So, I’m working on a Mormon-themed novel with some bad guys in it, one bad guy in particular. I know this isn’t a totally new discussion, but right now I’m in the thick of the issue of realistic language. I’m at the point where sometimes I delete the F-words and sometimes I add them back in or substitute “softer” crudities. But the bottom line is that my bad guys say F-words; they just do. And at least one of these guys is a very important point-of-view character who I just don’t feel I can sanitize, and plus his use of profanity helps differentiate him from the other main POV character, who is of the same age, gender, and similar background.
In editing manuscripts for Zarahemla Books, this issue has come up numerous times. I can think of at least three books that originally had F-words in them, but I believe that the authors and I agreed to pull all of these out, by the time the final version was struck (correct me if I’m wrong and anyone remembers reading an F-word in a Zarahemla title). It has been interesting to see authors originally feel that as part of their artistic truth, they had to reflect the way people talk, but as the publication date drew nearer, they sort of wimped out and pulled the F-words.
I’m one of those authors–in my novel Kindred Spirits, my conflicted Mormon female protagonist originally said some F-words when she was really mad (with good reason), but then I changed them to “effing,” which struck me as a funny reflection of her Mormon core that was true to her character: even when extremely angry, “effing” was as far as she could go. At the same time, I was aware that any readers of my novel would likely have fairly Mormon sensibilities, and in that case I didn’t think the artistic integrity outweighed the costs of potentially alienating readers. I believe the other authors who purged the F-words felt largely the same way.
The problem is, there are just so many Mormons–many of my own family members included, perhaps even my wife–who believe that a Mormon NEVER has ANY reason or justification to include a bad word like the F-word, perhaps especially in print that could potentially reach multiple people. But I don’t agree with this, of course: Just because a character in my book says the F-word does not mean that I advocate the use of the F-word or intend to start using it routinely in my own actual life. The reason I use it is because that’s how people like that character really talk, and to have them avoid profanity or use substitutes seriously undermines the story’s credibility, especially when you’re writing from the POV. (I’m fine with a pure POV reporting on what the bad guys are saying without quoting them directly, but some stories need an evil POV in them as well, and you just can’t whitewash that.)
Here’s, perhaps, some hypocrisy: While I can see having bad characters use the F-word in a story I write, I personally never allow taking of the name of God in vain, because to me that’s a clear violation of a commandment, whereas the F-word seems more just like this weird cultural taboo. But I can see where that’s a little arbitrary and a person could make an argument that the F-word’s connection to the sacred sex act, even though it is more often used simply as a generic intensifier, makes it nearly as offensive as casual or profane use of deific names. At the same time, I don’t think readers would sense a lack of realism if bad guys don’t take the name of deity in vain, as long as they’re using other real bad words instead. I’d MUCH rather have the F-word in my stories than profane use of the G-word or the JC-word.
One test you hear applied in Mormonism a lot is: “Would you give this to the Savior to read?” or some variation of that. Even with F-words, I honestly think I would, although of course it’s impossible to know what I’d really do if I really could personally hand something I wrote to the Savior to read. The reason I imagine I could is because I honestly believe I’m portraying the bad within an overall morally worthwhile story, and making the bad seem real can make the good seem more real, too. However, I wouldn’t want my kids to read it until they are mature adults. That’s another fallacy I see in Mormonism: depictions or imaginations of R-rated human reality that are not good for kids to read would also not be good for the Savior to read, as if he’s some kind of child who can’t handle full-bodied reality.
When I was editor of Irreantum, one time I let through an F-word in some story or essay. A woman wrote and complained that this hard little nugget of reality had “interrupted my rejoicing.” For one thing, that’s more of a pentecostal or born again thing to say, isn’t it? Probably some odd phrase out of the New Testament. And much more importantly, is that the only reason or even the main reason we read literature, to “rejoice”? I think there’s quite a bit more to it than that–I think literature helps us face fears and dangers and actual or potential realities and evil itself, perhaps even psychically preparing us to better face such things in our own lives.
Realistically, here’s what I predict will happen: When the manuscript is done, I’ll probably send it out to some national agents with the F-words (and other graphic elements) intact. If none of them bite or even if one does but gives up after two years of trying to sell it (hey, it’s happened to me before), then I’ll have to decide if I want to try marketing it directly to national and regional (non-LDS) publishers myself. If I manage to publish it nationally or non-LDS regionally, my wife will warn her sweet, pure Mormon family members not to read it but will probably still allow me into our bed. If that kind of publication doesn’t take place, I don’t see any LDS-market options for it even with the F-words taken out, because the LDS market tolerates only such a shallow little zone of actual or imagined reality, and my story probably goes way too far in many areas beyond language. The only option left would be Zarahemla Books, and if I reach that bottom rung on the totem pole, I suppose I’ll do a Zarahemla edit and take out many or all of the F-words, and perhaps I can sell 100 copies. But hey, at least that’s something!
So what do you think? Am I just rationalizing, or what?
PLUG: Zarahemla Books is currently having an overstock clearance sale, with several titles marked down 50% or more. Come browse at Zarahemla Books. Turning some of this overstock back into cash will allow us to publish more books in the future!