On Curse Words and Book Covers

I read an article a few weeks ago–I think it was in Publisher’s Weekly, but of course now I can’t find it–bemoaning the use of curse words on book covers as a new trend. Here’s a similar one. That got me to thinking of the use of curse words in our society in general. Language, for all its shared value for its speakers, is a very personal and subjective thing. Fair warning: I will likely contradict myself a few times in this post because I have mixed feelings on the subject.

First of all – yes, I am a frequent user of curse words in real life. I have a mouth like a sailor. My good friend Lee finally helped me embrace the F word a few years ago. And thanks to Chuck Wendig (a damn fine writer, I must say – he has a book Called Damn Fine Book, so it’s a joke, see what I did there?) I am a much more creative cusser. (If you can handle profanity, check out his blog. He is awesome – and his books really are great.)

To me, at this point in my life, curse words are words like any other, not good or bad, right or wrong, just with a little more color and emphasis than others — like an adjective or other modifier. I don’t think it has anything to do with a lack of creativity or vocabulary; I have both in spades. For me, some of it is habit and some of it might be laziness, but other times it is spice. Like I want to add a little extra emphasis to what I am saying. But also I curse without really thinking. I can, however, hold myself back at work, in professional writer settings, and when there are kids present (if I realize they are there, of course).

Funny thing is, I try not to curse online. (Except for the occasional FFS, which I don’t spell out. If you know what it means, that’s fine. If you don’t, you wouldn’t even know I was cussing.) It’s just not part of my brand. (It is for Chuck and he incorporates it well.) I don’t want to alienate people or look unprofessional, either. I guess my brand might be a little more straight-laced than I really am outside of book world.

But yet, there is cussing in my one contemporary book, and sometimes historical curse words in my historicals. Go figure. Why? It feels more authentic to me, to my experience of life. Obviously if I was writing a Christian or clean book/romance I wouldn’t use it because it’s not what the reader expects to see. But outside of those markets, I think people are pretty immune to it in daily conversation, especially since you see it on TV now. (I will admit that even I had to get used to the number of F bombs when I was watching Entourage. About those contradictions?)

Do I think it belongs on book covers? In rare instances, yes. I mean Go the F*** to Sleep is a perfect title. I’m not even a parent and I know that–because it’s how you feel. But I don’t suddenly want to start seeing it all over the place. For one, it’s mostly done for shock value and to get people talking, which is disingenuous. It’s like being a Shock Jock was in the 80s and 90s. Do it to get attention and seem cool.

For another, you don’t know who is seeing that title and as I mentioned, some people get offended by cussing and/or don’t want their little ones exposed to it. Sometimes it seems like being yelled at, and God knows we have enough of that in our world already.

And there are levels to swearing, too. In general, a D or S word is less offensive than an F word, which is still better than calling a woman the C word. But that is my system. What if yours isn’t the same? Who says what is acceptable and what isn’t? How far is too far?

But I also think society in general isn’t ready for it. A lot of people still have a Victorian mindset to cussing and would find it rude at best and downright vulgar at worst. I bought a book on feminism in the 90s a while back called 90s Bitch and I was a little uncomfortable with the title, even though I know it is a nod to third wave feminism, which took place in the 90s/early 2000s and partially focused on reclaiming words like “bitch” and “slut.” So the title had meaning, but it still wasn’t necessary to me.

Maybe that’s my point. When the word is necessary–like in Go the F*** to Sleep, somehow Go the Hell/Heck to Sleep just doesn’t have the same punch–then I think it is fine. But when it is just there because they can (like many examples in the article I linked to above), it still feels crass.

I know, I know, why is it okay for me to cuss with impunity, but yet I get offended by it in a book title? I told you I would contradict myself.

I think some of it is also a matter of choice. I have made the choice to cuss. But I will try not to do it around you if I know you don’t like it. However, when it is in a book title, I have no choice in the matter; it is just there. And often THERE because the publisher/author is trying to make a point, even if it is only “look how subversive I am.” And that is just stupid.

Quite frankly, most cussing isn’t used in a very nice way either. Here I am differentiating between when you cuss out of emphasis–like when you stub your toe or  say “s***, man” to something bad someone just revealed–and when you cuss to call someone a name or really to be mean. Our world has so much negativity already (which is behind a lot of the aforementioned yelling) why would you needlessly put more out there, much less broadcast it on the cover of a book?

I know, you could say I contribute to the negativity in the world by choosing to cuss in my daily life, and maybe I do. I never said I was f***ing perfect or that I have all the answers.

Language as Art

So many words to learn!
So many words to learn!

When I was a wee little thing, I apparently didn’t have much use for language. According to my parents, while most other children were learning how to string sentences together in a useful manner, I was defiantly mute. I had long since discovered that I could get my point across just as effectively using non-verbal cues. For example, pointing to a banana and then pointing to my mouth was far less complicated than saying, “I’m hungry, may I have something to eat please?”

Fortunately, the phase didn’t last very long, and I eventually became a functional English speaker. Then, in elementary school, I started to learn some other languages; a few years of German, a bit of Spanish, a smattering of Irish. These classes were hardly formal language education; we mostly learned traditional songs, memorized poems, and listened to the fairy tales of the culture in question. But so began my love affair with languages, and my fascination with the language of, well, language.

In high school and college I took as many language classes as I could reasonably enroll in: French, German, Arabic. But I also fell in love with English as a language, too. And I began to learn that every language has its own personality, an identity that is both connected to and separate from the culture it comes from. French is a sensual language; the words are spoken from the front of the mouth, as though each word is being tasted and savored like a fine wine or a chocolate mousse. German is crisp, logical, utilitarian; perfect for a country whose trains are always on time. The sounds of a culture’s language echo with the history of its people and ring with their hopes and fears.

As a writer, language is central to everything I do. I write in English, of course, but my love affairs with other languages have taught me so much about the sounds of a language, and what to listen for even when I’m writing in my native tongue. Sentences and paragraphs have rhythms, and the tone of a word can shift depending on the other words surrounding it. Words have secret lives, layers of nuance that can both connect and dissociate them from their sisters and brothers on the page.

In French, there are two words that mean language. The first, langue, literally translates to tongue and refers to the series of words and rules that make up a language. The second, langage, refers to the forms of expression of a language; the verbiage, the style, the nuance. To me, this is an important distinction that I like to make about my own writing; English is a tool that I use, but the way in which I use it is my art. And that art is about listening to the words, hearing the langage instead of the langue.

Leveraging language isn’t always easy. I often find that I get caught up in my own language so much that I forget that my characters, their histories, and even the setting might demand a different language than the one I’m using. For example, if my main character has not had the benefit of years of formal education, why would his inner monologue be dotted with lyrical, erudite words? If a scene takes place on an icy, frozen landscape, perhaps flowing words with long vowels and warm connotations are not the best choice for describing action. It’s important to always listen and inhabit the language, choosing and living the words that are most appropriate and most natural.

And if all else falls, you can always point. Banana, mouth. That was easy!

Do you love language, both as a tool and an art? How do you use language in your life or your work? Leave your thoughts below!