In a review of my recently released novel, How We End Up, the reviewer said that my book contained many profanities. Understand first, though, that this review was incredibly positive, and it heaped much praise on the book, for which I was grateful and for which I thanked the reviewer, so I surmised that the reviewer mentioned the profanities as a caveat to readers. Curiously, the novel contains depictions of several sex scenes, but the reviewer made no mention of them, which surprised me since people who are offended by profanities are often also offended by portrayals of sex acts in fiction, so why didn’t the reviewer warn readers about them as well? Reflecting on it further, maybe the reviewer also considered sex scenes as profanities.
This got me thinking about how writers use both profanities and sex in their books. I do see posts by my social media Romance writer friends in which they entice readers by mentioning the erotica and steamy sex that appears in their work, and more power to them for having the pluck to write about it. The term conjures visions of couples writhing in ecstasy while emitting a vaporous, humid cloud enveloping the scene in a fine moist mist. Well, maybe that is just my reaction. However, what I am getting at here is the question of when, how often, and how graphic should profanity and sex belong in a story; that is, when are they integral to the story and not intended to be exploitative just to titillate readers?
I am not an advocate for profanity, and many times I have been annoyed and disappointed when I’ve read something or watched a film in which most of the characters spew multiple versions of the F-word with minimal insertion of the plentiful vocabulary choices offered to them by the English language. My new book follows three characters, a man and twin sisters, over a twenty-five-year period. It is a work of literary, contemporary, and adult fiction, so I think readers drawn to these genres would expect the language the characters use to reflect the current vernacular, including “cussin’” (if you will). It is primarily one character in the book, Hadley, one of the twins, who expresses about ninety percent of the “colorful” words (fallback euphemism), and, given the turbulence of her personality and life, if I am going to present an honest portrayal of who she is, her profanity needs to accompany her. It is the same with other characters who utter expletives in certain stressful circumstances; it only mirrors the way many people speak in “real life.” The difficulty the writer faces is making sure readers see the character as the writer does, as a complex, flawed individual, the kind of character readers of serious fiction are drawn to and with whom they empathize. If that is the result, the writer has succeeded in being authentic.
Since the book encompasses a twenty-five-year span, the characters will obviously experience diverse interactions with others, including some sexual encounters. In How We End Up, these unions range from casual sex, to guilty affairs, to spontaneous passion, to the sex between two people who love each other. The challenge for any writer is the honesty issue. The writer’s purpose should not be focused on the mechanics of sex but to investigate what emotional, psychological, transcendent, and, yes, the physical effects the characters experience according to kinds of sex I mentioned above. The writer is compelled to show how these experiences, just as other kinds of experiences, shape and inform the characters’ futures in the book. The concomitant daunting task is with how much detail should the writer depict these scenes. They certainly cannot all be described uniformly, because that would not reflect people’s actual encounters. The writer’s job is to create verisimilitude. The last thing I think a writer would want a reader to say is, “That’s unrealistic,” or “That’s ridiculous,” or worse, “That’s offensive.” No, as was my purpose in How We End Up, the sexual and other occurrences should illustrate the ramifications of sex to display who the characters are. Their sexual encounters are fundamental to their development, just as they are to all of us. Whether it makes people feel shame, regret, conflicted, fulfilled, or joyous, it is an aspect of human existence with which people must contend.
When all is written and done, if writers know that they have been honest in rendering the characters and their stories, they have succeeded. They can only trust their readers to agree.
Douglas Wells is the author of the award-winning novel, The Secrets of All Secrets, published by TouchPoint Press in 2017. His current novel, How We End Up, was released by TouchPoint Press on March 20, 2018.