"The difference between the almost right word and the right word
is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning."
Mark Twain once wrote about an explosion. A man asked, "Anybody hurt?" Another replied, "Nope. Killed two niggers, though." Twain used the offensive word deliberately, let it roll off the tongue of his racist character like it did the tongues of real people, to slap us in the face. Mark Twain was not a bigot, but through his characters he showed us the ugly reality of racism.
My little brother and I once found a dead bird in our grandma's yard. After wrapping it in a handkerchief and tucking it in a shoebox, we buried it in the orchard with a funeral, song, prayer—the works. A few days later we decided to see if it had been resurrected, so we dug it up and peeked into the casket. Hundreds of white, squirmy maggots were feasting on the tiny body. "Don't look!" Tommy screamed, but a glimpse of reality stayed with me. It was repulsive, but I needed to see it—I needed to know.
Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, reminds me of my brother. "Don't look!" he seems to say with his new editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Tweaking Twain, he is replacing the N-word with "slave" in an effort not to offend readers.
Dagney Velazquez wrote this on her blog today:
"Is it an offensive word? Absolutely. Is it demeaning to an entire race of people? No doubt. Does it need to be completely purged from our current vocabulary? Certainly. Should we pretend like it never happened? No.
"Twain didn’t write fairy tales. And though the protagonists in these books are children, they are not children’s books. He wrote about and for the times, often using humor as the medium for his cutting criticisms of society, a society deeply entrenched in racism, who used words like “nigger” because a majority of them believed that black people were inferior human beings. To turn our eyes from this reality, to pretend it didn’t happen, is to doom us to ignorance, stagnation, and repetition."
Should an author use the ugly words? Should they be spelled out when quoted, as I did above, or referred to by an initial that makes everybody think it anyway? While writing Son of a Gun, I wondered whether to use a rough vocabulary or one I'd let my grandkids read. Research showed that many 19th century swear words are pretty tame today: blazes, boot-licker, dickens, dratted, strumpet, tarnation. Current favorites often meant something completely different in the olden days, so I avoided them by being historically accurate.
It remains a question for the book I'm writing now. I don't swear or take the Lord's name in vain, but should all my characters talk like a middle-aged, 21st Century, Mormon grandma from Salt Lake City? Or should they talk like a Texas cowboy, a Hungarian count, or a dam builder? (did I spell that right?)
Dagney wrote a conclusion I totally agree with:
"If, 100 years from now, someone were to republish my writing and change all the little parts they found offensive, I would rise up out of my grave and knock them over the head. Assuming that Mark Twain was no less spirited than I, let’s not risk it."
Now it's your turn:
You're forty pages into a book and you throw it down in disgust. Is it because of swearing, murder, slavery, war? Was the topic too G-rated? Too R? Did you want more love and less lust, or just the opposite? Was the prison too gritty, the hero too studly or the villain too tame? What do you find offensive in a book? Please leave your critique in your comment!