Off-Limits?

My issues with boundaries.


God, I love swearing. I really do. Dropping a good F-bomb is as cathartic as gobbling up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cinnamon Buns ice cream; it’s not good for you, but it feels good (you really need to try that ice cream).

But, like ice cream, you occasionally run into people, usually very stern and un-fun people, who do not approve. It’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who hate ice cream and will judge you for enjoying it.

I call those people “my doctor.”

Back when I had first finished my novel and was shopping it around with agents and publishers, a friend recommended sending it to her publisher. I liked this publisher and the work they put out, but I knew they refused to print profanity.

“Does your book,” my friend asked, a bit apprehensively, “have expletives?”

I did a quick Search and Find in my manuscript.

“There are 30,” I told her.

“Thirty expletives!”

“Well, 30 instances of %$&. I haven’t counted ^#& or &%# or $%^^#&&%#.”

Even to me, that seemed excessive. Oddly, I hadn’t noticed how many swear words populated my novel until that moment. I didn’t end up going with my friend’s publisher, but I did decide to excise most of the expletives from my manuscript down to a handful.

Easy.

Except it wasn’t easy, and it launched an internal debate that was hard to resolve. Was I changing my work for an audience? Absolutely, and that’s just the nature of publishing in a commercial environment. You can write for yourself, and should, but you have to make sure your work appeals to others.

The trick is to do both — to tell the story you want to tell, how you want to tell it, and make sure that story is satisfying to readers. Even if those readers are imaginary while you’re writing and, upon publication, invisible.

But profanity isn’t the only line you have to worry about crossing because, in addition to swearing, your characters may have the gall to occasionally undress each other. Most novels seem to follow Hollywood’s PG-rated approach to sex: Clothes start to come off, and the camera starts to pan away.

I’ve always felt that’s a bit cheap, particularly since sex can be such an intense experience (done right or, come to think of it, even done wrong), and writers ought to be in the business of capturing intense experiences. But sex makes some readers squeamish, and a commercially published author has to take that into account. Someone may drop your book the moment pants drop.

Because they hate ice cream.

I’d mention violence as a third boundary, but people are actually pretty cool with violence. No limits.

Two of my favorite writers are Anne Tyler and John Updike, and each has written work that touches artistic nirvana (that’s a thing), and each has done so differently. Tyler rarely, if ever, swears or has scenes of explicit sex. By comparison, Updike’s Rabbit novels have moments where you feel like you’re watching an orgy with the cast of “Deadwood.” And something occurs to me, even as I frantically try to shake that image from my mind: Neither writer was wrong in their approach.

Like so many debates about literature, and the business of literature, there is no one answer. The true answer is what works for you. There are bookshelves for both Bukowski and Bronte. The hard part for an emerging writer is to determine which path is appropriate for you, and to realize that what you publish is a step down that path.

Once you’ve published, you can’t step back. 

E.A. Aymar earned a B.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in literature. He lives with his wife and son just outside of Washington, DC. His debut novel is I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.

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