Did you know that right now, somewhere in the world, people are having anal sex and enjoying themselves? Did you know that right now, somewhere in the world, people are shooting up on heroin, and, right or wrong, they are enjoying themselves? Did you know that right now, a woman in PVC is smacking another woman with a riding crop and they are enjoying themselves? You probably knew that. Why wouldn’t you know that? This world is full of violent, interesting, weird, dangerous, silly and dirty things. If you were ever tempted to take pen to paper or read someone’s blog about doing it, then you most likely had to have noticed this.
Lately, I see a lot of writers wondering if they can write about certain things. I see media outlets shocked that a certain relatively common sex act was performed on an HBO show, a network that has brought us rape, incest and dragons on the same show. I see writers wondering if their bad guys can use racial slurs, whether young people know if they’re gay, if showing someone smoking weed encourages drug use, if someone losing their virginity at 16 is child pornography. Some even wonder whether swearing alienates readers. These questions are posed by people residing in a world in which massacres, white slavery, torture and female circumcision are occurring as we speak.
Is it still the job of writers to lie so people are comfortable? The sitcoms of the 1950s are a thing of both amusement and terror to us nowadays. We look at them and see misogyny, racism, anti-Communist witchhunting and the fear of being annihilated by nuclear weapons. This is a chilling, stagnant place where mommies and daddies have broods of children even though they never sleep in the same bed. If you wish to go to work for The Disney Channel, trying to create a safe, comfortable space where this is still so, nobody will fault you and the money is good. But if you asked the question at all, if it came up and you thought about it even, that means there is at least a part of you that knows that drugs don’t automatically ruin your life, that black, brown, gay and female people still got it bad and that some people like to get spanked.
To those of you who are worried about swear words, offense and shock, I am published by a press that has put out a book called The Baby Jesus Buttplug. If you heard those words and even tried to figure out what they could mean, then chances are you should not be asking whether swears are okay in your work. If you know what a buttplug is, if you have had an orgasm, or, hell, if you know someone who has had an orgasm, you should not be afraid to swear. Reading The Baby Jesus Buttplug was a cornerstone in my career. In this book, somebody took a repugnant and frightful and dirty central metaphor and used it to talk about the anxiety of family building, the intervention of religion in our bedrooms and the pressure for men to adhere to a specific Judeochristian model of fatherhood. The contents might sound gross, they might not be for you but this book boldly dealt with these issues and with the author’s anxieties using intense, shocking, imagery, commensurate with the writer’s feeling of the situation’s grotesquerie. He got some nasty emails from Glenn Beck’s The Blaze but he still walks down the street without having bricks thrown at him and did not burst into flames the first time he typed the word “buttplug”.
You are probably not writing something as shocking as The Baby Jesus Buttplug or Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or even Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest novel of all time in spite of its sexual content and pervasive fart jokes. You probably don’t need all of the fantastic, deadly words you have at your disposal in this language to build your book. Still, the fact is, there are neuroses, dark and uncomfortable thoughts and actions some would call reprehensible out there and inside us and if we are afraid to talk about them, then they go unaddressed and the people dealing with them have to keep everything bottled up. Art is about dialogue. The words of great artists are feared by puritans, bigots, zealots and the status quo. And they got to say them because they weren’t afraid of them.