Thursday, July 9, 2020

Pardon My Prose by James W. Ziskin

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?

As a general rule, I believe politeness is good in society. We’re rude enough already. A little kindness wouldn’t hurt.

On social media, for example, I don’t insult people with opposing views. I block them. There’s one major exception. I’ll call bullshit on Hate speech—racism, misogyny and homophobia—then block them from my life. Not that I worry such people will be offended. It’s just that I can’t engage with that kind of ignorance and hatred.

That’s online. What about in my writing? It’s a totally different situation. I write fiction, so I can push the limits more in my books and stories than I would in real life. Call it creative license or whatever you like. I can write hateful characters saying awful things. I can kill off characters, and readers usually give me—and other writers—a pass. That kind of thing goes with the territory in crime fiction.

But this week’s question is if we’ve ever edited ourselves for fear offending someone. And my answer is, of course. Many, many times.

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series set in the early 1960s. My protagonist is a young woman newspaper reporter. Given the setting and the historic prejudices of that time, I feel bound to include attitudes and realities that should seem backward, political incorrect, or just plain wrong today. I say should because we’re constantly learning that outdated ideas still flourish in too many minds. Among those are racism and sexism. I’ve tried to tackle many of those issues in my Ellie Stone books, tying them to her time, but also making them relevant to our world of today whenever possible. And that can produce offense in my readers.

From the start of the series, I was committed to making Ellie a “modern girl,” one who drinks, smokes, and sometimes falls into bed with an eligible man. Some readers don’t like that, and that’s fair. That’s what makes a horse race. I chose to risk losing readers who felt that way, not out of disrespect, but because these are my books and I write the kind of things I’d like to read.

Through seven books, I’ve also applied the brakes many times in order not to offend. Even if the examples of dialogue or behavior were realistic and right for the time period, I left them out. Here are a few examples:

1. No sex on the page. While my protagonist is sexually active, we never see explicit descriptions of her assignations on the page. No painful euphemisms or—perhaps worse—clinical terminology of coitus, fornication, or lovemaking. It’s something I don’t feel comfortable writing. In fact, where sex in writing is concerned, I always advise writers to remember that their mother will read their books.

2. Racial epithets. There are some in my books because I have some unsavory characters acting out their prejudices. But Ellie’s narrative style is, at times, somewhat precious. On many occasions, she’ll describe someone’s foul language with the caveat, “He used a word I don’t favor.” And, though I have put some racist and antiSemitic words into the mouths of my characters, I have avoided the worst of them for fear of offending. And Ellie always cuts the bigots down to size with her wicked wit. Always.

3. Outdated usage, both innocuous and offensive. Words go in and out of style. Usage is in constantly evolving, so I try to be aware of which expressions were in currency at the time my books and stories are set. Some of those words can offend, while others may be anachronisms that break the believability of the story.

In my latest mystery, Turn to Stone, Ellie is in Florence, Italy, in 1963. She describes a scene in Piazza della Signoria. A group of tourists enter the piazza, following their tour guide, whom she originally described as “oriental.” My editors, and some beta readers, pointed out that while this was an acceptable term for Asians in the early 1960s, it no longer is. I knew that, of course, but was striving to paint the era through the language. Then I realized I could win the battle but lose the war. What if that word offended readers? Was it really worth it? I decided that the descriptor was unnecessary and removed it.

Another, less-volatile blunder I avoided was in my Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Twenty-five-year Engagement,” which will appear in an anthology edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King in December 2020 (In League with Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon). My story is set in 1883 London. I worked hard to ensure the language was appropriate for the time. I checked every word against the Holmes concordance. If the word appeared there, it was good for my story, too. I also used Google’s Ngram Viewer to search for words and expressions in printed books over the past 200 years. Sometimes the word I was searching was indeed in use at that time. But I needed to know where. Was it in use in England? One example that I caught by searching with Ngram Viewer was the verb “to soldier on.” I had assumed it was fine for my story, until I discovered it was indeed in use at the time and for decades before. But in American usage, not British. It didn’t catch on in the UK until the early twentieth century. Of course there were the red herrings. “Soldier on” indeed appeared in many British books in the nineteenth century—e.g. “soldier on leave”—but not in the sense of “to persevere.”

I removed the verb “to soldier on” from my story in the interests of historical accuracy and the fear that I would offend purists who cringe at such sloppiness.

4. Tone. In my current work-in-progress, Monsoon Chase, set in India in 1975—I have softened, replaced, and even eliminated completely dialogue and descriptions that might come across as overly imperialistic/xeonophobic/insensitive today. An excellent example of how I softened the tone, is when my main character, a young American journalist living and working in India, struggles with the terms “servant” and “office boy” used by Indians. Most middle-class and upper-class Indian households employ help, which they refer to even today as “servants.” To name them otherwise in my book would be jarring to anyone who’s ever spent time in India. But I recognized the perils of using this term, so I made my character extremely uncomfortable with it. On several occasions he mentions how conflicted he feels using it. But, in the interests of realism and practicality, he does indeed use it himself. He has similar feelings for the term “office boy.”

I faced a similar “tone” problem in Cast the First Stone, which dealt with homophobia and discrimination in Hollywood in 1962. Which words should Ellie use to describe gays? Those in use at the time, or today’s versions? And the slurs uttered by bigoted characters? She can only use the-word-I-don’t-favor excuse so many times. My editor and I came up with an imperfect strategy for that situation. Ellie uses quotation marks for the offensive terms to indicate they are not her words. I believe the narrative rings truer with some level of ugliness in speech, but I was well aware of the potential to offend readers.

As for the “acceptable” terms used in the LGBTQ+ communities in the early sixties—and of course that designation did not exist at the time—I based my usage on a fascinating little book entitled Gay Bar. Written in the 1950s by the owner of a Los Angeles gay bar, it provided invaluable insights into the language usage of the time.

So, the short answer to this week’s question is, yes, I do sometimes worry about offending readers. I try to strike a balance between realism and politeness. I’m sure I’ve failed many times, and I always try to do better.


Finta said...

Darling Jim, I can’t imagine you being anything other than polite, in life as well as in your writing. You are a gentle man always. Ann

Frank Zafiro said...

Jim, I am impressed by your methods, but not surprised at your sentiment. I've found Ellie to be very believable and her settings ring true as well (I was still a glint in the eye in the early 1960s but the world Ellie feels right).

Looking forward to visiting Florence with her!

Your choices on how to balance the need for historical authenticity while not alienating today's readers by being "too" accurate in showing how terrible our forbearers spoke are, I think, well-reasoned and well done.

I'm reading Lee Matthew Goldberg's THE ANCESTOR at the moment (he's coming on the podcast early next season) which features a character frozen in 1898 who is revived in 2020. Takes place up in Alaska. This issue of common usage of words like "Injun" then that are offensive now is something he's also had to tackle. At the point I am in the story, this character appears to be a decent fellow, and so Goldberg handled the issue by simply having the character say, "I meant no offense. I didn't know." And then he calls the woman Native American, as she directs. As a mechanic, it seems similar to your solution.

Leslie Karst said...

And then there's Auntie Em's way out: "Well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it."

I think you do a terrific job of walking the line between authentic and polite--which line is about as difficult walk as the chalk line a cop draws for a drunk.

Looking forward to the book set in India, my friend! Yippee!

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Ann, Frank, and Leslie!

Susan C Shea said...

The way you work through this is the way I would expect you to - with grace, honesty, and sensitivity. And with lots of research! There are words we know in our guts we just can't use, even if they might have been used by the characters we create in their own times. Fortunately, we have other means of showing their racism, sexism, homophobia, cruelty, ways that actually have more meaning than throwing around a word here and there.

James W. Ziskin said...

You are too kind, Susan. Can’t wait to see you again in person someday!


catriona said...

This is fantastic, Jim. I didn't even know about Google Ngram! I've removed a few things from 1930s stuff, at the behest of my editor - sometimes thinking she's beeing too squeamish and sometimes realising that I've been too galumphing by far. No one's ever said the books are bland.

James W. Ziskin said...

Catriona, I have figured out some tricks with Ngram. If you’re having trouble narrowing your search with more terms, I know how to make it work. Now back to your galumphing.


Judy said...

Jim, I'm so glad that I took a few minutes to read your explanation of how you decide which terms to use and when. I know that you are really careful with the Italian language passages in your books and now understand how careful you are with English, too. I also appreciate knowing how much you are willing to let "thoroughly modern" Ellie disclose about her sexual encounters. I must confess that I wondered about that. I suppose that writers do loose readers if they tell too much. Well, you won't loose this reader.

Rita said...

Jim, as you know, I used Cast the First Stone in my high school English class. Knowing there were some terms that may have been deemed offensive in this day and age, I made it a point, right from the get-go, to let my students know that this is a work of fiction and that the words we currently find offensive were in use during the 60s. This point was stressed again and again as we encountered such words. I also reiterated, time and time again, that the sentiments were NOT yours, but because you strive for authenticity, you felt the needs to use the words you did. Otherwise, you would have been changing history. They completely understood. I’m not sure why some adults don’t get it. This book actually opened up many worthwhile conversations in our classroom. ��

Kay Kendall said...

fascinating, Jim. I enjoyed reading about your thought processes.
Well done, you.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thank you, Judy! Always a pleasure to hear from you. Jim

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Kay. Still looking forward to seeing you again when it’s safe!


James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Rita. I’m so proud that you did my book in your class. It sounds like a blast. If you ever want to do a Zoom meeting or something with your class, I’d love to do it.

I also think you are a very cool teacher. Thank you, for me, and for your students. They’re lucky to have you.


John Copenhaver said...

Thanks for this, Jim! I just stumbled on it. It's something I'm constantly trying to navigate in my writing. -John

James W. Ziskin said...

Thank YOU, John! By all appearances, you’re doing a great job navigating these issues.