subgenres do lend themselves to increased profanity.
Since she reads in a wide variety of subgenres, Pat Henshaw experiences both ends of the spectrum. “The books I read run the gamut from no cursing (Amish, Christian, etc.) to cursing in appropriate places (contemporary, Western, gay/MM, YA contemporary, etc.).”
“I might expect it in gritty genres (romantic suspense, urban fantasy, etc.), but not in lighter books,” Anne Marble said.
Dabney agreed. “Obviously profanity in historicals is odder to encounter. In contemps, many of which are veering into what used to be called erotica, it would be odd if overtly sexual words didn’t occur.”
Blythe Barnhill gave a great example how profanity can be used to good effect in a subgenre where it might not be expected. “Great use of profanity in historical: at the end of The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale, when the hero says fuck – and the heroine says, ‘That’s a very bad word, isn’t it?’ Totally appropriate context and adds the right mix of humor.”
In the same vein, the professions of characters may indicate increased profanity.
“[E]xcessive swearing sometimes just makes the person sound limited. However, if a SEAL is walking around saying dang and rats, then I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. This is the US Navy, not Leave It to Beaver,” says Caroline.
The key to the above statements is that in all cases, the profanity came organically from the stories and characters. I personally don’t mind profanity when it is particularly apt, as in, when a character’s personality and/or profession might lend itself to use of colorful language. In fact, nothing will take me out of story more – and probably make me laugh unintentionally – than a big, tough Navy SEAL using words like “dagnabit” or “flippin’” when in the midst of a mission gone horribly wrong.
“Sometimes the reverse [no profanity] will actually bother me; I’ve read some books where the author seems to be trying very hard to avoid using a swear word and the result ends up sounding contrived. A book I read years ago in which a modern day special ops squad came off sounding like Ned Flanders comes to mind,” Lynn Spencer says.
LinnieGayl Kimmel points out that when writers try to avoid profanity, the result can be disastrous. “What bothers me more is if the author has a supposedly ‘modern’ man or woman use odd, contrived words in place of the profanity we might normally expect. Made up profanity such as “oh gummi bears” or “oh, antelope” just doesn’t work for me.”
And there comes a point where the act of actively changing or removing profanity from a book may cross into a form of censorship.
“I actually think that what some editors/authors do in masking profanity with obviously out-of-place (and occasionally out of date) phrases borders on censorship. Look, we can tell there’s something out of place when, to use but one example, a 26-year-old contemporary, urban woman, who has spent the book talking about shit, screwing and asses, rages at the hero for reducing their sexual experiences to a ‘quick frolic’… By excising an appropriate – and in this case, powerful – four-letter word, they compromised the character, the storytelling, and the reader’s intelligence,” Jean Wan very astutely noted. “[U]nderlying the so-called editing is a judgment of what is acceptable and appropriate. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.”
If we all agree that there is at least an inherent silliness is substituting profanity with potentially less offensive words, were there any words that we felt crossed the line of acceptability? Most people have words that they find beyond the pale. There are a handful of words that do cross the line for me. Since this is a family-friendly site, I can’t list them, nor would I really want to. Suffice it to say, when I encounter these particularly heinous words (IMO), I’m very much turned off. The context has to be very well drawn when they are used or I’m likely to set the book aside with little intention to pick it up again.
Wendy Clyde agreed with me. “In general profanity doesn’t bother me at all, except for two things. The word c-nt is so completely vulgar to me that it pulls me out of the story… The same used to be true for the word c-ck, but in the past few years it has become much more prevalent, and I’ve become desensitized.”
“I hate the C word as well, but if it is used in a way that is authentic in the story, then it is not going to bother me. The only way I can think of it bothering me is if the hero uses it in a derogatory manner,” Mary Skelton noted.
This lead to an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered before writing this article. There is a difference between profanity used as an expletive to express emotion versus that used in a derogatory way towards someone. And while the former is generally accepted, the latter is a universal turn-off.
Rike Horstmann said, “What bothers me a lot is when it’s used to dominate or put down someone. The hero calling the heroine c— is an example for that.”
Anne Marble agreed. “And what about when the hero swears at the heroine? There, not so much. Manly men swearing at each other or swearing at any enemy is one thing, but calling the heroine names is another, even if he thinks she is evil incarnate. I remember reading a romantic suspense novel years ago where everyone thought the heroine was the hero’s evil estranged wife. So of course there was name-calling, and swearing in the first love scene (if you can call it that). He kept calling what they were doing f-cking. And you know something? In that case, he was right. But of course it was OK because she was the evil wife – until of course she turned out to be good. *groan*.”
In the end, like any other storytelling tool, the use of profanity needs to be used with a delicate touch lest the writer achieve an affect she or he never intended.
Caz Owen, who as a teacher encounters profanity in her real world on a regular basis, had this to say. “As to whether excessive profanity would change my opinion of a book… if I suspected the swear words were there simply for shock-value, or because the author couldn’t think of a suitable alternative, then yes, it probably would lower my opinion.”
“[U]nnecessary swearing or just vulgarity will cause me to label a book as ‘crass’. This happened with a book I read in which I couldn’t figure out what the point was of all the cursing. It just seemed gratuitous to me and I found that off-putting. It was as if the author was trying to say ‘Look at these manly men dropping f-bombs!’ during normal conversation. I’m about as far from a prude as you’ll find, however there is a line for me that has less to do with specific words than with an overall tone of poor taste,” noted Heather Stanton.
Lea Hensley brought up the difference in the use of profanity in books versus on film. “Is there a point where I think there is too much profanity within a book? Possibly but it is more likely that I will care less for a character who feels the need to constantly say f**k in every situation. Now on film, it’s a different case. Still I don’t mind the profanity all that much (other than it sometimes offends those I’m with) but I find constant profanity less effective. You can see their disgust, you can see their anger or even their amazement and it’s a case of the actor broadcasting that to the audience with possibly only a single use of profanity. That’s hard to pull off in print.”
Perhaps worse than coming off as crass or vulgar, overuse of profanity might just cause a reader to find the book boring.
Rike remarked, “I don’t mind swearing in general if it’s not done in every second sentence (then it gets old very quickly).”
“[S]ometimes too much swearing makes it tedious. If I wanted that much swearing, I’d watch Scarface or The Usual Suspects and have a better time,” said Anne.
For Lee Brewer, less profanity is definitely more. “I don’t like seeing words like c–t and f–k and s–t and other words like that. The latter is okay a couple of times and I know people swear in real life, but still, it does bother me to see a lot of profanity in books.”
Do you find profanity to be acceptable or problematic when you encounter it in the romance genre? Are there instances when profanity will change your opinion of a book? Is there a line that you draw? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
– Jenna Harper