Okay, so the following is a gross oversimplification of the debate as I see it. But those can be fun, right?
****WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS PROFANITY. SOME BAD. SOME NOT SO BAD. ALL CUSSES. ****
“Have a seat, Mr. Rzasa. Thank you for joining us.”
My palms were sweaty. It’s not every day you meet with the head honcho for acquisitions at a major Christian publishing house. I rubbed them on my pants in a vain attempt to remove the moisture before I shook hands with the man sitting on the other side of the desk. “Mr. Walters.”
“Pleased to meet you.. Have a seat.”
His office faced Boston Harbor. You could see clear out to Warren Island on a sunny day like today. The only things I noticed, though, were the cup of red pens on his desk and the manuscript to their right. It was, mercifully, untouched by red. So far.
He sighed. “Your work — it just isn’t right for us.”
“But… you said in your e-mails that you loved the suspense and the pacing of the story.”
“Still true.” He paged slowly through the manuscript, eyes fixed on the text.
My frustration grew. “And the action? You raved about the action scenes.”
“Yes, they were excellent. Are excellent.”
“And the characters? You said–”
He held up a hand to interrupt me. “The characters, at first glance, are enjoyable and well-formed. At first glance.” He shook his head. “That was my judgment before I read through the entire manuscript.”
“What’s wrong? Too many POVs?”
“No. They’re just — well, they’re simply not realistic.”
That was baffling. “How so? Are their emotions wildly out of sync with their actions?”
“Okay, so…” I gestured with both hands, unable to find another question.
“They simply don’t swear enough.”
“Swear, cuss, whatever you want to call it.” He shook his head again. “There’s not enough profanity to make your characters authentic. Like this spot…right here.”
He spun the manuscript around, and pointed his finger at a paragraph.
I read the words aloud. “’You’d better not foul things up again, Tony,’ Bill said.”
Mister Walters nodded.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“This Bill is a tough man–a mercenary, an assassin.”
“It’s far more fitting for his character to say ‘f*** things up,’ Steve. It adds urgency and poignancy to your story.”
“Wait a sec. You want me to drop the F-bomb in my book?” Earwax aside, something must have interfered with my hearing.
“There’s several other places in which Bill seems a lightweight because of this lack of authenticity–missed opportunities for the words ‘crap,’ ‘hell,’ ‘damn’ and the like. And at least five places you could have inserted ‘f***’ — or the ‘F-bomb’ as you so quaintly put it.” He chuckled.
“I thought this was a Christian publishing house? Now you’re telling me to amp up the profanity in my book.”
“Listen, there’s just no market for it. If you want to be taken seriously as an author, to bring prestige not only to your name but to your publishing house — this publishing house — realism must rule.” He pushed the manuscript across the desk as if it were a — a — I don’t know, I was too floored to think of any decent comparisons.
“This is the future, huh? The way Christian fiction is going?”
“Obviously. We can’t compete with mainstream fiction if we have our characters speak as if they’re all Rated G.” Walters snorted. “Any piece of profanity — take ‘f***’ for example — is just another poignant word in the mouth of the intended speaker in a book. It doesn’t mean you condone profanity. It just means that character must be true to his or her self, must be authentic.”
“Come on. You don’t really believe that, do you?” I sat back in the chair and folded my arms. “The F-bomb is the F-bomb, no matter if Bill the assassin says it or if Mickey Mouse says it.”
“But standards of what word is profane change over time. What’s a swear word today wasn’t one years ago, and won’t be one in the future.”
“Uh, no. The F-bomb’s been an F-bomb for a couple of centuries at least, and Civil War soldiers used it the same way we use it now.”
“That’s not the point.”
“The point is, I don’t have enough profanity in my Christian book.”
“It’s not authentic.”
“Why is that so hard to understand?” Walters sounded exasperated. “People don’t really talk without swearing. Your characters should be real people. So it follows they should swear like real people.”
“But then Christian fiction is just like any other kind of fiction out there if the characters run around swearing…”
“They don’t need to swear all the time. Just at important, poignant moments.”
Oh, please. I snatched up the manuscript and stood. “Thanks for your time, Mister Walters. Sorry I wasted it.”
“Now, don’t go storming out in a huff.”
“I’m taking my work elsewhere.”
“You’re just condemning your novel to mediocrity. You’ll never win any major awards if you refuse to be authentic, damnit!”
That was pretty poignant, wasn’t it?