I once travelled to Harrogate in the UK from sunny New Zealand in order to attend The Harrogate Crime Festival.
I’m a writer, I write crime novels and attending a conference somewhere in the world each year is all part of my continuing education. Plus I wanted to see John Grisham being interviewed live by Lee Child. (They were both awesome, by the way.) Lee asked John why he thought such a varied audience, from truck drivers to lawyers, male and female, young and old, all read his books. He put it down to this: he writes a book he would be proud and comfortable for his mother to read. No cussing, no F words, nothing to embarrass her. She was his barometer.
So it was during a panel discussion in the main conference the following day that the topic again turned to swearing within the storyline, and each of the four panelists gave their view. Yes their characters, many of which were hard-nosed detective types (being a crime festival), would swear, not to extreme, but in an effort to keep the story real. An FBI agent wouldn’t say ‘goodness gracious’ when things turned nasty so yes, there was a time and place for it. I think the audience got that and were happy, and I suspect many of the panelists gained new readers that day as they explained their own characters and we got to know them a little.
Except one author. He shall remain nameless.
When he was asked about the huge amount of bad language in his books, he told a quick story of how his editor had emailed him and asked him to ‘cut the c**t count’. Laughing, he said he’d left one in for good measure.
I kid you not. The whole room sucked in a sharp breath at the ‘C word’ being so casually used, and since the crime genre attracts many readers in the 50+ age range, it perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate thing to say. The author laughed, oblivious to the audience’s reaction, happy to stick to his guns and write how he wanted.
I’d say it was a safe bet he didn’t gain any new readers that day, at all. It was a marketing opportunity gone to waste.
My own thought is this: I’ll never get complaints from readers because there isn’t any swearing in the storyline, but I could get complaints if there is. I too would like to think my friends and family would happily read my novels and enjoy them without flinching.
So, over to you. Does swearing turn you off a story, or do you think it’s acceptable? And if so, at what rate? I'd love to know your thoughts below.