Why There's No Profanity in My Books

Some readers have noticed that there's zero profanity in either of my novels and questioned why. After all, foul language seems as common as nouns and verbs in military/espionage thrillers these days, so it's odd to come across one that doesn't have a single curse word in it.

My short answer to the question is: "because my mother reads my books."

My long answer is a bit more involved.

1. I wasn't raised to talk that way, so I don't write that way. I literally cannot remember my father ever uttering a single curse, which is all-the-more impressive given that he was a sergeant in the US Marine Corps and doubtless had heard some choice ones. I can recall my mother cursing exactly once and it was aimed at me — I was a rebellious, whiny teenager who upset her so much one morning that she finally snapped, ordered me to travel on to my eternal destination, and directed me to the less desirable of the two major options. That left a bit of a psychic scar.

Still, despite having better examples before me and like most teenagers do, I experimented with my vocabulary and let some ugly words fly on occasion. That phase lasted for a year or so, but never in front of my parents until the inevitable day that I slipped up. Rather than reaching for the disinfectant, my mother reached for the most potent weapon in any loving parent's arsenal — the expression of disappointment. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember a quote she shared: "profanity is the sign of a weak mind trying to express itself forcefully." That nailed me where it hurt and I've resisted cussing from that day to this.

Some readers of this blog will disagree with that maxim (one friend of mine disagreed and used salty language to tell me so); but this is my blog. Feel free to start your own blog to explain why I'm wrong, but after much thought, I've concluded that that quote was absolutely right. Thus...

2. I believe that profanity is usually a sign of weak writing. Profanity has become so common in modern media that I feel its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. Profanity has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact. Think about it -- why is Rhett Butler's profane dismissal of Scarlett O'Hara's desperate plea at the end of Gone With the Wind so cutting? Because it's the only profanity in the entire movie. It might've been the first profanity in a major US film (someone correct me if I'm wrong). Cursing was almost non-existent in film in 1939, so hearing Rhett tell Scarlett in profane terms that he doesn't care what happens to her was so devastating, so shocking, so powerful that the American Film Institute declared it the #1 line of film dialogue of all time.

Compare that to, say, the 2014 movie The Wolf of Wall Street which deployed the f-bomb alone over 500 times (reviewers disagreed on the final tally but the highest reported was 569) which averages to one use of the ugliest word in the English language every 20 seconds ...and that's not even counting the other 120+ non-f-bomb profanities. Think about that -- almost 700 profanities in a 180-minute film, or one every fifteen seconds. If the average person talks at an average rate of ~2.5 words/second, then profanities make up almost 3% of The Wolf of Wall Street's entire dialogue. Throw that much coarse language at viewers and they're so numb to it by the end that it has no ability to move them emotionally—"familiarity breeds contempt." (And that's assuming they weren't totally desensitized to the f-bomb already by the modern media's constant barrage of it.)

With profanity now so nearly useless as a literary device, why use it? Any literary agent will tell you that they reject out-of-hand manuscripts filled with cliches precisely because it's a signal of weak writing, a lack of talent and creative ability to come up with more creative descriptions. Abundant profanity is a symptom of exactly the same problem -- in 99.9999% of the cases, writers who spew profanity on the page are, in my opinion, reaching for the easiest expression to express a character's frustration and anger instead of trying to find a more creative use of the language. A few authors are skilled at using creative cursing as a way to develop characters, but most profane expressions are nothing more than cliched turns of phrase now.

Don't believe me? Since cliches add nothing to a story, try this exercise -- pick up a thriller you know is full of profanity, go through it with a marker, and black out all of the curse words. Then re-read the book critically and see whether the story really loses anything. I'm pretty confident that you'll find it loses a lot less than you might think. If you're an author and you're tempted to throw in some cursing, try taking it as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles and come up with a different way to express the emotion.

This leads to my next reason...

3. But, Mark, people use profanity in the real world all the time. You have to include it if you want to be realistic. Well, no. First, it's not always realistic. When is the last you time you heard the f-bomb 500 times in three hours outside of a movie theater or on cable TV? Maybe there are people who talk like that in the real world, but I don't know any of them and wouldn't associate with them if I did (more on that later).

In any case, everything in a movie, television, show, or book is completely fake. Take a look at any scene in any movie -- barring outdoor shots, the sets are fake. The production crew designed, revised, redesigned, re-revised, and built it *just for that scene* and there's not one object in the frame that someone didn't put there on purpose. The lighting was set up by professionals who do nothing but study lighting so they can achieve a particular look. Screenwriters revised and edited the dialogue dozens, maybe hundreds of times. The director planned, blocked out, reworked, and choreographed the actors' movements.

Sometimes this is all done to produce a highly realistic effect. For example, realism is the raison d'être of documentaries and the less of it present, the less valuable the documentary. But for pure fiction stories, it's often done to create a highly unrealistic effect (The Matrix, anyone?) and in almost any case, realism is completely (and brazenly) at the mercy of the story. Ask any movie director — they will happily dispense with realism if they think it will give the story more impact.

If every other realistic aspect must bow to the story set in this fictional world, then why do such fictional worlds always have to be populated with characters who spew profanity at an appalling rate because "that's realistic"? Why can't we make that fictional world a place where people don't use coarse language?

It's the same with books — there's not one word, sentence, scene, description, etc that the author didn't put there on purpose (okay, stuff slips through the editorial cracks, but, in theory, that stuff would be excised if found). Every single word serves the fake creation of the author's mind carefully crafted to elicit a particular emotion or deliver a specific message to readers. Well, I've already established (I hope) that swearing has become pretty useless for the purpose of emotional delivery. What about as a vehicle for some other message? How does profanity help convey a political, social, or any other kind of message?

I can't recall a single case where I ever thought it did. Even if it can, the utility rate doesn't appear high enough to make it worth keeping in my literary toolbox.

4. Profanity turns off many readers. Friends occasionally ask whether I read reviews of my books. I do. My favorite review of all time was this one, posted on Goodreads by a reader named Jackie about my first novel, Red Cell:

"Another one of those almost 4 star (but not quite) books. Although I should, by all rights, give this an extra star just for being clean and devoid of foul language. Thank you, Mr. Henshaw for providing an entertaining read without offending those sensibilities."

Jackie only gave Red Cell three stars out of five, but I think she represents a quiet group — maybe even a silent majority — who just don't appreciate having foul language thrown at them. I've heard a lot of people say they didn't like a movie or a book because it was full of profanity. I've never heard anyone say, "it would've been a better book (or movie) if it just had a lot more cursing in it." I'm writing for the former because I don't think the latter exists and I think most of the rest really wouldn't even notice a lack of profanity if the story was told well enough to sweep them away.

5. I want to live in a more polite society. The fact is that our society (I'm speaking about the United States here) has become far more coarse and far less civil in my lifetime. Our federal government is grinding to a halt because our leaders can't figure out how to disagree on issues and maintain personal respect for each other at the same time; but that's just a symptom of what's happening among the body politic. We've decided that people who disagree with us aren't just misinformed or mistaken; such people must be downright evil, or at least so stupid that we don't have to respect them.

When did I have that epiphany? On Friday, June 25, 2004. (warning: there's profanity in the linked article and audio soundbite).

Do we really want to celebrate our national leaders verbally attacking each other like that?

I don't think so; but can we realistically expect our leaders to behave any better when the citizens who elected them talk to each other the same way? That's the beauty of and problem with democracy — the people get exactly the kinds of leaders they deserve. Swearing in public used to get the speaker shunned as crude and uncivilized. Now we elect leaders who insult each other in open view of the media and celebrate it, and then get frustrated when those leaders can't work together to solve serious problems. Well, it's our fault for putting them there and for creating a climate where those leaders think such behavior isn't merely okay but actually a sign of strength.

I have no expectations that my books are ever going to radically change society; but I don't have to contribute to that climate.

6. Because I'm a Mormon and faithful Mormons don't curse. Enough said.


That's my long answer. I'm sure that some will say that I'm judging others unfairly, being naive, self-righteous, etc. I hope not. I know that others weren't raised as I was and/or don't believe what I do and don't respect them less when they let an ugly word fly on occasion. I simply believe that profanity adds nothing to the language and detracts plenty. If we want a courteous and respectful society we have to change the ways we think and share our thoughts. We'll never get there if we settle for resorting to the crudest words we know instead of looking for higher ways of expression.