Former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, recently wrote a popular article that made the social media rounds. In How Much Business is Your Profanity Costing You, Hyatt argues that though profanity has become trendy in some circles, it can ultimately cost content providers a wider audience.
A majority of people swear from time to time, but it’s recently become far more prevalent in public. Why? One of the main reasons in the business world is creating an edge.
“Uttering a taboo word in public is a great hierarchy-buster,” says Lee Siegel. “It also gives you an extra boost in a society that is becoming ever more competitive.”
Most speakers and bloggers I know who use profanity do it for this reason. It’s part of their personal style, meant to set them apart from other communicators. But like anything, there’s an opportunity cost involved in dropping F-bombs and using blasphemy.
After listing three possible reasons that the use of profanity could be hurting someone’s business, Hyatt concludes with this tweetable:
If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.
For the most part, I agree with Hyatt’s take. He’s not framing this as a prude, nor is he suggesting that certain words contain some kind of magical power to defile. It’s the inferences that much of Hyatt’s audience draws that bothers me.
Though Hyatt’s platform is now largely related to the subjects of leadership and business, he gained much prominence through his Thomas Nelson days. As a result, many Christian writers read and respect Hyatt. He was the keynote speaker at the last ACFW conference I attended (2012) and still blogs often about publishing related issues. So when this article started popping up in my social media feed, it was posted by Christian novelists, most of whom extrapolated Hyatt’s point thus:
If you can’t be interesting without profanity (in your fiction), then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.
So while Hyatt was talking more about business than fiction writing, most of the folks I follow immediately used the piece to buttress an ever-popular argument in Christian writers’ circles: Avoiding profanity is also good for the Christian fiction business.
Writer /editor friend Johne Cook linked to the Hyatt article on his Facebook page. The ensuing discussion immediately turned to “profanity in fiction.”
Commenter Nora cut to the chase:
As writers we should be able to come up with ways to explain ourselves without it. As for dialog, you don’t have to write everything people say word for word: She swore under her breath; he would have cussed her out but that little voice inside of his head that sounded like his mother wouldn’t let him: You were supposed to keep your mouth shut, stupid. He swore as he hit the narc across the head.
This is just me though and I’m certainly no expert in the area. However, what’s more powerful telling someone they’re lower than a worm in a ditch or that they’re an xxx-xxxx. I’m just saying.
Personally, I think telling someone they’re an “xxx-xxxx” is more powerful than telling them they’re a “worm in a ditch.” But that’s just me. My point here is to simply say that many Christian writers who follow Hyatt seemed to interpret his words as pertaining to the use of profanity in fiction. Their logic looks something like this:
- creating characters who use profanity equals using profanity
- using profanity means you’re not interesting
Which prompted commenter Mary on Johne’s post to reply,
“…what bothers me is this ‘If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.’
I’m sorry, Mr. Hyatt. You don’t know me. You’ve probably not read my fiction. So to make a blanket statement like that is, well, judgmental and presumptive. And offensive. Who are you to say that because I use the f-word in a story I’m ‘not interesting’?”
In all fairness, Hyatt did not say that using the f-word in a story makes a novelist uninteresting. However, this is the line of reasoning that many of Hyatt’s readers appear to have followed.
In my mind, the anti-profanity arguments in fiction are uncompelling. Writers talk a lot about their characters being autonomous. Which means, at times, your characters will say or do something wildly inappropriate. In fact, remaining true to your characters means letting them act in ways you don’t personally agree with. Nevertheless, it amazes me how many writers hedge at these implications.
In speaking about character dialog, Stephen King, in his book On Writing says:
As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic. In the majority of cases what my correspondents are hot under the collar about relates to something in the dialogue… (pp. 185-186 emphasis mine)
Maybe this is why so many authors sanitize their characters — we’re just trying to avoid “criticism.” We don’t want to appear “foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic” or… uninteresting. So we censor our characters. And construct vapid arguments to support the censorship.
Listen, I don’t use much profanity in real life. I think it’s sloppy. In this, I agree with Michael Hyatt. My characters, however, don’t always think like me or Mike.