So yesterday on social media I brought up an issue that I think garners discussion and I’m pleased to say that overall, the discussion was pretty much respectful (and delightfully irreverent in some cases), with the exception of a few pissy comments. Which is fine. That’s how this stuff goes.
Anyway, the subject was swearing. As in cursing.
I’ve blogged about this before, because I am of the lady variety who swears. Not only in real life, but in my writing. Some of my characters also swear. Swearage is part of my existence. I have many friends who swear. And others who don’t swear as much. And still others don’t swear at all.
I tailor my swearage to my contexts. In some places, I don’t swear. Like, say, job interviews. Or around children.
I call this self-policing. It’s basic manners, and it’s a conscious, individual choice I make.
But then there’s this other kind of policing and that’s what I want to talk about now.
Yesterday I posted the description of a panel that is being presented at an upcoming lesfic conference. The description made me uneasy. Here it is:
Profanity, Vulgarities and Obscenities, Oh My!
A discussion of the growing and often unnecessary use of profanity in lesbian fiction. Do readers deserve a more intelligent vocabulary? How can non-objectionable words and phrases work to an author’s advantage? How much is too much? Is the shock value muted when swearing is over used? When is a carefully placed obscenity absolutely necessary?
NOTE: This description is being re-written and I want to thank the person who wrote the original and then came to my social media post and acknowledged that it was problematic and that the description was being re-written. When I have the new description, I’ll update here. I made sure to update the original post on social media with this information.
AND a conference official did reach out to me, and I greatly appreciate that. So thank you, for being willing to engage and for addressing the issue quickly.
That said, I will own that yeah, maybe it was asshole-ish of me to post the panel description and say that it felt like speech-policing without going to the organization first. But I wanted to see what others in my lesfic reading/writing community felt about this and about the description because I’ve been speech-policed over the years by ciswomen in this community who expressed displeasure about my use of profanity in my books. And I know fellow authors who have been speech-policed for profanity in their books to the extent that these authors even got bad reviews as a result.
So the issue is actually bigger than this panel — though the person who proposed it and wrote the description didn’t intend at all for the sense that speech-policing was involved.
Though it wasn’t the intent, it came across that way, and I want to now raise why I think this issue is much bigger than this panel, because it’s something I and other authors have dealt with in the lesfic reading and writing community.
And as I said in my previous blog about this (see link above), policing swearing is something that women go through way more often than men. If I were a male author, I don’t think the swearing I incorporate in some of my work would even be blinked at.
There are several layers to this. Lesfic is a marginalized community in many ways, and to be speech-policed by fellow travelers in that community is a particularly bitter pill. And I say that as a white ciswoman.
KD Williamson, one of my fellow authors in this community and who has indulged me with many conversations over the past year, is also speech-policed for profanity in her work, but that policing gets tied up with something else. In one instance, she was speech-policed with regard to profanity in her work but with the added comment about how the reader knew she was black because of “all the curse words” in the book.
Would that reader have made the comment that she knew the author was white because of all the swearing? Or perhaps because of the lack of swearing?
That’s a hella big load of baggage in a statement like that. Speech-policing becomes a statement about someone’s race, which also laps at the boundaries of behavior-policing. It’s not much of a leap from “you can’t say that” to “you can’t do that” and within that are historical tropes about the “kinds” of people who “are allowed” to do and say certain things.
KD blogged about this whole dust-up, too. Reviews of her work often include references to her use of profanity. I’ve been approached in person and I think there are reviews floating around out there that reference my use of it, and generally, someone’s issues with profanity may bring them to write a bad review, even if the book is structurally sound and tells a good story.
So that’s why speech-policing makes me knee-jerk. I’ve been subjected to it, and my colleagues have been subjected to it, some with added implications about race and class.
Speech-policing can have a chilling effect on writers, especially when people do it in reviews and on conference panels — again, I understand the intent was not to do that in this panel, but reading the original description demonstrates why many of us reacted the way we did. But the question remains, why are we policing each other in a community that now, more than ever, needs to stick together and support the stories we’re telling?
And that’s why I brought it up yesterday. I have no issue with discussing effective use of language — whatever its type — in writing. And hell, in speaking. And certainly, some people want to learn how to wield profanity better in their work. Sure. Have a panel about that. But I also think it’s important to think about perceptions about swearing and the historical and cultural baggage that comes with it and with judgments about it. Because it’s one thing to say: “learn how to swear effectively in your writing” and quite another to say “discussing the growing and often unnecessary use of profanity in lesbian fiction. Do readers deserve a more intelligent vocabulary?”
One statement is a how-to. The other is a judgment.
And I worry that a panel like this, no matter the intent behind it, may end up being the latter.
Hence my knee-jerk, and the reason I brought it up, because as KD says in her blog on this topic, “sanitized lesbian romance and lesbian fiction is okay. Guess what? So is everything else.”
Indeed. Your cup of tea may not be to someone else’s taste. That doesn’t make it “bad” or “unnecessary.” There’s plenty of room for all kinds of stories. Let’s make sure they get told, and let’s keep talking.