The R Factor: Should Your Novel Contain Profanity? Part 1

by John Bowers

(NOTE: Some content in this article may offend the sensitive reader. Proceed at your own risk.)

In the science fiction novelist workshop where I grew up there has been a friendly, ongoing discussion of when and whether strong language should be included in a novel. Some feel strongly that it’s unnecessary, that “if you have to resort to profanity to tell your story, your writing skills are weak”, while others take the view that nothing is sacred when it comes to writing fiction.

Where do you stand? Or have you even thought about it?

A  Little Background

Everyone has become accustomed, at the movies and even on TV, to warnings about “content”. It all started back around 1968 with the motion pictures, when they first came out with a rating system. Before the rating system movie censors dictated what could and could not be shown or said in a film, based upon the moral principles of…well-no one was sure. Things got so nitty that a kiss in the movie could not last more than three seconds (whereupon the actors kissed each other for two seconds-repeatedly).

The same was true in novels, apparently. Although Pearl Buck, back in the 1920s and 30s Good Earth novels got away with figurative murder in her depictions of the sex lives of Chinese peasants, by the 1950s Norman Mailer was reduced to writing “fug” instead of “fuck” in his blockbuster novel The Naked and the Dead, a daring move that scandalized the proper and titillated everyone else.

The first time I ever saw a reference to the word “fuck” in a book was the 1952 novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, by Pierre Boulle, in which the dreaded word was spelled “f-king”. When my mother saw it she was righteously indignant. “That is blackguard!” she shrieked, and since I had borrowed the book from the school library, promised to take it up with my teacher. (She never did.)

Even Mickey Spillane, probably America’s most daring paperback novelist of the 1950s, never used the word to my knowledge, deferring instead to the equally descriptive but slightly less offensive (at the time) “screw”. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, slipped the word into one of his novels with a code: “Freddy Uncle Charlie Katie”. And in the novel Goldfinger, Bond told Goldfinger to “go f- yourself”, to which Goldfinger laughed and replied, “My dear Mr. Bond, even I am unable to do that!”

I honestly don’t remember when I first saw the F word in print in a novel, but it might have been Eric Segal’s Love Story, circa 1970. The 1970s, perhaps inspired by the hippie revolution (and a number of Supreme Court decisions), saw the floodgates explode when it came to sexual and grammatical “content” in film and literature. Naturally there followed a balancing act until the artists got their resentment of censorship out of their system, but the gates were down, never to be raised again.

Television

Although sex and language proliferated in  the movies, television airings of the same films were still censored, scenes trimmed, “dirty” dialog either wiped or replaced. The most ridiculous example I remember was in the movie Midway, when Edward Albert, Jr.’s Japanese-American girlfriend told him she no longer loved him, and he said “Goddammit, look me in the eye and say that!” Because you could clearly see his lips make the “m” sound, it looked really stupid when they replaced “Goddammit” with “Goshdarnit”.

TV censorship lasted for quite a few years and is still in place, though largely relaxed. You cannot openly swear on most major networks, and total nudity is still banned in most cases, but the premium channels show movies in their original form-sex, language, and all. HBO has no restrictions that I’m aware of, though some channels, such as Showtime and Starz, will not show male organs or female nipples.

Some other cable channels, such as AMC, will wipe the word “ass”, yet on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU the words “dick” and “prick” get full play. Such uneven censorship looks a little ridiculous when even American Idol permits Steven Tyler to tell contestants “you really kicked that song’s ass!”

Even SyFy Channel skirted the rules with Battlestar Galactica. The phrase “god damn” is usually banned on all except premium channels, but BSG got around it by saying “gods damn” (because the characters worship the gods of Kobol). In a particularly brilliant move, they replaced “fuck” with “frak”, a clever substitute that fooled no one and delighted almost everyone.

I wonder how bloody the fight with the network got over that one.

Next Week

That pretty much covers sex and language in movies and TV, but what about novels? That’s the subject of Part 2.

Sirian Summer, a Nick Walker eBookJohn Bowers is a very prolific author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, is available at AKW Books in eBook form. The sequel, The Fighter Queen, was originally written as part of Vow but was split off because the resulting book was much too large for publication. Eventually, the series expanded to five books. His latest book Sirian Summer, which starts a new Nick Walker series, is now available.

The entire Fighter Queen saga (currently 5 volumes) can be purchased at a discount price.

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2 Responses to “The R Factor: Should Your Novel Contain Profanity? Part 1”

  1. Malcolm Macdonald Says:

    The use of ‘frak’ in BSG was hardly groundbreaking, bearing in mind that ‘frack’ appeared in the original series, although admittedly as a much milder expletive. Further, the word ‘frell’ was used in the earlier SyFy (actually, was it still the SciFi Channel at that point?!) series Farscape. And to cap it all, the use of ‘firk’ was used by Shakespeare! (There is nothing new under the Sun…)

  2. John Bowers Says:

    You’re right, Malcolm, I had forgot that. Now that you mention it, in the Firefly series they used the word “ruttin’” (rutting), which was a bit more obscure, but meant the same thing.