The Explicit in Fiction: Where’s the Line Between Realism and Obscenity?

I grew up in a family where foul language of any kind was never allowed. On the banned list where words like “idiot” and “bloody”, and we certainly weren’t supposed to say “oh my gosh” or “shoot”.

We also didn’t talk about sex. Like ever. I remember my first orgasm (which came about completely by accident, actually), wondering what the hell it was but enjoying the feeling too much to worry about it. I also remember looking up masturbation in the dictionary in the desperate hope that it would tell me how to go about it. And no, Websters, calling it “sexual self abuse” did not shed much light.

Like all “taboo” things from my childhood, I went through a phase in adolescence where I experimented with swearing and sex. The end result: those taboos lost their power. They became meaningless. “Fuck” and “shit” weren’t evil, but they weren’t exciting or special, either. They were just words, words that make sense in some contexts but not in others.

But that’s my experience.

Your experience will differ.

When I started writing After The Fires Went Out: Coyote, I didn’t think about profanity. All I thought about was trying to write as honest a story as I could. I didn’t think about foul language, sex, or violence. The only thing I worried about was the combination of sex and violence, which is not only a very serious problem in the world, but is also considered obscene and illegal in many countries (including mine), particularly when used to entertain or arouse.

I consciously tried to downplay the depiction and occurrence of sexual violence in my novel; I believe that in a post-apocalyptic setting, sexual violence against women, children, and even men will be as severe as it has ever been throughout history. But I don’t want to write torture porn or a rape fantasy book, at least not under my real name.

So I broke my personal pledge to be honest with the story, and limited the amount of sexual violence. Not by much, mind you… but I feel it was enough to limit both titillation and triggering.

So far, I haven’t received any complaints about sexual violence. I’m pleased with that.

But I have received numerous complaints about foul language and sexual content, sometimes mentioned separately, but usually mentioned together.

And I’m not sure what to do about it.

My first instinct is to dismiss the criticism outright; not everyone’s going to “get” what I’m doing. I’m trying to be honest here, and some of my characters say and do things that are explicit. I’m not going to bowdlerize my “art”.

But how many potential readers am I losing because of my stubbornness?

When I look over my Amazon reviews, I find that the most hostile reviews aren’t really about the language or sexual content; most are hostile for what I assume is a mismatch between book and reader. I set out to do something different, and because of that, Coyote doesn’t suit everyone, particularly within the post-apocalyptic subgenre.

So from my guess, cutting out half of the language and sex, assuming that this chopping could satisfy those offended readers (and that’s a big assumption), I might be able improve my average rating by a star or so, over time. That’s a huge deal, actually. Because of my unusual number of hostile one star reviews, my book is rated three stars, and that is definitely affecting sales and promotional opportunities.

So I’m definitely tempted to try and “tone down” the content.

But I don’t feel right about that.

I don’t want to artificially suppress the emotions and actions of characters who have started to feel like real people to me.

Now, I’ve seen authors offer “PG-13” versions of their books in addition to their regular version, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been successful. So it seems to me like I either chop or I leave intact: one version fits all.

And I have no way of knowing how much chop is enough.

So… I decided to count how many bad words there are in Coyote. Here are the results (out of 152,000 words):

Fuck: 242 – 0.2%

Shit: 168 – 0.1%

Damn/Goddamn: 83 – 0.05%

Asshole: 55

Bitch: 16

Bastard: 4

Cunt: 2

Whore: 1

Total: 484 – 0.4%

These words are often in heated dialogue or emotional narration, including phrases such as:

  • “The only people still on your side are the ones you’re fucking and sucking.”
  • “When I get home tonight I’ll tuck my kids into bed and then I’ll fuck my wife up the poop chute.”
  • “And then you can come by and shit your pants for me.”
  • “Not while you and that fucking asswipe there are putting my family’s life at risk.”
  • “How about I grab a broom handle and we see just who gets fucked?”

So yes, I have characters who use foul language. My main character, Baptiste, uses foul language from time to time in his narration. I also have characters who do not use foul language.

I don’t want to change my characters.

As far as sexuality is concerned, there isn’t much of it at all, and most happens off stage. The sex that does occur on stage is integral to the plot; if I removed those few scenes, there would be a hole in the story. Sex scenes are harder to count that foul language, but from my estimate, I have well less than 5,000 words of “sex”. That’s around three percent.

I’m not saying that my offended readers are wrong, since this issue is incredibly subjective. But that’s exactly why I don’t think I can rectify this problem to anyone’s satisfaction. Removing fifty instances of “fuck” probably won’t do enough to make readers less offended, while removing all instances of “fuck” will change the story completely.

But I’m not sure if I’m right.

Am I right?

Is there such a thing as being right on something like this?

6 thoughts on “The Explicit in Fiction: Where’s the Line Between Realism and Obscenity?

  1. Lee Ashford

    RE: “Toning down” your novel, “Coyote”, I haven’t yet read it – I just downloaded it a few minutes ago – but I’ve seen a few book descriptions where the author very explicitly tells the potential buyer there is a lot of sex, or profanity, or sacrificing chickens to satan, or whatever, which may offend some readers; if you believe you will be offended, do not buy this book. Personally, some of those “warnings” have actually prompted me NOT to download a book I might have been considering… in other words, they worked. If I don’t download it, I can’t review it. If I can’t review it, I certainly can’t slam the author or 1-star the book. But maybe you’re already doing that, I don’t know. If you are, I would simply respond to the hostile reviewers (if at all), “That’s why I warned you ahead of time.” Just a thought. I’m looking forward to reading “Coyote”, and I won’t be offended.

      1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

        Thanks, Lee!

        I actually have “toned down” a few words for the second edition (which is what you have in your possession)… I think I removed around forty f-bombs, added a little background, and addressed a few grammar and technical issues. I guess we’ll see if it worked. :)

    1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

      @Lee: I had a warning, and then removed the warning, then put another warning in. I’m very indecisive. :)

  2. Kara Benson

    Just finished Coyote today. Fantastic story and characters, hard to put it down, ie stop reading,’can’t wait for the sequel.
    As a fellow writer I can only say: stay true to your own voice and do not destroy the voice of your characters for the sake of some readers.
    Just carry on as before.
    Well done and we’re waiting for more,

    1. Regan Wolfrom Post author

      Thank you very much, Kara. I really do appreciate the support.

      Luckily the sequel’s on its way. :)

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