11 October 2013

Does Swearing Sell?

Hey y'all!
你们好!

Over lunch one day, I launched this question across the table to my dad: what would happen if I used a swear word in my novel and it got published and then someone in my family read it?  If I were to answer that question, I'd say instant destruction.  Or, more specifically, my destruction.  In my mind, I pictured myself hiding in my room until the end of days, trembling as the voices of my disapproving family whispered to me at night.

Alright, that's dramatic.  I'll consent to that, but to all you writers out there, don't you shudder to think about the reactions of your family/friends to the material in your book?

My dad replied that it was nearly impossible to get published without using swear words in a manuscript.  (Keep in mind, my dad knows nothing of the publishing industry, but of course, being my dad, knows everything.)  He said that having a book without swearing in it was like a movie with a G rating -- you may enjoy it, but you don't take it that seriously.  In the book industry, swearing in young adult is commonplace.  If you want a clean read, go pick up middle grade, right?

I considered his viewpoint very odd.  I pointed out to him that he might be wrong.  I knew of dozens of books with little to no swearing in them that had garnered a lot of attention.  (Dare I say Twilight?)

I started thinking, though.  When I brought up the question about my family's reaction to possible swearing, I was thinking simply about my family, not about how the presence of vulgar language would impact how well my book would sell.  Is a book's likelihood for success partially based on the amount of language used?  Surely not.  But on the other hand, does that mean that it is not taken into account at all?

It's easy to list plenty of books that fall into both groups: those with a holy mother of Batman amount of language and those with lily-white pages and glowing text.  And from both groups, many books have risen to crazy popularity.  Consider the language in the Harry Potter series, one of the biggest literary global phenomenon of my generation.  In all seven books, I can count the number of instances where vulgar language is used on a single hand.  Based on this evidence, I'm to assume that the amount of swearing is not a contributing factor.

I remember I used to be turned off if a book had too much swearing in it.  But, then again, I'd been raised a conservative-ish Mormon.  Public high school was an experience in desensitizing to swear words.  Now, the only thought I give to swearing in books is whether or not it's a new kind of swear word.  (You know what I'm talking about, Firefly fans.  I know Firefly is a show and not a book, but don't you get a kick out of "Gorram" and "rutting" used as swear words?  Whenever they aren't swearing in Chinese (badly), that is.)

Do you think there's an appeal to swearing in fiction?  Do you think less of a book because of its lack of swearing?