Monday, November 29, 2010

The C-Bomb

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After reading Jim's post yesterday on dropping the F-bomb I started thinking about what (if anything) I found really off-putting in a novel...(apart from ellipses...)

So, swearing doesn't really bother me...

Can't say I'm all that keen on a whole lot of gore or horror, but in the right book I have no problem with either...

I admit I cry easily when animals (okay, dogs) get hurt but, if the book demands it, then I will still keep reading...

I'm not exactly crazy about thrillers involving child abuse/child endangerment, but that isn't a deal breaker for me...

So what is something that really puts me off reading a book (apart from really, really, gross, sexually deviant violence) ?

Though I hardly consider myself a prude, the one thing that will make me flinch is an inappropriately graphic sex scene, especially when particular terminology is used...

Yes, for me, an author dropping the C-bomb is far more shocking than any F-bomb detonations.

Now, I am not talking about the use of the C-bomb in books like James Ellroy's (though I have have to confess I can't remember if he even used that word). As a swear word, it doesn't bother me nearly as much as its use in anatomical description. Perhaps it's my British parents but I just find it a little distasteful, and, for the most part, repugnant.

So why do I dislike use of the C-bomb? Like Jim wrote in his post yesterday - it is more often than not unnecessary, inappropriate, and likely to alienate readers. Like Jim, however, I certainly don't advocate censoring authors. I think a writer should use whatever word/term they like but they do need to think through the consequences.
This is part and parcel of the decision made regarding the language used to describe a sexual scene. An author obviously makes a choice to describe such a scene in more or less graphic detail (more X-rated perhaps than fuzzy focus, PG material). For me, however, no matter how graphic the scene, nothing is more likely to take me out of the story than the sudden appearance of the C-bomb.

How about you all - do you have any issue with the C-bomb? Are there other words/terms that you find make you flinch or distract you from an author's work? Feel free to enter the fray (after all, I can always blame Jim or John G. for having started it:))


  1. Here, here. I cannot stand the use of sexual profanity. I find it terribly demeaning, especially when describing a sex act, and especially especially when that act is supposed to be a "love" scene. It reduces the act to pornography or even leaves a sense of rape.

    As it is I don't particularly like to read sex scenes. But a book with the C-bomb as a primary part of language will likely be slipped into a rubbish bin on short notice.

  2. Uh... (sorry!) Maybe it's just that I'm reading this at 2 am in the morning, but what exactly is the C-Bomb?

  3. Dave - not to sound to Sesame Street but it's a word begining with c and ending in t used to describe a part of the female anatomy. Not exactly the nicest word to plonk in a sex scene...

  4. The main reason I take offense with the F-bomb is the pornographic nature of the word, so anything that has a similar affect falls into the same category with me. I suppose the overuse of the F-bomb has removed quite a bit of the pornographic connotation because people don’t consider its true meaning as much as they do with other works. As far as other things I might object to, it largely depends on how the story turns out. It is a far different thing if the author is promoting the injury of puppies and children than if the story includes those things while presenting them as things that shouldn’t happen.

  5. The c-bomb is probably my least favorite word in the English language. Perhaps it is because I am female I find it singularly distasteful, but it is 100% off-putting for me. I'm not fond of f-bombs and I have put down books and not read authors because of their heavy use, but one or two is not off-putting. For me the c-bomb is an instant killer.

  6. Well timed, Clare. My comment to Jim's F-bomb post was incomplete, as I realized from his reply. The idiocy I referred to was not with publishers from counselling writers away from the F-bomb at times; it was with readers who are willing to read any disgusting violence with rapt attention, who are then offended by a word.

    What I should have included is that I use foul language in my writing to characterize. The C-word is a prime example. I understand how it is perceived--and I feel much the same way--so I may use it once, sometimes twice in a book, if at all. When it is used, it's for one of two specific reasons: either to make the reader instantly dislike the character who said it; or to show an otherwise sympathetic character is near the breaking point.

    Other foul language is used much the same way. The thing is, my books deal with a lot of somewhat coarse people, who live in situations where such language is accepted as a regular part of speech. If a reader chooses not to read a book that tries to accurately depict such circumstances, that's up to them. I have no objection.

    Where I object is when a reader accepts every word of a rape/torture/murder scene, then writes the author a nastygram because the rapist/torturer/murdered says he effed her up good because that reader was offended by the language. There's somethign wrong there.

  7. Clare, I'm with you on the C word. It's one of the seven George Carlin words, BTW, and they're listed for a reason.

    As you say (and really my main point yesterday) it's about choices and consequences. The first question is why use it at all and risk turning off a large number people who will soon make a decision to buy or skip our next book?

    From yesterday's dialogue, I understand the justification for a certain type of author/book (Charlie Houston was mentioned) where you know going in the language is part of the style. That's another choice you make, to write or read such a book. Fine.

    But in an otherwise mainstream story, how often is the F or C word going to be the absolutely "right" choice? For John's editor, for example, it seemed unecessary. And from the comments, we know it's an issue, so we ought to deal with it objectively.

  8. "Paging Mike Hunt. Is Mike Hunt here? Has anyone seen Mike Hunt?"

    Sorry, the inner 12-year-old still thrives. . .

  9. I have a lot of tolerance for the F-word (too much), but almost none of the C-word, which I won't use in speech or in writing. It offends me in a way very few things do.

  10. HUGE, HUGE problems with that word. It is as bad as the n-word for me.

  11. Wow, I must be reading the wrong books. I've read books that use that word as an epithet, not within a sex scene. I can't imagine any sex scene in which that word would add to the "mood." Okay, I guess that makes me a bit of a prude!

    By the way, Clare, I totally love that you posted this. I was wondering yesterday whether people who tolerate liberal use of the f-word would be equally comfortable with other vulgarisms and/or epithets.

  12. I am willing to sell out to market forces when it comes to the easy stuff like throw-away language. In the context of the stories I write, "unbelievable" and "un-effing-believable" don't provide enough contrast to risk the ire of an angry reader. That said, when my character Boxers--a lethal brute who's either your best friend or worst enemy, without a lot of neutral white space--is angry or hurt, he's gonna cuss. I can't imagine him not cussing. The way I look at it, if five or ten words out of the 120,000 words that comprise my book are the deal breakers for certain readers, then I guess I'll have to let them go.

    In my mind, this discussion touches on the point that I tried (yet clearly failed) to make last week when I balked about the tyranny of offended people. In that case, I squandered my point by citing the boycotting of a publisher because they released a book about pedophilia. Because there's no defense of the subject, the boycott seemed reasonable in the end.

    Dana said it well, I think: "The idiocy I referred to was not with publishers from counselling writers away from the F-bomb [or C-bomb]at times; it was with readers who are willing to read any disgusting violence with rapt attention, who are then offended by a word."

    Words are our tools. They're all we have to work with to create character, setting, mood and the gajillion moving parts that are a novel. I think it's enormously presumptuous for one artist to label another as lazy for not communicating his point in a "better way." Who's to say what's "better?" I think that question is the crux of Taylor's objections yesterday. "I would have done it differently" is a wildly different statement than, "my way is better."

    Who's a better artist, Picasso or Norman Rockwell? If I had the money, I'd be far more likely to spend it on the latter than the former, but that's not an indictment of Picasso.

    Stephen King's THE BODY, which became "Stand By Me" worked, I think, in part because the kids cussed like sailors. If people walked away from that book because of the language, they missed one hell of a great story.

    As for the C-word, it's one that I would never use, simply because of its social loading. The same is true of the N-word. Those are my rules for myself, but I can't imagine throwing a book in the trash (or the woodstove) because a different writer took a different tack.

    One of the great scenes ever written, though, is made better *because* of the C-word.


    In RED DRAGON, after Francis Dolarhyde cuts off the reporter's lips, the suffering reporter yells, "You hucking cunt." The reality of one epithet that cannot be pronounced, followed by another one that can, made the scene more chilling. And in context, it's inconceivable to me that anyone who had made it to that point in the book would choose to close it because of the word.

    John Gilstrap

  13. I did use the C word and I didn't do it lightly. In the scene, in UPSIDE DOWN, it was appropriate and I have never had one complaint. My editor never said one word about rethinking it, and the only time it bothered me was when I was reading that chapter aloud at a group of students and faculty at a University, and saw it coming up. I read it without flinching and when I glanced up no one seemed shocked or offended. The word was appropriate in context, but it is not one I use in my day-to-day or have written in before or since. speech.

  14. In today's and yesterday's discussion it feels to me that the distinction between supporting profanity for general social exchange versus using it for a character in a work of fiction has been blurred.
    Agreed - profanity is not classy

    The reality is that many of the characters that populate works of fiction are stupid, coarse and loathsome. Is the author's use of language that is consistent with those traits fundamentally bad or lazy?
    I agree with John (words are tools) in that I think not.
    The reality is, and I believe this is Jim and Michele's main point, that for a number of potential readers and purchasers of books the inclusion of this authentic language influences their reading decisions.

    I don't know if it is a significant number of people but the reponses suggest quite possibly so. Worth considering.

    On the other hand tossing a book for the occasional use of such language strikes me as over reaction.

    BTW sheck out a playground or unsupervised site where grade school aged kids are on the loose. Ouch! The language is unbelievable.

    Provocative posts.

  15. I agree with John. Context is everything. While I am personally offended by the c-word, sometimes an author can use it for strong effect in the right context. The same goes for the f-bomb. Less is more and only when it is really needed.

    However, I agree with Clare that the C-bomb is inappropriate for love scenes. It is demeaning to women as are so many of the other words our culture uses to refer to a women's genitalia. Lately, the word has cropped up in sex scenes in books for women and written by women which makes me wonder what they or their editors are thinking. There is nothing erotic about that word. Now if they found a more empowering vocabulary word or two, that would be erotic.

  16. I haven't had to confront this situation yet. I haven't delved into sex scenes where it may or may not be appropriate, but at some point I guess I will have to.

    If it's appropriate (probably unlikely for me) I wouldn't hesitate, but I can see that it would take some thought.

  17. Clare,thanks for the clarification. I thought that was what you were talking about, but wanted to be sure.

    I don't recall ever reading the word in a book, and rarely heard it in a movie. But it is a word I find very offensive and would never use.

    Interestingly, I was in the U.S. Air Force from 1968 to 1976, a time when both the F word and the C word were popular in everyday language. In fact, our uniforms had three different caps, for different uses. The dress uniform had a large billed hat with the metal emblem on the front. Our green fatigue uniforms had a cloth billed cap in matching green. But our everyday uniform had a blue cloth cap called a flight cap. It was basically a folded flat unit with a slot for your head. Guess what the nickname for that cap was.

    It would be challenging to write a story set in that era and setting without once using the C word.

  18. As I said in the post - I don't really get offended by use of the C-word as a curse/swear word (when used in the right context). I have been surprised, however, at how it has been used in sexual scenes in books that otherwise would be fairly soft-boiled, even dare I say it, 'romantic' - totally off putting for me. As a word in a hard-boiled book I probably wouldn't take as much offense. It is all about context, choices and consequences. Mostly the consequence for me is a resounding 'ick' but I respect a writer's right to use it. I just don't have to read it:)

  19. Oh and Dave - that's interesting about how the use of the words then was very much mainstream within the airforce - then I think you do have to be true to the times (though you may still alienate readers!)

  20. I cannot imagine a love scene where the C word would be at all appropriate in an anatomical sense. Are we talking hard core low-life porn? I would only use it as the ultimate derogatory insult that a woman can receive.

  21. Fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

    There. Those are Carlin's 7 deadly words. And "nigger" is bubbling under, waiting to be admitted as number eight.

    Of course, they're not really "bombs", as has become fashionable to call them, they're just words. Simple letters strung together. And as Carlin says, NOT using them or THE FEAR of using them is what gives them their undue power.

    Having said that, I believe there are certain words which cannot be used in any way other than to piss people off (Whoops, I just used one myself, and I'm sure that will piss people off right there. Darn! I did it again!). These words have no other purpose, and one consequence may be that the author will lose those people as future readers. But you know, that's the way it goes.

    There are certain words that I as a reader don't like to see on the printed page. And sometimes, if an author uses them gratuitously, or for shock value alone, I may put the book down. That's the chance the author takes when he writes those words. Again, it's the consequences thing.

    I will, however, defend till my final breath the author's right to write those words and any others he may choose.

  22. Well, there's goes half our Kill Zone readers.

  23. John - crazy isn't it but I think romance has become a bit hard core these days and in the mystery I read I was just stunned when it was used in describing a sex scene. Mike - thanks for the list:) Hopefully our readers are still here:)! I also defend a writer's right to use them - I don't believe in succumbing to fear though I also won't use words like these just for the heck of it.

  24. "Well, there's goes half our Kill Zone readers."

    Half? Half would be great. BTW, my post on Wednesday will be: The 69 Bomb.

  25. Maybe it's me, but the only way I could find the use of the C-bomb appropriate is if you were reading a rape scene from the rapists pov. Otherwise, the connotation surrounding the word doesn't work, even for a porn scene. I mean maybe it's just me, but really the only time I've ever even heard it used is from a person who is angry or upset. And even a if your characters are emotinally detached porn stars that's not the word I think they would use.

  26. Great post. I admit I read all the comments and had to brush up on my Carlin. Thank you Clare.

    Personally, I think putting down a book after coming across any particular word is overkill. I wouldn't do that and I haven't. I have however put books down for including offensive words repeatedly without artistic intent and for shock value only. The point being that the words appeared over and over and upset my stomach.

    My other thought is this: the problem with the c-bomb, f-bomb, and all the other words has to do with their social connotation - and such things change over time. Modern use of words from Carlin's list is proof enough of that.

    So future generations will communicate differently, offensive words will come and go. I think the takeaway is this: Where will your books be then? It's worth considering.

  27. I hate the c word as a description of anatomy, or in romantic scenes.

    However, I love it when used as a figure of speech particularly found in Scotland. It is hugely funny to me as an insult. Irvine Welsh's books are filled with it in this context. In Scotland and many parts of England, the word has taken on entirely new cultural significance. Of course unless the book is about a Scottish person speaking in context and in dialect, it still doesn't fly.