A writer has the freedom to write their own story but not to guarantee it will please anybody else. Basically, all of life is action and reaction. We can control our action, not someone else's reaction. It sounds lofty to say I will stay true to my story-- not everyone has that option.
I am thinking about this because of reading comments in a private writing group. This group has both readers and writers-- a huge plus as often writers only talk to writers or readers to readers. Bringing the two together can be educational, rewarding, but also present frustrations. Readers, who are willing to speak out, have many must haves-- often not the same and sometimes diametrically opposed. Here are a few issues that arose and had me scratching my head:
1) This one is mostly aimed at historicals but is true of all books to some degree. The details must be believable and feel real-- even though the story is fiction (fantasy is excepted from this). In an historical, the language, food, transportation, etc. all must be correct (as they have been taught) or some claim they will discard the book before they finish it.
The reader is always right. Except they are not. Some are completely wrong with their assumptions. They don't always know what was true for say 1880 because they did not spend the hours the writer did listening to stories from those with older relatives, reading historical analysis, pouring over old newspapers and memoirs (some of the latter only available in libraries.
The most demanding readers often only know what they feel should be true, sometimes based on other fiction. When they write a scathing review of details being wrong, the writer is not supposed to address their complaints nor try to have a conversation about it. Writers are never to address reviewers directly-- not to say thank you or to argue.
So what option does that leave the writer? Well, for me it's spending those hours on the research, editing and quadruple editing for what someone ate-- and then trust I got it right. I own a lot of history books, some that tell me when this or that first appeared (which may or may not be right either). I bookmark websites where I can go for when a phrase or word showed up in print (which does not mean the first time it was used verbally).
An example is having a character say okay. It sounds wrong for historicals. Often I avoid it for that reason. But it first was used in The United States in the 1840s. It would be quite appropriate in a western set in 1880, but there might be purist readers who would be turned off by it. Safer to not use it as really how important is it to the story?
That is my criteria: Does it matter enough to stick to my guns (speaking of guns, you really have to research those for when they were first sold). When something is important to me, and I am confident it was true; then I will use it whether a reader later objects. There are readers who will appreciate that-- maybe just less of them ;)
2) Next issue is specific to ethnicity. It can take considerable research to find what word was used for this or that racial group, and sometimes the word that was most common is offensive today.
Big time, this is where ethics come in. In our country, racial divides have been revealed to still be there and hurtful. Does a writer want to make that worse? For myself, I will err on the side of sensitivity-- but I don't avoid characters from various ethnic backgrounds. I won't use words I know might've been correct at one time. There are things that matter more to me. Hurting a racial group, who have already experienced persecution, isn't something I am willing to do to satisfy the purist-- who might not be correct either. It's not like we have tape recordings from back then.
3) This last example surprised me. Until I had read it, I had no idea how intensely some felt about it-- profanity in a book. The phrase most objected to was whenever the reader believed the character was taking the Lord's name in vain. There were those who said they would quit reading right there. They apparently don't realize that when someone says G-- D---, they are not damning God at all. They are just using an expression indicating strong emotion, frustration, or anger against a situation. It's in itself meaningless.
In addition, their interpretation of the Commandment is not only Old Testament but refers today to words that didn't even exist when the books of the Bible were written. The Third Commandment says-- you shall not take your Lord's name in vain. The easy take on that is in profanity. But I don't think it means that.
Using something with less heated emotions, think about this. If you took my name in vain, I'd say you had used me to excuse what you were doing or to give your position more power, and it wasn't true what you said. I think what was meant and is far more powerful than avoiding reading a swear word.
What I believe it is saying is-- don't go around claiming God wants you or someone else to do this or that because He said it... when He did not. I have heard this coming from some of the religious pundits where they claim God brought a hurricane to punish someone somewhere else for being gay or having an abortion. That to me is taking God's name in vain.
To top this off, I had a pastor once who took the whole issue a step farther and said even saying gosh, golly, gee, or guldurn, all were the same as taking His name as it was from where it came. My goodness didn't even pass the test.
Once I tried using little g to indicate it's a god in general, not the reader's THE god; but that upset some who emailed me. It made them uncomfortable even though the word god is generic.
What I believe is that those, who say they quit reading at one G-- D--- (I am using dashes in case one of them comes here and would stop reading if they got to the actual words as I'd like them to read the rest), they really want the writer to stop using the words. It does not suit their religion to use/read them, and so it should not be in my book or anybody else's; and if it is, the threats follow.
For me, ethics decide this. I create characters that feel real to me. They will use words I believe they would say-- with some exceptions. There are some obscenities that I don't like writing (I do read books with them in it); so for me, I get around it with expressions like: "he said some words she'd never heard" "he cursed explosively," etc. (It is most generally men swearing in my books. Women are a little milder in their use of profanity.)
I will not have a tough hero saying-- gee whiz or my goodness in a critical moment. Not gonna happen-- ever. I try to keep my characters true to their character. In my most recently released book, I did have my two younger male leads use that objectionable phrase (each, under extremely heated situations); it wasn't ever said by the wagon master. I can't imagine him saying G-- D--- and he doesn't.
Interestingly, some of the very reviewers in the first two issues demand authenticity right up until they come to #3. So what does the writer do? Well, if they have to make a living, they probably take out the words, and then the next ones that offend another reader and pretty soon they have a watered down story that suits certain people and maybe sells. If they don't have to make a living at their writing, they stay true to their own code to reveal the story and characters with all their depth and sometimes their grittiness.
To satisfy my ethics, to tell my story, and stay true to it, I came up with a solution to warn away sensitive readers where it comes to the profane. I went back to all my blurbs and inserted a warning that the book contains strong language and mild profanity. Not all of them actually used the words they most disliked, but they all have some swearing in them. I do not want to blindside any reader for their sake and mine.
One more thought on this business of extreme purity, coincidentally we recently rewatched The Bulletproof Monk, which has a lot of good lines and philosophy. This quote fits the issue:
Water which is too pure has no fish.
Works for me :)