When I look over the vast sea of fiction, I find language polluting the waters. Over and over again, it fouls what otherwise might have been a great book. And every clean secular novel I discover is cause for celebration, because they're so very rare. I don't know about you, but if there was a machine that could erase every obscenity out of books, I'd press that Big Red Button so fast, nobody would know what hit them.
Whether you're nodding along right now, or quirking your brow and thinking, 'Come on, Tracey, stop being a prude,' I hereby present my case—five reasons language should be scooped out of the fiction ocean like so much overgrown seaweed.
1. It can be a sign of unintelligence.
One doesn't require much of an IQ to string together a bunch of obscenities. In fact, it shows a much higher level of intelligence to be able to express anger, frustration, surprise, pleasure, etc. with a clean vocabulary. And I'm sorry, but the moment you start cussing, you've just slapped a label across your own forehead. You make it harder for me—or anyone—to respect you. This goes for real life, and it goes for books. Every time a character cusses, my respect for that character and for its author begins to drop.
2. It's uncreative, and it's lazy.
(Closely tied to the above reason.) It doesn't take much creativity to let loose a blue streak. "I can't believe that bleeping bleepity-bleep!" takes way less effort than, "I can't believe that backstabbing cad! Has he no sense of decency?" Not that one has to be quite so wordy or cheesy about it . . .
3. It's not that gritty.
Meaning, it takes a lot more than an arsenal of swear words to achieve a sense of gritty realism, if that's what the author is going for. A strong sense of setting, mood, and character goes a lot further than dialogue full of bleeps.
Segment A of the population doesn't bat an eye at R-rated language. Segment B is generally repelled by it. So wouldn't it make sense to tone down (or eliminate!) the element that's chasing some of your readers away? Couldn't you appeal to a wider audience by mopping up your verbiage? I have a boundary when it comes to the swearing in books: cross that line, either in volume or severity, and I shut the book and leave it on the shelf. Most likely never to pick it up again. Mr./Mrs. Author, you just lost yourself a few dollars.
5. In fantasy, it's often unrealistic.
This one applies mainly to the fantasy genre. I was watching the movie Seventh Son with my dad the other night. It's high fantasy, okay, with dragons and monsters and a (ahem) typical beast-slaying plot. So when the characters started cussing using modern Earth words, that threw me for a loop! And this isn't the only movie or book I've encountered that's guilty of this believability-weakening flaw.
But there is a kind of language that I relish in a good fantasy tale--fictional profanity. Disclaimer: please don't give me cuss words that rhyme with the real ones. I skimmed through the first quarter of a book about little people living in a tree, and characters were dropping thinly disguised swears left, right, and center. Sure, a handful of them had to do with twigs, leaves, and other tree-related things, but the majority of the profanity was so close to the real thing, my brain translated it instantly. This is how NOT to write fictional oaths.
One of my favorite examples of well done fantasy swearing is found in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. Dragons are highly feared and despised in her world, so naturally, they feature in the language. "Dragon's teeth," or "Dragon's eat you, ___!" appear often. So do references to powerful beings: "Lumè love me," "lights above," and "Iubdan's beard," just to name a few. This sort of language is just so fun to exclaim. The polite characters frown upon such usage, but we as readers don't. It accomplishes the purpose without even coming near real world equivalents.
So what are your opinions on bookish profanity? Does it bother you? Does it matter? Whether you're still nodding along at this point, or don't agree with me in the slightest, I'm interested to hear your thoughts!