Marisa de los Santos is the author of “Love Walked In,” which I haven’t read yet, and”Belong to Me” which I just reviewed (and loved!) recently.
I just used the F-word in the novel I’m writing.
If you’re thinking, “So what?” I can see your point. In the world of contemporary fiction, the F-bomb isn’t exactly a bombshell, even if you drop it on nearly every page (which I have not, so far, done and have no immediate plans to do).
But, for me, it’s significant, particularly in light of the email I got recently in which a reader told me that she loved many things about my novel Belong to Me, but found my use of the F-word in the book disappointing and off-putting. Actually, she said that the word made her physically ill, that it gave her, specifically, stomach pains every single time she read it. She went on to say that she recommends my book to people, but always with the caveat that some of the language in it is “terrible,” and she ended the email by telling me, “It’s just so sad and such a waste.”
While this is the first email I’ve gotten that claims my word-choices induce gastrointestinal distress, it is not the first I’ve received bemoaning the four-letter words in my books. I’ve even gotten a few handwritten letters, sent to me via my publisher or my agent, which had to have taken some time and effort. I’ve told friends about these notes. Many of them are scornful of such readers; some of them get angry on my behalf; some even suggest that I shoot off responses that employ the offending word itself.
While I appreciate the support, I have to say that, in general, I don’t react that way myself. I say “in general” because there have been a couple of times when I did get mad, once when an e-mailer told me that she felt sorry for my kids because no good mother could ever use such bad language, and another time when someone called me “Godless” and went on at length about the lack of religion in my heart, an email I resented primarily for its presumptuousness (how could she know what’s in my heart or, for that matter, God’s?). Even then, I didn’t write back, just pushed “Delete” with a little more zest than usual.
In general, though, the e-mails are relatively gracious (the one from the stomach pains reader was especially careful and kind), and the harshest thought I allow myself is something like, “If this offends you, how do you get through the rest of daily life?” or “You better never see a Tarantino film, girlfriend, because your head might explode.” Because, while I don’t feel called upon to defend them, it’s just true that my books are not exactly rife with expletives. In fact, many of the same friends who gave the above responses, began by looking bemused and saying, “Are there ‘bad words’ in your books? I don’t think I noticed them.”
More than anything else, though, what I feel when I get those e-mails is unhappy that people are upset. I want to tell them, “I wish you didn’t feel that way, and if there were anything I could do about it, I would, but there just really isn’t.”
The truth is that I am a goody two-shoes from way back. It’s not that I don’t swear on occasion, but I don’t do it loudly or in public, and I wouldn’t dream of doing it simply for shock value or to make others uncomfortable, which I think is childish and silly. I do it when I’m mad (although mostly when I’m really mad, I just sputter incoherently), or for emphasis, or to make a story funnier. I don’t do it in front of my kids, if I can help it (and I usually can, although not always). And while I don’t have a particular problem with the F-word and admit to finding its terse, hard, bitten-off, Anglo-Saxon quality occasionally satisfying, invariably, in spite of myself, I cringe at another, similarly monosyllabic, hard-hitting word, the one that begins with a “C”.
I am also someone who likes to please. There is a big part of me that would love to make my readers happy, every single one of them. But here I run into a couple of problems. First of all, such a thing is impossible. Second, and more importantly, there’s this: If I think about pleasing my readers while I am writing my books, if I write out of a desire to please them, I would be doing them a grave disservice.
I have to keep my eye on the ball. I have to choose words based on their organic rightness, on how well they serve the characters and the story I am working to tell. In a novel, the only inappropriate language is language that doesn’t fit. The only terrible words are the ones that make the story ring false.
For instance, in Belong to Me, there is a character named Piper. Externally, she is crisp, blonde, cool, perfectly together and perfectly put together, a consummate suburban queen bee. Internally, she is someone quite different and far messier. Her best friend is dying, and Piper spends a lot of time, under her gleaming surface, seething with rage about this, spends a lot of time seething, period. Her true self is passionate and intense, often wild with love, and often very, very mad. Her true self swears, not just swears, but screeches expletives. The trouble is that she doesn’t like to acknowledge this true self, and part of her growth in the book is accepting the parts of herself that she initially denies. By the end of the book, she is swearing out loud, too, with gusto, and even if some people might not find the words pretty, they mark a kind of personal victory for her.
There was no way to write this character without using ‘bad words’, even the F-word, even the F-word as a verb. Just as there was no way for me not to use it in the book I’m writing now. My main character, Penelope, walks into a public restroom and finds a girl having a tonic clonic (also called “grand mal”) seizure on the floor. Penelope is eighteen and frantic and scared and she is herself, a specific person who uses that specific word when she finds herself in that specific situation, and, if I have any hope of writing a book of worth and integrity, I have to be true to her and to no one else. That’s just how it is.
And if, at some point she decides that only the C-word will do? I will cringe, bite the bullet, and write it.