As indie authors, the freedom to write whatever we like – including swear words and curse words – is one of the great joys of self-publishing – but what responsibility does the self-published author have for the finer feelings of the reader or audience? Debbie Young asks the question after finding herself unexpectedly wrong-footed when reading her short stories in sacred settings.
“It's not appropriate, it's not clever and it's not funny.” Such is the classic rebuke from parents seeking to stop their children from swearing – but does the same hold true of swear words in your writing?
Given that I'm usually writing gentle, whimsical fiction rather than violent crime thrillers or police procedurals, bad language is not a matter I usually think much about. But my use of swear words sprang to top of mind recently when I twice gave public readings of my short stories in religious buildings.
The first of these was at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, a small, free, fun, family-oriented event that I organise in my village. In its first year, we held the event in one of our village pubs, The Fox, where the odd expletive comes as no surprise.
But this year, as the festival had grown, we staged the readings in the local Methodist Chapel – a wonderful setting, full of light and air and calm.
When I booked it, I was told the only rule was “no alcohol”, which was fine. We set up a tea shop instead of a bar. (When life sends you teabags…)
I confess I also made a festival banner to subtly disguise the overtly religious decoration on the lectern, just so it didn't feel too incongruous that we weren't reading scriptures. The banner echoed a familiar line from the children's TV storytelling programme, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.”
Dan Holloway told me later he'd assumed it was part of the fixtures and fittings of a very cool and funky church!
But it didn't occur to me to ask readers to modify their readings to avoid anything that might offend Methodists, and I'm pleased to say there were no complaints – quite the opposite, in fact.
A couple of months later, I found myself in the Evesham Quaker Meeting House reading one of my stories as part of the town's new Festival of Words, organised partly by ALLi author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn. As I sat awaiting my turn to read, I flicked through the story I planned to read, slightly nervously as it was not yet published, and it was the first time I was sharing it with anyone.
Until then, if asked, I'd have said I barely swear in my stories, but in this piece of around 2,000 words, several words leaped out at me. Called Drunk in Charge, it's about a couple stopped by the police on the way home from a party on suspicion of drink-driving. Too late, I realised this might not have been the best choice of story for the setting, given its subject matter.
Should I Give a Damn?
It's hard to imagine that such a scene could take place without a few curses from the couple, if not the policeman, but given that my own swearing tends to be on the mild side, primarily blasphemy, I'd thought the story's language innocuous until applying the Quaker's prism.
My husband would say I have a Quaker's ear already, as I tend to leave the room when he's watching films that feature lots of swearing. I find dialogue that features the f-word in every sentence tedious, even when it's supposedly done for the sake of realism.
But my Evesham experience it made me realise that swearing really is in the ear of the beholder.
I don't think this epiphany will make me change what I write in any way, but I found it an interesting wake-up call, and I'm sure I shall think twice before reading a story featuring swearing in a place of worship in future.
OVER TO YOU Have you ever moderated your language out of consideration for your audience? Or conversely made it more colourful because it's expected in your genre? Is bad language justified for the sake of realism, or does it become distracting? Is even asking any of these questions an odious overture to censorship? Pile in and tell me your views in the language of your choosing!#Authors - do you give a damn about bad language in your #writing? asks @DebbieYoungBN Click To Tweet