GUEST BLOG: Warning: Contains Language

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Warning: Contains Language

Is strong language an essential component to hardboiled crime fiction, or was the sexual tension of noir amplified because at the time, the writers had to rely on double entendre? I’ve read many reviews by readers who stopped reading a book because of foul language. And two of the biggest venues for crime fiction have an unspoken (at least in their guidelines) rule that crime must be kept PG-13.

But let’s face it, criminals and those disposed toward violence have poor impulse control, and it is only realistic that their language would be as peppered with profanity as their victims faces are with punches. And not to get in a cozy vs. hardboiled debate, because my Grandma could curse with the best of them, and she taught me to crochet. (I had to keep the line going while she stirred the gravy, see.) I’m reading Paul Cain’s FAST ONE right now, and when he called a bunch of double-crossers rotten —- ——-, I realized this was de rigueur for 1933. I felt sorely tempted to submit a story full of em dashes where my character’s colorful dialogue used to be. And I may still do so. I invite you to do it, as well.

The FCC is currently debating whether an excited award-winner dropping the F-bomb on primetime network television is deserving of a fine, but an actor portraying a heroic soldier in our mythical Spielberg version of World War II is allowed to, because this is art. Art that doesn’t offend us, because we’re too distracted thinking Tom Hanks sure came a long way from that show where he wore fake tits all the time. Now, Bono isn’t my favorite musician, but why is his “fuck” offensive when Mr. Bosom Buddies’s is not? Oh, context. Even the tight-asses at the FCC understand that in a certain context, a fuckity fuck fuck fuckaroo is allowable, but some fans of crime fiction do not.

And I say, they want to eat their rape and have it too.

If you want to read about murder, rape, armed robberies, knitting needles jammed up the ying-yang, whether tastefully off-screen, so we never see the congealed blood in said ying-yang, or explicit in your face full automatic knitting needle launchers firing point blank up dowager doody holes, in my mind, you lose the moral high ground in taking umbrage at the odd shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits as you tiptoe through the tulips in the greenhouse of mayhem that is crime fiction.

Does all crime fiction need foul language? Heavens no. Sometimes I revel in it (“Fucked,” at Pulp Metal Magazine) and other times I eschew it (“The Last Sacrament,” at Shotgun Honey) but generally if the Foo shits, I wear it. In “Black-Eyed Susan,” there is a little cussing. But it is not overdone, and it fits the character, I think. I write about angry people, and they are not always chilling and cold, often they have explosive tempers. I find it disingenuous to be offended by language and at the same time, titillated by violence.

Lawrence Block ran into similar prudishness when he wrote Small Town, an excellent drama of New York’s mayor in the post-9/11 era. Readers who loved his incorrigible burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr (who has tiptoed over more corpses in his crepe soles than the lead in a Peckinpah ballet) were offended by a character in Small Town who gets his balls shaved by a dominatrix. If he’d accidentally cut himself while ball shaving, bled to death, and Bernie was accused of murdering him while robbing his bejewelled cock ring collection, it would have been okay, I suppose. (I love Bernie, Mr. Block. You’re welcome to use that set-up for the next novel, The Burglar Who Castrated Cagliostro). James Crumley, in an excellent interview posted on this blog [Ed note: top plug, Tommy], only mentions getting hate mail regarding his use of the word “fuck.” Fuck that.

Deadwood was great fun, but it bothered a lot of people. Has every Western become as profane? No. Breaking Bad shows that you can have a great crime drama without the nudity, blood and profanity of Boardwalk Empire (which I also love). There is room for both. Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it. Watch the TV cut of Goodfellas, if you don’t believe me. That, my friend, is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. Do you have to like swear words? No. But are you truly offended by them? If so, I’d hate to see how you react to injustice.

I’ll give you something to be offended about:

Child abuse.

If we spent as much money fighting that as we do fighting doody words on television, the world would be a much better place. And if it does offend you, put your money where your mouth is. Lost Children: A Charity Anthology to Benefit PROTECT and Children 1st, is available in paperback and all e-book formats here:

I will warn you. You will find offensive language. You will find cruel vengeance. You will read stories, that according to hardboiled legend Wayne Dundee, are “are equally haunting and powerful and as painfully timely as today’s headlines.” And if it moves you to act, to join PROTECT or donate to Children 1st, then every swear word in that book is worth it.

Damn right.

THOMAS PLUCK lives in New Jersey and hates Bon Jovi. He used to work down the docks, like that Tommy in the Bon Jovi song. And everyone has to remind him. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey and Flash Fiction Offensive; he has upcoming stories in Crimespree and Beat to a Pulp. He practices mixed martial arts and gator wrasslin’ when he’s not hard at work on his novel.


  1. Dana King says:

    Amen. Or fucking-A, whichever feels right. I have no patience for those who will read the pleasure of the most degrading and violent acts, yet shiver at the dropping of one a George Carlin-anointed word. Jon Stewar did a great piece on THE DAILY SHOW last week on the topic of TV censorship, and my wife and I noticed a perplexing inconsistency of what is bleeped in Comedy Central stand-up routines.

    We have far more important thing to worry about than foul language. Maybe if the restrictions broke down, people would be less inclined to use them gratuitously, thus improving the writing and raising the civility of the fucking discourse at the same time.

  2. It all just seems ridiculous to me. But then I grew up in the Marines and in the country around poor folk. Neither are which are that inclined to watch their language, depending on where they are and who else is around. Thing is there aren’t a lot of rich classy criminals. People cuss when they talk. Crooks do, farmers do, cops do. Hell, cops are quite foul mouthed. So why would it be wrong to reflect that. I suppose if every character in the story said fuck every other word it could be a bit much. Reminds me of George Carlin, “You can prick your finger but you can’t finger your prick.”

    • Osman says:

      I think you are right. I read a rnecet Time article in the print edition about the trials that teachers face because of parents. One particular passage started me. A parent was furious about her son getting a C on an essay. At some point in the conversation it dawned on the teacher that the parent was offended because she wrote the essay, not the son. Integrity is becoming hard to find these days.

  3. K. A. Laity says:

    I think there are good ways to use profanity and boring ways to use it, but no words should be off the table. I like to try to come up with lively new insults (one in my forthcoming novel is “maggot-sucking father-felcher” but I digress) but sometimes a good old Anglo-Saxon fuck is the only way to go.

  4. Les Edgerton says:

    Great article, full of intelligent insights. I would expect no less from Mr. Pluck. Why on earth are we still fussing about with censorship? And, that’s all it is. If it offends one… don’t friggin’ read it. Unless someone dragged the reader, screaming and shouting and dragging their nails into the linoleum as they were brought to the novel or story, and made them turn the pages under penalty of death, where’s the justification of complaining? They’re just words…

    Mr. Pluck, you got it just right.

  5. Bill Cameron says:

    I am often struck by those who decry profanity as evidence of lazy writing. I’m so lazy when I use it, I have a Profanity Draft, usually as I’m nearing the finish of a manuscript, during which I go through and review every occurrence of a naughty word. I consider narrative voice, context, the character using it, the audience for the story, and other factors. I often end up deleting more than I keep, but sometimes I add more than I delete.

    The Profanity Draft usually requires three or for passes through the manuscript until I’m confident. With a novel, that might take a week or two.

    Yeah, very lazy.

    In contrast, I think of the gentleman who emailed me before ARCs of my first novel were even available to take me to task for my use of “swears” in the book. (Yes, there are many swears.) He didn’t read the book; he just assumed and dashed off a petulant scolding. So, which one of was lazy again?

  6. Thomas Pluck says:

    “My father used profanity like other artists might use oils, or clay. He was a true master.” – Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (also used in his screenplay for A Christmas Story).
    I think people who are truly offended by profanity in the written medium, so much that they have to write bad reviews excoriating it, are saying more about themselves than the book…

  7. Great article, and some definitive food for thought. Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat got a scathing review on one YA blog simply because the reviewer was horrified by the use of the F-word – and then she deemed it lazy writing, like Bill mentions above. I’d say if I saw one of my best friends killed right in front of my eyes, I’d be using an expletive as well.

    • Allan says:

      I have nitcoed this language increasing at an alarming rate but how can you tell a child to stop when the parent’s recourse is to swear at you. One of my other heavy concerns in the classroom I am in is how sexually explicit their speech has become. It’s not just calling the staff some nasty names, but really digging into the subjects and making jokes some adults would refrain from saying in front of anyone else. Unfortunately, this issue cannot be resolved by just one person searching for a solution, it takes the whole team of adults who are part of a child’s life to help things change.


  1. [...] is a guest blog on The Crime Factory by Thomas Pluck titled “Warning: Contains Language.” The post is a well-written argument discussing the use of strong language and expletives in [...]

  2. [...] on Books Live as this latest internet-go-round discussion takes form.  Pluck, in his original post, alludes to a couple of e-publishing “houses” that have a PG-13 rule in effect for [...]