Back in 1997 when I worked for a Christian bookstore, the owner expressed his disbelief at how a Christian could write a book filled with cussing. The book in question was Frank Schaeffer’s fictional book, Saving Grandma, the second in a trilogy. It also had a lot of sexual material as well. Confirmed by a review from Amazon:
Most of the humor this time comes from aspects that will make evangelicals raise their eyebrows: Grandma’s profuse swearing, the lampoons of fundamentalist seperatism, and sex, lots of it, sometimes quite explicit (par for the course for a mainstream literary novel–but really hot for an evangelical novel).
I checked the other 31 reviews on Amazon. While the sexual content bothered a few, and several mention the grandmother’s foul mouth, only 1 out of 32 reviews mentions it specifically in a negative way. I was a little surprised. As often as I hear Christians are anti-cussing, I would have expected more than one negative mark on the language issue.
But for my boss, he couldn’t get past how a Christian could write something like that. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by others as well.
There is a tendency among Christians to associate the morals of the author with his characters, especially if those characters are the good guys.
But only on two sins: sex and cussing.
The protagonist can commit murder, and the reader would not jump to the conclusion that the author approves of murder. The hero can gossip, steal, covet, and readers don’t assume the author does those activities.
Why primarily those two? Why if a novel contains cussing do some then accuse the author of doing the same and doubt his Christianity?
Here’s my list of why I think people tend to take that view.
People tend to read or write about a lot of those sins and walk away not feeling that they have participated in them. Reading about someone stealing doesn’t arouse desires in most of us to steal something. Not so with sex and cussing.
If reading cuss words makes a reader feel like they are cussing, then how much more the one who wrote those words.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (Mat 12:34b)
The characters are fictional. They only exist in the heart and mind of the author. If cuss words hit the page, it must come from the author’s heart.
Other sins are driving the plot in good books. Cussing either is or feels gratuitous.
Yes, there can be times when cussing could be plot related, if not directly, via characterization. But generally, most cussing could be removed and the plot wouldn’t change significantly, if at all.
If it feels gratuitous to the reader, they will perceive it as an author intrusion. They will assume it is there because the author wanted to revel in it rather than being necessary for the story or the character.
Can you think of more?
Sometimes, however, nothing else will work.
As most of you know, I don’t tend to swear much. When I do, it is more as satire than as a serious expletive. I’ve never been much of a cusser.
But in one novel I wrote, I came to a point where a character was frustrated, and I wanted to indicate that. On my first draft, I quoted him as saying, “Damn.” I moved on, figuring I’d evaluate and change it in a subsequent edit.
When I came back to it, I went through a list of alternate words, but none of them seemed to fit. Maybe I could show it without dialog, but the actions didn’t seem to suffice by themselves. It didn’t fit the character.
I considered the, “he cussed” telling option, but my dialog heavy writing style doesn’t lend to that method save for transitions between scenes. It would be jarring to jump to telling about the dialog when I didn’t do that elsewhere.
In the end, I left it as is. My book had a cuss word, mild though it might be for your average general-market reader. It wasn’t because I cuss much, or even that the character did much. But it was the only way it felt believable to the character and situation.
But will the reader perceive it that way? Will they think I run around all the time saying, “damn” because my character said it once? I’ll let you know if it ever gets a negative review on that account or not.
Where do you draw the line in your reading?