I'm about to use (and talk about use of) the f-word.
And I feel a multipost series coming on about the subject.
What brought this on was a comment in critique. It's a good comment that goes right to the heart of the fact that different audiences have different needs and standards, and how the heck... (Whoops, sorry. I forgot I was being R-rated in this post) How the hell do you handle things like ratings in fiction that crosses audiences?
The critique was in reference to a paragraph that I've mentioned before. It's in Karla's point of view, and she does a little internal censoring of something George says.
"All right, forget Zero," he said. Actually, he didn't use the word forget but something that started with the same letter and would get you an R-rating if you used it more than once in a picture.I was worried that it might come off a bit too cute, and sure enough, I got this comment on it yesterday:
"This paints the author / narrator as prissy. Sounds like you’re writing for old ladies and children. I suggest you just use the word."Which is definitely true. The short answer is: of course Karla is prissy. She's a 40-year-old virgin who thinks of herself as a cross between Mary Poppins and Margaret Hamilton, and who lives in an imaginary world defined by the Hayes era production code. (And when I write tight-third point of view, I write really tight-third - practically first person narration.) It's also true that the audience for a cozy mystery does indeed include little old church ladies and children.
But that's not the whole story, is it?
Not by a long shot.
I'll betcha that if I had just had George say "forget Zero," without further comment, the critiquer would not have even noticed the absence of the word fuck. If I were really writing it specifically for old ladies and children, I'd write it as if such words did not exist at all, and there would be no problem. The reader would simply set the language thermostat to "Broadcast TV" and move on.
And in the first version of the scene, that's what I did. George is not a man who throws strong language around freely, especially around small-town spinsters whom he has just met. But I changed it for three reasons.
1.) George has stronger feelings on this point than he lets on.
2.) I'm not writing about a world in which the word "fuck" doesn't exist.
3.) I'm writing about a complicated protagonist. She's not an innocent. She's 40 years old. She knows what's what, and she knows what she wants.
So she has chosen, consciously, to live mostly by Hayes era rules. But that doesn't alter the fact that she LOVES Quentin Tarantino. And the Coen Brothers. She is first introduced in the story wearing a Big Lebowski t-shirt for goodness sakes. It's not a moral issue - it's a lifestyle choice.
And if #2 is not true - if there is nothing in the world to be innocent about - then #3 can't be true either. And then where would I be? (With a boring protagonist, that's where.)
I can hear the voices of some of my writer friends saying "You better fix the way you put that. Readers won't have the patience to read beyond a rough moment like that to see what you're trying to do. They'll think badly of the character and you. At least take some time out to explain it...."
And here's the irony of it all: doesn't that sound like what people say to writers of risky and edgy fiction? I know I'm perverse. I like to push boundaries - but I don't want to push them from the edges. I like to twist them around from the middle.
AND YET... I still have a problem. I've created a character who is G-rated, and a world which is at least R-rated - but what is the rating of the overall story? Some of the story is written from George's point of view, so I could play with the idea of contrasting a "hard R" style with Karla's quirky point of view. Doing that, though, would mean I was no longer twisting from the middle, wouldn't it? I'd just be writing another "hard R" comedy - and gawd I'm sick of those. Most of them these days are not edgy. They're just stupid.
Besides, I am writing a cozy mystery.
Now I myself hate the way that some seem to want a cozy mystery to be 100 percent "safe for church." No thank you. Not interested. I swear that most Agatha Christies would not meet the cleanliness restrictions I hear some people espouse. (I just want it to be reasonably safe for moderately open-minded church ladies.)
So not only does the word "fuck" exist in that world, I also do not guarantee I will never use it
But if I do use it, I want it to be appropriate and effective. Furthermore, I won't hold back just because it might shock little old ladies who might otherwise enjoy my book. I'm also concerned that if I splatter it all over my sweet little light cozy mystery, that devalues what Quentin Tarantino does with it.
I respect bad language, dammit! (Which is what the next post is going to be about.)
(Part 2 - A Little History of The Production Code, and Part 3 - Strong Language at Full Saturation.)