As a writer, I will defend my right to use ‘naughty’ words unto my last breath. They’re a tool, like chili powder is a tool for cooking, or ginger for baking. Sometimes, it’s the exact right thing, and you just need to add exactly as much as the intended audience will appreciate. Other times, it’s the completely wrong thing, and not even a dash is appropriate.
As a reader…I often stumble across so-called swearwords. My eyes stream across a page, then find one and pause, consider, re-read, then move on. If the material happens to be laced with profanity, it only takes me off-guard the first few times, then it’s just another word. If they only pop up once or a few times, each instance grabs my attention and demands I take notice.
Hand-wringing over swearwords and body parts and sex acts is nothing new. There’s always some anxious group of parents obsessed with protecting the delicate, shell-pink ears, eyes, brains, or whatever of their precious, darling offspring. The newest of this seems to be Clean Reader, which has been complained about by many (including myself) elsewhere. On the surface, it seems to be yet another effort in this long tradition.
What I find intriguing about the subject has little to do with authorial intent or consent, though these are important things. It’s the notion that a class of words are so powerfully subversive that they must be labeled, contained, and ostracized from the language. Certainly, this is also not a new phenomenon. Tyrants have been prohibiting certain forms of speech forever, and there are always things we don’t talk about because we consider it too painful for the listener (except on the internet, but never mind that).
The question then becomes, what deserves a warning in the front of a book? As a writer, I don’t always know the answer. As a reader, I want to know ahead of time if a book includes a rape scene, sensual violence, or if I should expect explicit sex.
What about you? What do you like to be braced for or warned away from?
Lee French has published several fantasy and science fiction novels, and is a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff