I write crime novels for a living and every now and then I get an irate review on Amazon or Apple from a reader outraged by the presence of offensive language and blasphemy in my books, demanding to know why I need to be so boorish, and refusing to read any more until I cease and desist.
And while the vast majority of readers seem to have no issue with it--many barely notice, or so I'm told*--the critics do have a point. I'm guilty as charged! There are occasional swear words in my stories and I do take the Lord's name in vain from time to time, there's no denying it. To say otherwise would be a bloody lie.
Having said that, it's time to make a stand on behalf of all those crime writers out there who dare to swear. At the risk of alienating future readers (and half the American population), I'd like to share with you my standard response when critics get in touch.
It might help clarify things a bit...
So, let me get this straight. Slitting someone's throat is perfectly acceptable behavior but saying 'crap' and 'Christ!' are not? Huh?"
Hello, people, you're reading a crime novel! You know, with murder and mayhem and stuff. If you had downloaded a children's book or something in the Christian genre, then fair enough, you'd have a point. But it's crime; people get hurt. A lot. And quite badly, too. What's more, the subject is kinda dark. That's the nature of crime novels. I think you have to expect a bit of grit when you pick one up. Even Cozy Crime is still, well, crime.
It's baffling to me how the same people who take exception to my use of profanity make absolutely no mention of the fact that in one book, for instance, I leave someone in a dank basement to be devoured by rats. In another I drown a poor woman in a swollen creek. That's perfectly acceptable behavior but cursing is not? I swear to God, I just don't get it.
"Um, you do realize that criminals aren't very nice, right?"
I know the literary world is littered with creepy serial killers who are beautifully spoken and uber polite (Ted Bundy sure has a lot to answer for), but just take a stroll through any maximum-security prison anywhere in the world. Your average crim is a bit of a thug. They don't just drop their g's, there's plenty of f-bombs going off, too. And they're certainly not thinking about God's feelings when they stick the knife in. Of course I could save you the discomfort and have my killers yell out, "Gollygosh, you nincompoop, I'm gonna get you real good!" while brandishing a knife, but that would be, frankly, ridiculous. Hilarious, but ridiculous.
"Most of my books are set Down Under, you may not realise that."
I know that Mel Gibson, Paul Hogan and Russell Crowe come across as sweet, demure types but most antipodeans (Aussies and New Zealanders, half of whom live in Oz) swear as easily as they breathe. If there were an Olympics for obscenities, we'd fill every podium. Scarily, many of us don't even realize we're doing it anymore. Listen in on any conversation on any Aussie street, in any Aussie pub or office block (aged care home, school yard...) and you'll hear a colorful cacophony of cussing. 'Bloody' is the common one, but they get a lot, lot worse than that. Five years ago a Queensland magistrate threw out a court case in which a man told a policewoman to "F*** off!" The defense barrister had successfully argued that it's now so common, it can't be construed as offensive. It's everyday language whether you like it or not.
"I know it's fiction but I like my characters to sound real-life."
My stories are everyday Australian stories, albeit on the darker side, so I need my Aussie characters to not just be colorful, but to actually sound like, well, Aussie characters. Yet even if my stories weren't set Down Under--and a few of them aren't entirely--I would still drop the occasional profanity because, as I said before, I also need my crims to sound like crims and I don't care what part of the world you live in but criminals have potty mouths. No, really.
Oh, and they're not the only ones.
Take my foul-mouthed editor character, Maria Constantinople, for instance (Killer Twist). She is modeled on not one but three real-life editors I know, all of whom could out-swear an Aussie rugby player and his coach. And one of these editors is American. Shock, horror. I have, in fact, toned Maria down for the books, not because I'm into censorship (more on that to come) but to hide the identities of the women on whom she is based. Frankly, they don't need the encouragement.
"I don't do it to shock or provoke."
You may not believe this, but late at night as I tap away at my keyboard, I don't conjure up ways to outrage or offend my readers. Adding profanity is just a natural, fluid part of the writing process. I hear the character's voice, I spew it out. Sometimes, when I read back through the copy and the language feels jarring or overdone, I remove it, just as I remove clichés and adjectives that don't work. But I never remove it so my readers can feel more comfortable or content. This ain't Chicken Soup for the Soul, guys.
"Pst: Go back and count them; there's not that many."
Did you know, when I mentioned this subject to one of my most conservative friends* the other day, one who's read all my books and loved them, she stared at me nonplussed. "Do you swear in your novels?" she asked. She hadn't even noticed.
Yet, obviously, some readers have and while I don't wish to antagonize anyone--and not just because I have books to sell/bills to pay--I simply can't remove the rude words and still sleep with my characters at night. Not only would it be disingenuous and severely dull down my books, but it would also amount to censorship and I just won't do it. Not even for readers who advise me to censor while proudly living in the Land of Free Speech.
Instead, I usually finish my reply with the following suggestion, so I'll finish with that now:
"Thanks for your feedback and I'm sorry you took offense. Perhaps you'd like to read another book, by a different author, that's not set in Australia. And has no crime."
It's the politest way I can say it.