Editors, writers, and responsibility … or “Oh, the profanity!”

I have a friend here in Columbus who runs a local writer’s collective and publishes a small-press magazine, and occasionally organizes a collection of shorts and poems to publish local writers. Very much a “for the love” kind of thing. She’s doing such a collection now, and this morning she sent me an email asking for an opinion. After we finished, she gave me permission to post the flow here. I wanted to do that because I think it’s an interesting case and it displays the role of editor/publisher and writer in the whole process, and therefore it also can be used to help clarify the whole concept of editorial decision vs. free speech thing that occasionally comes up.

Anyway, here are the relevant point to the note she sent:

There is one … who used a lot of curse words. I bleeped some of them [would you] read it and let me know if you feel I should leave them or not. I’m a bit hesitant to leave them

I knew why she was hesitant to leave them. I’ve touched on it before to some degree.

I read the story in question. It was written by a younger person, and poses an interesting, if not totally unique question about what happens to computer game characters when the person playing the game has put everything on pause. The piece was concise, and not overly deep, but was a pretty fair work. It used the term “fucking” twice, and had been altered to obscure it a little.

After reading the piece, here was my response:


As editor/publisher, you get to say what you will publish. As a writer, though, I get to say what my story will include. The matter of profanity is a line of demarcation for some. I’ve heard people in the workshop say “it’s a poor writer who needs to resort to profanity.” I get their point of view, but I think that as an artist, profanity is a very important thing. A character’s relationship to profanity says much about them. If you will NEVER use profanity, then you are saying you will never write certain characters with proper depth. But I digress.

In this case, [ writer ] is a new adult person writing about something that is deeply ingrained in her culture–that being video games. Us old fogies tend to think of video games as lighthearted fare that people can while their time away with, but to the younger crowd (such as my daughter), video games today are really not seen as much different from books in that they tell stories…and have characters…and…

When I read [ writer ]’s work, it’s about her sense that these characters she interacts with are different people under the surface than they are as you see them in their programmed roles. They relax and wind-down like the rest of us do, and they have their own relationships to deal with. In other words, they are young people, too. I can even think of them as having a relationship with them similar to one she might have with her parents. She’s away from home now, the parents can’t see her. What is she like? How does she use profanity when they are there or not there? Or I can see them as I would see cohorts at work. You share certain parts of yourself at work, but not everything. People certainly stifle their use of profanity at work vs. at home. How does that relate to the idea of personal freedom? Blah, blah, blah…

Anyway, I think it would be natural for those characters in the world [ writer ] is creating to have a relationship to profanity that perhaps some of your readers would not like them to have. Such is “art” for the lack of a better word. So, personally, while you are completely within your rights to not publish the work, I would not edit those words out unilaterally. (If I were the writer and you cut my words in that fashion without my input I would be unhappy, for example). I believe she has used those words on purpose, and she has used them in ways that are in line with the characters she’s created would use it. I think those words are part of the purpose and soul of the piece. Yes, she could write it without those words, but the words carry meaning in this context beyond what you’ll find in a dictionary.

I think this leaves you with two options.

1) If you as a publisher just flat-out do not want to include profanity in your book, you go back to [ writer ] and tell her you’ll be happy to accept the work if she will redo it to remove the profanity. If she does not want to do this, you thank her for her time and move on. This way, you are not making a unilateral decision, and the writer still holds the final decision of what that writer will publish.

2) You think about it and decide you can support the work for what it is and the statement it makes, and then you run it as she submitted it. If people complain about it, they complain about it. So be it. Depending on the situation, you could chose to explain why it works in this case, or can chose not to. 🙂

That’s my two cents, anyway.

I would have been happy if my friend took either direction, but I admit I was more proud of her when she replied a bit later with:

… that is how I have always felt, but I know I have received flack for it in my magazine.

I think I’ll put it back in and they can deal with it!

See how that works? Ideally the two sides meet and all is well…as the case will be here. But at the end of the day, the writer is responsible that the work is what he or she wants it to be. And the editor/publisher is responsible for deciding what they will publish–a right they can exercise whether the writer likes their reason or not.

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