Volume XX, Issue One | March 2021
A reader once contacted me saying she wanted her book club to read The Persian Pickle Club. The group was a religious one, and she asked if there was an edition of the book that didn’t have the F-word in it. I hadn’t even remembered using that word. So I checked the book, and sure enough, there it was coming out of Rita’s mouth. She used it in a moment of fear when a man was threatening to attack her. Well, of course, no publisher puts out a special edition of a book eliminating one word, but maybe that wasn’t the point. The reader wanted me to know she didn’t approve of my using that word.
I don’t really write for readers. I write for myself. When I’m writing, I don’t think, How will readers react to this? I just put down what I think is appropriate, what works for me. Still, that conversation gave me pause. I, too, react to obscenities in books I read. Some years ago, I judged a writing contest. In one of the books I read, a character used the F-word every time he opened his mouth. I was bothered not just by the overuse of the word but by the fact it was historically inaccurate. The book took place well over a hundred years ago when that word was not as common as it is as today. The F-word itself is old. It goes back to the 16th century. But it was not used with abandon in 1900 when that book was set. I don’t know why the writer placed such emphasis on it. Maybe he thought it was manly. It wasn’t. It was just annoying.
I once taught a writing class at a retreat in Montana. I asked my students to go out and write down a conversation they overheard and bring it back, and we’d turn it into dialogue. (I could tell the students who faked it, because they had people talking in complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences, unless maybe Barrack Obama.) One woman went into a bar and wrote down a conversation between two men. Every other word seemed to be the F-word. In analyzing that dialogue, we realized that used once it can be very powerful. Used over and over again, it lacks impact.
I don’t think of myself as a prude, but when I read offensive words, I ask myself, Is that really necessary? Sometimes it is. I just finished reading The Good Hand, a realistic portrayal about life in the Williston, North Dakota, boomtown. Author Michael Patrick F. Smith spent most of a year as an oilfield hand and writes about the experience in gritty detail. He and his friends used obscenities in every sentence. In fact, the book would be about five pct. shorter if he’d eliminated the F-word. It’s the way the oilfield men talk, however, and to exclude those words would to be sugarcoat the portrayal. That’s not always the case, of course. Too often the use of obscenities is gratuitous, put there to titillate the reader.
The F-word is not the only offensive word writers deal with. There are others that are equally objectionable, and writers have to consider whether their use matters. There are also words that offend some and not others—hell and God damn, for instance. I use them and think they are appropriate because they are words that my characters really would say. I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers object to those, however. Of course, writers could use euphemisms, but have you ever really heard anybody say, “Gol, bast it!” or “Dad gum it!”
Our objections to words change. “Nuts” was once considered inappropriate for polite conversation. The word “bloody” is offensive in Britain but not here. And there was quite a controversy 80 years ago over whether Rhett Butler could say, “I don’t give a damn,” in the movie version of “Gone With The Wind.” Today, a hundred “damns” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
It’s possible I’ll use the F-word in some future writing, but I’ll do it only after careful thought, dad gum it!
Someplace to Call Home is one of 20 books to make the 2021-2022 Texas Bluebonnet Master List. Some 100,000 Texas children in grades three through six will read five books, then vote for their favorite. The winner will be announced next spring. The 20 finalists were chosen from 813 entries.
In addition, Someplace to Call Home was just named one of the 10 winners of the Whipperwill Award for Young Adult Literature. Books are chosen by the National Council of Teachers of English based on their “authentic representation of rural people and places.”
Books in the Works
In November, I signed a two-book contract with St. Martin’s. The first book, Little Souls, will be published early next year. It’s about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and deals with the importance of family. I’ve already gone through the editing process on the book, and we’re talking about the cover. St. Martin’s has some wonderful ideas, and I can hardly wait to see the concepts.