Does editing out offensive language help?

So I’ve read a few good books lately that have just had more strong language (a nicer way of saying “the f-word” or rarer vulgarities) in them than I would like to see (and honestly, I’d really rather there be none, but occasionally I can understand one or two uses). One I thought was fantastic was Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian. Great book. Only drawback? About 14 f-words. Really? Why did he have to put those in there? He could have quoted some odd characters without using their exact words all the time, and he could have made clear perfectly adequately they were colorful without using all that strong language. I am that confident in his descriptive skills as a writer.

Since I wanted to share the book with my book club, the women in which share my sensibilities about vulgar content, I felt an obligation to (a) warn them about the language and (b) share with them my whited-out personal copy so they didn’t have to see all that vulgarity right there in black print. (Yes, I used a Wite-Out pen to “erase” all those f-words.) I figured if someone else had read it first and recommended it, I’d prefer to read the edited version.

whited out textSo here’s the question: does it make a difference “whiting” or “blacking” out bad language, so you can tell it was once there? Will your mind immediately fill it in anyway? Or does it make a difference not to actually see that offensive kind of content, even if you know it was there? In a similar vein, does listening to a popular song that has some bad language edited out, a quick silence in its place, or watching a movie on TV that’s been edited (let’s just say language been “quieted out” rather than replaced by less bad language), feel not much different than just hearing the language anyway? Does the silence get filled in in your brain? Or are you grateful just not to hear it in reality, even if you know that’s what’s been taken out?

I also wonder if we all might have different reactions to this because of how our brains process information. Some of us learn and remember in a more visual way and others via audio. (I just see and remember things; my husband remembers everything he’s heard, for instance.) If we’re visual, will we just fill in a blank when we know something’s been taken out in print; or if we’re audio, will we fill in with audio? Or vice versa? Or does it matter?

Obviously, it would just be nicer for those of us who do have more sensitivity to language in books or music or TV/movies if those media came without the vulgarity in the first place. But since some do, does it help to edit them and leave obvious holes that we could possibly fill in mentally, or is it just best to avoid them altogether?

Just curious about what you all think. Of course, if you don’t care about bad language or vulgar content and don’t really consider it too offensive, all of this is a moot point, so don’t make arguments about the basic concept. But if you do care about this, either for your own reading/viewing or for that of a child, I’d love to hear what you think.

Strong language in books: not so common as one might think

After addressing my great discomfort with the number of strong and vulgar language in J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, I looked at other bloggers’ reviews on the book, and I was perhaps a tiny bit surprised that few expressed any frustration with that issue. Several that I commented on basically did respond that they thought that the really, really frequent use of harsh language felt “authentic” to them.

So I decided to do a little analysis of how frequently the f-word, for instance, pops up in popular books to see just how much use readers are “used to” or tolerate.

My ratings website, Rated Reads, features nearly 1,000 reviews of a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and young adult books. Of those, only about 175 are rated “high” and a few are rated “DIRT” (for “don’t invest reading time” — not because of the quality of the writing, but just because of the offensive content). I thought that it would be interesting to see how many uses of the f-word tend to be used among those books my reviewers and I have already rated “high,” which means in terms of language, more than five or six uses of the f-word.

Here’s the breakdown: 17 of the “high” ratings have no use of strong language (they’re rated high for detailed sexual content); 91 have between 6 and about 15; 31 have between 20 and 40 uses of the f-word; and only 15 have more than 50 uses of that strong word (or the very rare c-word).

My conclusion? Writers of the most “popular” or “critically acclaimed” books, which are sampled fairly well on Rated Reads, don’t tend to use the f-word much more than 15 times. Only a very few use it very liberally, 50 times or more.

Which is why J.K. Rowling’s book for adults seemed so outrageous to me: she must use the f-word 100 times or so (and the c-word at least once), not to mention a liberal use all the other “milder” language. That puts The Casual Vacancy into a very small group: only about 1 percent of books, according to my sample of about 1,000 books, use strong language that casually.

It brings me back to wondering why authors use strong language. Readers who “defend” the liberal use of harsh language say it’s because the authors are being “authentic.” Especially when it comes to high school-age kids, they say, that kind of language is used all the time. I don’t argue that notion. It’s true that one can hear a lot of bad stuff in a school hallway. And then there are different groups in society that tend to use that kind of language very frequently and without any thought for what it says about them. But if most authors would hope to be “authentic,” then why do so few actually use that kind of strong language very often? In a book of 300 to 500 pages, my “most common” group of usages of the f-word only feature about 6 to 15 uses of it. That’s actually not too “true to life,” one could argue.

In fact, a lot of the books that readers really love don’t have any use of the f-word, or very limited use of it. It would seem that those authors, who write well and with large followings, don’t feel a need to use “authentic” language. Hm.

Most of the books out there that are really entertaining or thought-provoking, that open a window into other worlds of all sorts, succeed at transporting us as readers, making us think and experience other places and groups of people, and do the job we want them to do — most of the time without using really harsh language (even if the characters, places, and situations might genuinely call for that kind of language if they were to be completely “authentic”). Are most of us complaining that they don’t use more authentic language? No. But when an author does use a lot of bad language in the service of being authentic, people just say, “Well, that was authentic.” Where’s the outrage here? If only a small percentage of writers (in this case less than 1 percent) really go for it and use tons of vulgarity, why don’t they stand out from the crowd that doesn’t write with tons of that trash?

I’ll let you all ponder on these facts and draw some of your own conclusions. Then comment and let me know what you think.

All I want to say to conclude is that in real life, yes, there is plenty of “authentic” rampant use of vulgarity and harsh language. I hear it sometimes, and I heard it when I was in school. My high-schooler hears it at her school. But given the choice, we both try to avoid it as much as we can, because regardless of what we’re “forced” to hear, we still don’t like it, and we haven’t “gotten used” to it. I avoid the groups of people and places where I would be likely to hear that kind of abuse of the English language, and likewise, I try to avoid books and movies that contain that language. I don’t HAVE to read or watch those books or movies or TV programs. I have a choice. And I choose to stay away from them.