‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books

Those of you who have paid some attention to my biographical information (if not, take a look at “about”) will know that I run a book review website, Rated Reads. There are quite literally thousands of blogs out there that review books. What there are not nearly so many of are websites that try to provide information about the content of those books reviewed. I have been a book reviewer for probably 15 years now, and I’d say I have done it as “professionally” as is possible; I’ve written for newspaper book pages for all that time, I was the book page editor for one newspaper for a couple of years, and I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle for probably 10 years. So I’d like to feel that I know a little something about book reviewing.

Since it has been well known among my acquaintances what I do in the reading sphere, many people have asked my advice on books, from all kinds of angles. What I concluded some years back was that there was a hole in available information out there about book content. I am a Christian and have been raised in particular being taught that it is wise to avoid using vulgar language or watching movies or TV shows with vulgar content, so it follows that I would want to avoid books with vulgar content as well. And those friends of mine who came from a similar background would often ask me what kinds of books I’d enjoyed that were also mostly “clean” when it came to content.

But there are no ratings systems available for books. There are many reasons for this, but the hole in available information remains nonetheless. I just thought I could do my part to fill in that gap, just a little bit. So I started Rated Reads four years ago. I’ve noticed now more blogs devoted to a similar objective: to just provide some information about book content to readers who care about sexual scenes, violence and offensive language. Some out there in the world today may criticize the movie or TV ratings systems or think they’re silly, but I think most people understand and agree that they have value in providing information that allows viewers and parents of under-18 viewers to make better decisions regarding what they watch. So I would think that logically most people would agree that having information available in a similar fashion for books would be desirable and welcome.

The naysayers have generally left Rated Reads alone. There have been a few occasions, however, when an individual who doesn’t share my values or the values of those who use the site or simply doesn’t appreciate that anyone in the world might have different values than he or she has makes disparaging comments about what I and my reviewers are trying to do. In those few cases, I have gently reminded those commenters that the site exists to provide information for those who would like to limit offensive content in what they read. They can disagree, but some people value what Rated Reads is trying to do.

As a reader, I find it laughable that some writers and readers continue to insist that, in order for their work to be “authentic,” it must contain graphic material. I think that there are a few occasions that this is actually true, but it isn’t true for nearly the number of occasions it becomes a sticking point. Writing about and for teenagers tends to get the most attention here, for some reason.

Let me just say this: I was a teen once. Yes, it was 25 years ago, and yes, it was perhaps a slightly nicer time in which not quite every scary or bad or dangerous or vulgar behavior was out in the open, and media reflected that. (An example: I distinctly remember the big fuss over George Michael’s song “I Want Your Sex.” Some radio stations simply would not play that, so there was a version called “I Want Your Love.”) Today, I am of the opinion that pretty much everything is now out in the open, rather than hidden behind doors, spoken of only in whispers. But I heard bad language when I was growing up; I heard sexual references. So I remember what it was like to be a teen and to hear and see things.

I can also say this: I have two teens. My oldest is almost 16, and she talks to me about everything. She is bombarded by vulgar language and talk about all kinds of dangerous and sad behavior. And even though, technically, students aren’t supposed to be allowed to use vulgar language at school or in the classroom, teachers have mostly given up on trying to reprimand or give any consequences. So my very tender, gentle and sweet child constantly hears peers using “f-” this and “f-” that and sexual language and all kinds of things that she simply doesn’t want to hear. (She doesn’t have a lot of choice in what she hears in class or in passing, but I will make clear that she does have a choice what she hears from friends. She has chosen friends who are like-minded in that they don’t use bad language, and if she does have friends or classmates with whom she interacts regularly who are inclined to use bad language, she has politely asked them to refrain from using it, and they have always graciously tried to honor her wishes because they like and respect her.)

So when it comes to media, including movies and books, yes, I can wholeheartedly agree that “reality” is not pretty in many respects. But just because some teens, or even many teens, are involved in dangerous behaviors or use vulgar language doesn’t mean that ALL do. My daughter has plenty of friends who don’t have sex and who don’t use rough language. This isn’t she or I being unrealistic or seeing through rose-colored glasses; it is a fact. There are plenty of great teens out there who aren’t having sex or using rough language.

Just as we can choose friends who are like-minded, we can choose media that reflects our values as well. My daughter doesn’t want to hear offensive things at school, so she certainly doesn’t want to come home and deliberately choose to read a book that has offensive material, if there are other options. I want her to have a place that she can feel comfortable, where she ISN’T surrounded by vulgarity. That is our home. And our home’s media options reflect that place of comfort and security. I don’t bring offensive media into our home. It is a sanctuary, as much as is possible, from the world of so-called “reality.” And our home life is just as “real” as what’s going on outside it — actually, more so.

So I appreciate the authors who can craft great works of literature without bringing in some of that “reality.” I’ve read many wonderful books with fully-formed characters who interact in a true-t0-life fashion with each other, with stories that are clever, that are witty, that are wise, that transport me, that make me think, that help me experience places and things I wouldn’t get to otherwise. And those books have felt absolutely real. They’ve been authentic; they have struck a chord in my heart and soul. I love those books and I give thanks to the authors who don’t feel the need to insert offensive material to make them more “authentic.” Generally speaking, I have found that the books that have used lots of strong language and detailed sexual scenes could have gotten their messages across equally well without that stuff. And all too often, those “markers of reality” have been poor substitutes for good writing. I don’t want to read a mediocre work, period, let alone by an author who thinks that inserting lots of nasty “reality” will instantly make it real. Why waste my time with that stuff when there’s just SO much good literature out there, so much I can’t possibly ever read it all?

I know well enough what’s out there, what kind of depravity and vulgarity and sadness exists. I am not so isolated or insulated that I’m completely ignorant. But I don’t have to wallow in filth just because I know it exists. Life is difficult enough for everyone that there’s no reason to choose to bring things into our lives that are filthy or degrading. We all have struggles, we all have challenges to work through. And good literature does reflect that fact. But it also can reflect that we as human beings can triumph over the bad, that we have the strength and the light in us to choose good and to be good despite the difficulties we encounter. And I’m going to choose to read books that don’t bring unnecessary vulgarity into my mind. I’m also choosing to run a website that provides necessary information so others who want to make informed choices can do so.

Readers who don’t agree with me can go ahead making their own choices. That’s fine. But respect that not everyone wants to consciously bring filth into their lives. And authors, if you write books with lots of bad language and sexually explicit material, you must appreciate that not everyone will want to read it (and parents have the right to monitor what their younger children or teens read). Most likely, you’ll have a broader audience if you could limit the offensive material you write into your book. The concept holds true just as it does for R-rated movies versus G- or PG-rated movies. More people do go to see those movies with more “family-friendly” content. They don’t have to be “cheesy” or trite or “unrealistic” just because their ratings aren’t “strong.” There have been some excellent “clean” movies, just as there are some excellent, authentic “clean” books. Consider making your writing the best it can be without using offensive material as a crutch to make it “true to life.” I, and many other readers, will thank you for it. Profusely.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is RatedReads.com. I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

4 thoughts on “‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books”

  1. I agree with your thoughts (although I’m willing to bet I have a much higher tolerance for vulgarity). In general, I think there are two questions. (1) Is the offensive material integral to the work? (2) If it is, do I want to read it anyhow?

    Shakespeare is a good example in the violence realm. “Macbeth” is a violent play, but the violence seems to me integral to the story. “Titus Andronicus” is also a violent play and a lurid one. I didn’t much like it because the violence didn’t seen integral to the story, the violence was the story, and the plot was mostly an excuse for it.

    Which doesn’t mean I’d say people should read “Macbeth” if they find violence disturbing, anymore than they should read any book they find disturbing. I’ve not finished many books. I don’t think I’m the worse for it.

    1. Very good thoughts and definitely pertinent to the topic. I agree it’s important to consider if the material is integral. And if it isn’t, I agree it should just be cut out. If it is integral, however, that’s where the reader must decide what his or her tolerance level is for offensive material. I can say for myself I have a certain mostly “standard” level of what I want to read or watch, but that can change a bit depending on the book or movie. I normally would not want to watch the kind of violence portrayed in “Schindler’s List,” for example, but I felt that it would be a good time to make an exception. I will mainly posit here, however, that for me, I don’t believe that most movies or books meet that standard of true “necessity” and that probably 95% of the time, a skillful writer or director can make a fine point without including so much that is offensive.

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