Monday, April 18, 2005

Violence, Sex and "Bad" Language

If that title doesn't get this essay bumped up in the search engine rankings, I don't know what will.

I reread Chandler's essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”, again last weekend, and it seems to me that it is just as applicable today as the day he wrote it. For those of you who haven't read it, you are missing something that is arguably the pre-eminent analysis of the "detective" story.

In the essay Chandler laments the state of the detective story feeling that it has, in general, been relegated to the realms of fantasy. Not the fantasy that word currently brings to mind, the magical doings of the sword and sorcery ilk, but fantasy in that characters don't behave as real people would.

I can't help but feel that, in the mainstream of mystery fiction, particularly short mystery fiction, that we are right back in the position Chandler was lamenting. What other conclusion can be drawn when the only two mainstream markets paying pro rates for short mystery fiction state right in their guidelines that stories with overt violence, sex and "bad" language will not be considered?

Crime in general, and murder in particular, is ALWAYS accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. The nanny-staters have tried to tell us that watching violence in the movies and television, reading about violence in literature, playing video games wherein one wins through perpetrating imaginary acts of violence will inevitably result in violence in the real world. Violence does not arise from imagination. Violence arises from unbridled passion, a lack of self-control. But that's a discussion for another time.

Of course the refined and educated do commit crimes, but they are a tiny minority, and the crime is usually a one-off. The people who commit crime as a matter of course are not the refined inhabitants of drawing rooms or private clubs. Unless that club is called the Black Gangster Disciples. These people live in a world permeated by violence and sex. How do you write about them without placing them in that world?

To quote Chandler about Hammett and his characters, “He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.” In these times when even high-school kids use the word “fuck” in every sentence, “bad” language is hard to avoid. How can we write about these people without using their language?

AHMM and EQMM seem to be willing to hamstring the art of writing realistically in order to remain politically correct. As a result, I find more stories that grab me by the throat on the Internet than I do in the pages of the Big Two mentioned above. Unless they let in the occasional realistic crime story, I think they will eventually find themselves left eating the dust of the ezines.

Or am I just miffed because they don’t publish what I like to read and write?

19 Comments:

At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob, I'm not so sure that realism is necessarily what makes the best of crime stories. Granted, without any realism, the story is defeated.

But look at the stories of Stanley Ellin, the master of the mystery story. In all of his stories he used a minimum (if any) of s-e-x, violence and bad language. He hinted ever so slightly at them, subtly, and craftily.

I doubt that more violence, s-e-x and bad language would improve any story.

Christopher

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Graham said...

Christopher is right, of course, that there are many great stories that don't get too explicit about anything - even Chandler's works are mostly pretty tame by today's standards. But I would suggest that there are many, many stories that you can't tell without at least one of those three.

As for the magazines, they probably feel that allowing sex, violence, or harsh language would lose more of their current subscribers than it would gain them new ones.

 
At 12:02 PM, Blogger Megan said...

I generally think anyone who believes taste is objective is a doofus. I can respect people who say "I don't like profanity/mystery/horror/etc." but don't have much time for the ones who say "Profanity/mystery/horror/etc. is bad."

As for AHMM, EQMM, and any other market...eh. The guidelines are the guidelines, editorial taste is editorial taste, and the editors have their reasons. At this level those reasons are presumably monetary, and I doubt they're hurting for submissions. (There are guidelines that've made me decide I'll never submit to or read a particular publication, but they're generally the ones that are laden with distasteful Agendas. I tend not to like Agendas in my fiction anyway, and I really don't have time for the psychos.)

The bigger problem, IMHO, is that in a tight marketplace the taste of a few is disproportionately represented. In an ideal world, AHMM and EQMM guidelines would not be seen as standard for the field; they'd just be the guidelines for AHMM and EQMM.

The fact that you are turning elsewhere for fiction is a good thing, Bob, because a magazine can't be all things to all people. I think the field will be healthier if the Holy Grail perception is retired.

 
At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Graham, I agree to an extent. There ARE many stories that can't be told without one of those three. For instance, violence is present in most crime stories, but it doesn't have to be explicit.

Christopher

 
At 8:25 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Christopher:

I'm not saying that everyone HAS to write realistically, but that IF you choose to write about habitual criminals to remain true to the character you have to write about them as they are and not as you wish them to be. If you are writing about a hardcore homey of the 4 Corner Hustlers and every other word out of his mouth isn't a curse word, then you are not being true to the character. You are not writing about a 4CH member. More violence, sex and "bad" language might not improve a story, but to present a faithful reflection of the criminal classes, they have to be there.

I must admit ignorance about Stanley Ellin. Did he write about hardcore criminals? And if he did so during any time period prior to the '60s, even criminals of that time were less foul-mouthed than our current crop.

 
At 8:33 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Graham, you are quite possibly correct in saying that the Big Two feel that printing more explicit stories would cost them more than they would gain, especially in these namby-pamby times. But they don't KNOW that. Nobody knows that. But they have to make the best business decisions they can. After all, it's all about money. Personally, I think they are only consigning themselves eventually to the backwaters of the genre.

It is exactly my point that some stories cannot be told without including violence, sex, and "bad" language, in parte or in toto. (Everyone must be getting sick of me writing "bad" language, but it is my view that the only bad language is that which is grammatically incorrect. Or misspelled.)

 
At 8:43 PM, Blogger Bob said...

I am with you, Megan, in that there are certain publications to which I will simply not send stories. And the Big Two are getting closer to being on that list. It's not that I don't want to sell to them. I do. But at this point in my writing career I seem incapable of writing a story that doesn't violate one or more of their guidelines. Either that or I simply don't want to.

I share your concern that the preferences of the few override those of the many. That's why the ezines are so important. EQMM and AHMM will not publish cutting edge fiction, not now and not in the foreseeable future. For that, look to the Internet, the influence of which is burgeoning and will continue to do so.

 
At 8:59 PM, Blogger Megan said...

Re: habitual criminals. I'm not one, but I routinely engage in two thirds of your provocative title. Which I mention in part because reading other discussion threads I sometimes get the feeling (accurate or otherwise) that some percentage of the No "Bad" Language contingent thinks profanity=criminal=socio-economics=race, and that possibility bugs me. (In no small part because if I'm writing or reading a character, I want to see that character on a personal level, inclusive of but not bounded by race, class, etc.)

I don't think it's so much a question of "realistic" versus "fantasy." As we all know, good dialog doesn't necessarily sound like a taped conversation; insert ye olde Mark Twain quote here. IMHO it's just a matter of keeping your options open. If the writer is free to choose between an explicit or restrained scene, he or she can pick what is most effective. Yes, genre writing is also commercial, and the tastes of editors and readers will inform writers' decisions. But hopefully they won't dictate those decisions completely. Short fiction's where we're all supposed to experiment, after all--particularly since it's less than lucrative.

 
At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a shame, since these are the two main short fiction mystery magazines, that they both have such similar guidelines. I read and enjoy them, but what annoys me is the space spent on Ellery Queen esoterica. The multiple covers of that dreadful SECRET WINDOW movie, and pages of interviews, which could have been better spent on more stories. I am someone who would like to read more about the authors of classic mystery fiction, but the rapturous esoterica they endulge in is unreadable. And fewer reviews, please. Perhaps just two pages, of don't overlook books - one new, one classic.

But they undoubtedly know their market better than I do. Perhaps what they need to do is add a third, contemporary magazine - with an author or film director who is well known for violence, sex and bad language, so grannies would know not to buy it and be shocked (although my granny was a big Chandler fan). Quentin Tarantino? Thomas Harris? Grisham?

Just a thought.

 
At 3:55 PM, Blogger Graham said...

I think you have a point, Bob, about AHMM and EQMM mortgaging the future to hang on to the past. I'd bet that their attempts to hold on to their current readers are limiting their appeal to new readers. They will slowly wither away until they get the message and shake things up.

Even if they relaxed their standards, they have editors - why can't they determine when sex, violence, or cussin' is appropriate to the story and when it isn't?

 
At 7:12 AM, Anonymous David Terrenoire said...

I have a deep fondness for EQMM. They bought a few of my stories that lead to my getting a book deal.

But they've also passed on more stories than they've bought because of unsavory characters, some rough language or implied sex. To a working writer, I'd much rather get $250 from EQMM rather than the $40 I used to get from Blue Murder, but Blue Murder encouraged me to write things that the editor, David Firks, called "dark and criminal."

Now, Blue Murder is gone. I don't write about PIs so Thrilling Detective is out, and there seem to be so few other outlets that I've abandoned the short form for novels, where I can get paid.

The short story that's been nominated for a Derringer this year has, so far, earned 50 cents in royalties. That's right, half a buck.

I almost sold that piece to Playboy for $1K, but after a few months, they decided to pass on it. What I'd like to know is, where are the markets that pay somewhere in between $1K and 50 cents? No where.

It's enough to make the new pope swear.

 
At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sympathize to some degree with Bob. Restrictions are anathema to this writer. But I am a regular contributor to AHMM -- who were the first to publish one of my stories and have never turned one down since. I am grateful. For me, they will always have first refusal. It is pretty obvious that they encourage new writers and I have always found their content varied. Furthermore, I do use violence in my stories, though there is normally no room for sex, and "bad language" in the American sense would not be in character for 11th century Japanese. For that matter, it never occurred to me that violence, sex, and the f-word are required to make a crime story good.

I.J.Parker

 
At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AHMM I know is not entirely closed to "bad" language. Speaking personally I've got a few stories in with some "shits" and a few esoteric scots words that I think might make people's eyes widen if they knew the real meanings. I also sneaked in a "fuck" last issue but it was scored through. EQMM is more restrictive, I think. I've read online an interview with Ms Hutchings somewhere that states bad language is a turn off for her.

Now, Christopher may have a point that more violence "s-e-x" (you can say it, we're all adults) and language won't neccasarily improve a story. But it depends on the story. My own stories are intended specifically to reflect a social structure that is dependant on confrontation as respect. Swearing is a way of marking your territory and the big, bad "C" word (You know the one: they use it on Deadwood all the time) which we shall not use here in order not to rock the boat, is dropped into sentences like punctuation. I'm not going to disguise that and I don't see why I should. Crime stories intended for adults should be written for adults who understand that the "power" of these words is little more than illusion. They're collections of sounds with connotations that we have decided are "wrong" or "daring".

And Graham's probably right that the big two think that printing explicit stuff would lose subscribers. If you can't show an accidental nipple on TV without people wailing, "think of the children!" like the network just showed live acts of bestiality and if, as the latest Reel Crime says in AHMM, NYPD Blue's early episodes would be deemed too offensive to make today (Oh come the *heck* on!)then imagine how hard it must be to get something on the newsstands. And its not the crime readers who'll kick up the fuss. Its the "mystery" readers who want the "mystery" without the human frailty and the emotional fallout. And last I checked they sadly outnumbered the crime readers.

Em, sorry, didn't mean to write an essay...

Russel

 
At 1:25 PM, Blogger Hardluck Writer said...

I've come into this discussion late because I've been busy getting the latest issue of the best damn crime fiction web-zine published and online. I have no restrictions on language or sex or violence for the stories I publish on Hardluck, but interestingly the better stories I've published have been fairly tame there.

I tend to think you can write hard-edged, violent short stories without the f, c, and s words. I just finished a short collection by Bruce Jay Friedman, adult in theme, but no "bad" language. One of the stories was about a guy who gets a chance to go back in life and screw all the women he blew opportunities with because of his inexperience, and still Friedman was able to do this without any profanity or awkwardness in language.

Hammett and Jim Thompson wrote the best crime short stories I've yet to come across - no profanity there, but still very dark and edgy.

My own writing tends to be dark and violent (some would say psychotic), some with sex, some without, but the sex scenes tend not ot too graphic. Call it high-violence and low sex.

As far as EQMM goes, they bought a short of mine which will be published in September that is a fast-paced conman story with plenty of violence and more sexual in nature than you'd expect from them. Only changes I had to make was getting rid of 3 "fuck"s, none of which were really necessary.

In conclusion, I think you can write dark and violent short stories without any "bad" language and without appearing unnatural. Novels for some reason are a different ballgame. I've got more "bad" language in my novels than any Deadwood episode!

Dave Z.

 
At 4:19 PM, Blogger Gerald So said...

Christopher wrote:

I doubt that more violence, s-e-x and bad language would improve any story.

I agree with Russel that it depends on the story, generally on the expectations set up by the story. If a graphic, explicit, or profanity-laden payoff is called for, a reserved payoff is a letdown and vice versa.

It is possible to write hardboiled or noir without graphic sex, violence, or profanity, but excluding all of these may dissuade writers who would otherwise submit. One of the most important lessons writers learn is to write in voices that are most natural to them. If writers can't believe in or otherwise get into what they're working on, they often shouldn't be writing it.

Editors have the right to set whatever guidelines they wish, but it doesn't hurt to phrase them as positively as possible. The purpose behind guidelines is to *invite* writers' efforts.

 
At 6:29 AM, Blogger Nosey said...

Hi great blog i must remember to bokmark you ... I have a horse racing blog myself I also have a new Online Auction to tell you about here public auto auction get yourself $35.00 worth of free Advertising public auto auction

 
At 4:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

heh cool blog you have here!

I noticed you have a nice blog, read all of your links kept me interested for a good time! well done :)

Thanks for a good read instead of some of the other stuff people post here!

 
At 6:34 AM, Blogger ibrahim said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading
Sesli sohbet Sesli chat
Seslisohbet Seslichat
Sesli sohbet siteleri Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli Chat
Sohbet Sesli siteler
Sohbet siteleri Chat siteleri
Sohbet merkezi chat merkezi
Sesli merkezi sesli Sohbet merkezi
Sesli chat merkezi Sohbetmerkezi
Sesli Sohbet Sesli Chat
SesliSohbet Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli sohbet siteleri SesliChat
Sesli Sesli siteler
Seslimuhabbet sesli muhabbet
sesli sohbet sesli chat siteleri
sesli sohbet siteleri sesli chat
seslisohbet seslichat
seslikent sesli kent
sesli sohbet sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat sesli chat siteleri
seslisohbet seslichat

 
At 6:35 AM, Blogger ibrahim said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading
Sesli sohbet Sesli chat
Seslisohbet Seslichat
Sesli sohbet siteleri Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli Chat
Sohbet Sesli siteler
Sohbet siteleri Chat siteleri
Sohbet merkezi chat merkezi
Sesli merkezi sesli Sohbet merkezi
Sesli chat merkezi Sohbetmerkezi
Sesli Sohbet Sesli Chat
SesliSohbet Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli sohbet siteleri SesliChat
Sesli Sesli siteler
Seslimuhabbet sesli muhabbet
sesli sohbet sesli chat siteleri
sesli sohbet siteleri sesli chat
seslisohbet seslichat
seslikent sesli kent
sesli sohbet sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat sesli chat siteleri
seslisohbet seslichat

 

Post a Comment

<< Home