Bad Language in Crime Fiction

lol cat with the words: wow, this page haz a lot of bad wordz

There seems to be/or has been an increasing pressure, steadily building, on writers to avoid using bad language in their mystery novels. How do you feel about that? This is seen more in the U.S. than abroad. Readers are pushing against bad language and are penalizing writers with one star reviews on Amazon (who takes those reviews seriously anyway?). I’m not sure if the complaint is about the use of bad language period or the excessive use of bad language in crime fiction.

At any rate, readers have felt the need to complain about it to the writer, to the publisher, to whoever. Editors are responding to it, too, which is troublesome to me, because these folks aren’t representative of me and vice versa. I will direct you to read reviewer Sunita’s conference notes from her attendance at Bouchercon this year where authors voiced their frustrations about this very thing.

Lest you think it’s just about sex, though, be advised that women characters must also refrain from swearing. As Lori Armstrong put it, “we can kill people but we can’t let them swear.”

Where I stand, well, I don’t mind swearing if it’s not overly gratuitous (the same is true for violence as well) and even then, I won’t complain about it and it certainly won’t stop me from reading the book. This is crime fiction after all. I think at the very least you should expect cursing, violence, disturbing themes, sex, macabre topics/details that pertain to the genre of crime fiction.

I know it’s sometimes difficult to disassociate real life values/baggage/life experiences/moral beliefs from our fiction reading but we all do not share the same values/baggage/life experiences/moral beliefs and shouldn’t be expected to have the same reactions/opinions to the books that we read. Writers shouldn’t be prohibited from creating their world/characters as they see fit to satisfy the few who may have problems with the language or themes of their stories. We all have freedom of choice. I offer a solution: just stop reading the author’s work if the language they use offends you.

Let me get this straight though, before I close this topic, in crime fiction it’s okay to kill people through many various methods/deeds but it’s not okay to use bad language? There is something wrong with that logic don’t you think? To close, while watching HBO’s Treme, I learned about the late Ashley Morris blog post, titled, “Fuck You, you fucking fucks” in response to his frustration with the media and the public post-Katrina. It is an awesome post (yes, I did say that) and without the language he used, it wouldn’t have been as eloquent to drive the point home. So where do you stand on bad language in crime fiction? I think it’s unfair to push this agenda on those of us who aren’t as easily offended by bad language.

19 thoughts on “Bad Language in Crime Fiction”

  1. By and large I think most swear words have lost their punch due to constant repetition in all media and so I wish people would swear less – in life and in fiction – so that when they do it actually means something. I would never complain to an author about something like that or give a 1 star review anywhere based purely on the presence of swearing. When done well (i.e. sparingly or in the perfect context) there’s nothing like a good curse but I’m sure I have made decisions not to read something based on previous exposure to an over abundance of curse words. I just think it’s an example of lazy writing if over-used and if they’re lazy about that they’re likely to be lazy about other things too.

  2. I think it is incredibly important to have dialogue that fits the setting and style of book. I did once complain to Malice Domestic about a book that won the Agatha Award, and was liberally splattered with the F-word and its derivatives. This might have just been acceptable in a hard boiled noir, but certainly not in an Agatha nominee.

  3. Thanks for the link, Keishon! And what a great post.

    I’ve been reading mysteries for decades, and while I certainly agree there are conventions about form, I had no idea how strongly readers felt about the use or misuse of swear words. I know plenty of middle-aged and “respectable” men and women who use the f-word, so I wouldn’t have much trouble accepting it in a cozy if it fit the character. And while I read enough genre fiction (of various types to see a lot of lazy writing), I don’t link an abundance of swear words to laziness unless there are other markers as well. My problem with the “in context” standard is that people’s standards for that will differ.

    No one should have to read books that make them uncomfortable, but I have problems with the idea of reader comfort trumping author autonomy. The Lori Armstrong quote came from a panel on “kickass” women protagonists. Certainly they shouldn’t be required to swear, but neither should they be prohibited from it, in my opinion.

  4. Happy to give you my opinion here and it somewhat jives with yours. I don’t mind swearing at all in books, as long as it fits the situation and the dialogue. But, for me, it loses its punch when it’s totally overdone and every page is salted and peppered with swear words. The F word is so overdone these days; it’s lost its ability to shock. And that’s too bad, I think. It has its value. What I don’t like seeing is when 10 or 12-year-olds talking in groups use it excessively. Of course, that’s the effect of the media and it doesn’t sound right coming from their mouths. We have to retain some words for shock value, don’t we? LOL

  5. My opinion is pretty consistent with yours — nothing wrong with swearing if it is consistent with the character, situation, and world established by the author. In fact, reading hard-edged characters who don’t swear *ever* seems sort of odd to me. While lack of swearing sort of makes sense in cozy mysteries as a matter of tone, I’m sure even sweet little old ladies who solve crimes with their cats occasionally say bad words.

  6. You bring up a really interesting topic! People do all have different views about what “counts” as too much bad language, so for the author, trying to satisfy every reader is well-nigh impossible. I think two things should determine how much (if any) profanity one uses. One is the context – the story – and the characters. If a curse fits the context, it’s going to be much more effective than it will if it’s thrown in gratuitously. In other words, the amount and kind of profanity used should fit the story and the characters. The other thing that should determine profanity is the sub-genre. For instance, in general (‘though of course not always), cosy mysteries have less profanity than gritty thrillers do. Neither is right or wrong; they’re just different kinds of stories.

  7. You’ve managed to hit on one of my major pet peeves. Romance readers have the reputation for being uptight, but in some regards I think mystery/suspense readers are worse. (And I say this as someone who has been reading that genre for 20+ years). It’s OK to have a dead human body – but OMG, NO NAUGHTY WORDS! And Lord help the author if they’re dim enough to have a dead dog show up in the book. Dead humans are just fine and dandy. Dead dogs? Hell hath no fury and all that.

    Like all things in fiction, it boils down to context for me. Violence, sex, bad language – it all needs to feel organic to the story and characters. If it doesn’t “fit” then we as readers don’t have to acquit. It’s a big wide world of publishing out there. If you don’t like something, or discover an author isn’t for you – nobody is holding a gun to your head to keep reading. And just because you don’t like it, doesn’t make it “wrong” or other readers “stupid” for liking it. Free will is sexy.

  8. Very interesting post! (I´ll tweet this).

    As I am a Christian I never swear myself, and for the same reason my characters swear very little (and mild terms only). But that is my own, personal choice, and even though I don´t enjoy books that are flooded with e.g. the f-word, I would *never* give a good author a bad review for that reason. I would never mention it in a review either if it was not relevant, but when I review cosies, I do point it out if it breaks the unwritten rule: any young girl or old granny can read this without blushing ;)

    And it is okay for a reviewer to mention anything he/she thinks will be relevant for other readers, but this kind of censorship is absolutely unnecessary – and unfair – unless we are talking about children´s fiction or books marketed as Christian fiction etc.

  9. Perhaps those mystery readers objecting to swear words would prefer their crime fiction without violence. You know, to make it totally realistic. *headdesk* People in books should talk like people in real life. Real people swear — at least the ones I know.

  10. I agree with you and the others here. I’m going to offer a different angle on this topic:

    I’d like to see the end of a trend of badly-timed swear words in British-set historical romance novels. Those authors didn’t get the timing right. They also overused certain swear words as well as having ‘wrong’ characters uttered those swear words. ‘Frigging’ as a minced oath is so uncommon here that it’s a jolt when a British character utters it. Also? ‘Frigging’ carries a specific meaning here. It refers to female masturbation. Quite disconcerting when it’s used as a minced oath in a British-set story! :D This kind of misuse was often enough to make me want to gnaw on my e-reader out of sheer frustration.

    For crime novels (and novels of other genres), I don’t mind excessive swearing if it’s part of a character or certain environment, or when during a high-stress moment. I mind when authors clearly do it to make their characters oh-so-edgy or to shock us, but their attempts tend to fall flat for me. Consistency, believability and sincerity are the keys, imo.

    I really like SuperWendy’s comment above: “Like all things in fiction, it boils down to context for me. Violence, sex, bad language – it all needs to feel organic to the story and characters.”

    Well put, Wendy.

  11. Appreciate each and everyone’s thoughts on this topic. I agree with those that say that it depends on the context of the story and whether it suits the character. That’s all I was trying to say in this article, but you all said it much better. Thanks.

  12. Yes, I agree it must fit the context of the story too, and to rate a book on its swearing volume is just plain silly. Readers who complain about cursing and so forth shouldn’t read those books. Simple, really.
    Excellent post!

  13. As the published author of 7 novels and several short stories, I have never received a letter from one of my readers complaining because I DIDN’T include bad language. I have, on the other hand, received very many letters thanking me for NOT using bad language.

  14. Perusing the various threads here, I was attracted to this one because I thought it was going to deal with ‘bad’ writing. Like James Patterson and his stable of indentured writers.

    Alas, it was about swearing. I admit to being a perp in this regard. When translating for UK publishers I have to alter my swearwords accordingly. For example, Swedes have no conception of the F-word as being not a good thing to use in book titles, on T-shirts, and sprinkled liberally throughout their cultural production of films, TV shows, print media, etc. So when a ‘reality TV show’ was set in Camilla Läckberg’s idyllic Tanum near Fjällbacka in The Gallows Bird (now retitled The Stranger — competing with Camus?), I opted to change the name of the show from ‘F-ing Tanum’ to ‘Sodding Tanum,’ in the belief that so many repeated instances of F-ing would detract from the spots where I really did have to use it! I hope our (mine and Camilla’s) readers in English approve.

    I have occasionally used the matrilineal version when a really powerful expletive is indicated (though it too has been weakened through overuse by rappers in the States). But I try to save it for an occasion of true need, such as to accompany an incipient act of self-defence with mortal result, and I do try to keep it to once per book. Otherwise, I rely on my editors at HarperCollins to catch the things that sound too odd and replace them with the ideal British phrase.

    In concert with some other commentors here, the descriptions of violence required in much crime fiction are much more offensive to me personally than any linguistic peccadillos or descriptions of sexual activity. One thing the Danes have right: their film ratings restrict children of different ages from watching violence more than they do nudity or sex.

    1. Very informative and for that thanks! I agree that violence is a lot worse than nudity or sex and in the states violence can fly by a PG-13 rating but sex and nudity automatically will get a R-rating or some variation thereof.

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