Those Words

Warning: This post discusses certain words shunned by polite society. The actual words do not appear, but they are referred to in unambiguous terms. If you find such references offensive, please stop reading now.

So, yeah, a little more information about my current project leaked out. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was researching inside-the-park home runs for the new novel*. Now, my co-conspirator/co-author has let a couple of additional tidbits loose.

* For those of you wondering what’s happening with our first collaboration, The RagTime Traveler, I counsel patience. The publishing industry is many things, but speedy is not one of them. Rest assured, as soon as there’s anything to report, you’ll see it here.

Mo’less Jones is under construction–a phrasing that makes it sound slightly more frankensteinian than it really is–partway through Draft 1. And yes, Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s assault on the color barrier in baseball is relevant.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have mentioned this; I know that if you read this blog, you also eagerly load the Poisoned Pen Press blog on the thirteenth of every odd-numbered month to see what Larry has to say. But, quite coincidentally, literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid* raised the question of forbidden words, and the “N-word” in particular.

* No, not my agent, darn it. I’m still looking, and besides, she doesn’t represent SFF.

Janet observed that we’ve reached the point as a society where some people feel that certain words should never be spoken or written. She feels–and I agree–that a blanket proscription against the use of a word because somebody might be offended is counterproductive. A universal barrier removes thought and empathy from the equation. Better to teach people think about what they’re saying and consider the impact on the listener, than to just say “Don’t use this word. OK, moving on to the next topic…”

So, yeah. It’s my responsibility as an author to tell my story–whatever story I’m telling–as honestly and effectively as possible. If I’m dishonest, if I omit certain words, situations, or concepts to avoid offending someone, then I damage my credibility and, more importantly, my story.

Is it possible to write fiction about the 1940s without a character using the N-word? Absolutely. Is it possible to write fiction about race relations in the forties without using that word? Maybe. Depends who your characters are and what’s happening. But it’s not possible to write fiction–honest fiction–about breaking the color barrier without using the N-word and all its only slightly-less-forbidden synonyms. Why? Because those are the words that were used by the players and fans to punish Jackie Robinson for daring to invade their turf.

That’s not to say the writer can use those words carelessly or with intent to hurt the reader. But carefully placed and with malice toward his characters? Absolutely. No other word could replace the N-word and still give the reader the same punch in the gut that the character is feeling.

The movie 42 got it right, but using the N-word (or any similarly loaded word) properly is very easy thing to get wrong. Use the word as often as it was used in reality and either the reader becomes desensitized or throws the book aside in disgust. Don’t use it enough, or use it in the wrong places, and the reader loses empathy with the character and his or her motivation doesn’t ring true.

Difficult to write, uncomfortable to read. But absolutely necessary.

2 thoughts on “Those Words

  1. Absolutely. Each time in history has its censorship. I’m old enough to remember the hoohah over words in TROPIC OF CANCER, and it was every bit as heated as today’s insistence that the word nigger should never be written. This is an injustice to those who have needed to listen to it applied to them. You reference the movie 42, where the contemptible Ben Chapman, a big grin on his face, gets up in front of the Phillies’ dugout, with Jackie Robinson at bat, to shout, “Hey, nigger, nigger, nigger” over and over (along with other disgusting racial slurs) until I had to force myself to not push the Exit button. But to have had Chapman shout, “Hey, n-word,” would have been ridiculous, and to have had him use milder epithets would not have carried the impact of “nigger.” Nothing would have. After watching that scene, I had a strong visceral appreciation of what Robinson had gone through, far beyond what I’d ever felt before.

    Let’s not condemn a word. Let’s condemn the people who use it to hurt others.

    Like

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