Monday, January 2, 2012

The Politics of Language - Even When You Speak The Same One

I recently got some scoresheets back from a contest. As per usual I had mixed results, with one judge loving my entry and the other, well they offered a lot of constructive criticism to go with their less than loving score ;)

Living in New Zealand, one thing that sometimes happens, is words and phrases that are perfectly acceptable in Christian circles here are a little bit borderline or worse, completely taboo, in the US. Early on in my writing journey my heroine used a derogatory word to describe another character. It was one that no one would blink at here but resulted in a VERY shocked reaction from an American friend who read it. It was my first real run in with the fact that though we all speak English, in many other ways we also speak different languages.

In this instance, the second judge questioned the appropriateness of the use of the word "butt" in an inspirational novel. I fired off an email to a friend I have who works in publishing wanting to know whether I'd just committed a major faux pas or if this judge was just more conservative than most.

She reassured me that I hadn't just committed the literary equivalent of dropping the F word at a Southern Baptist convention but also pointed me to this list that Harlequin has for things that are not allowed in their inspirational romances (Steeple Hill). 

Terms that cannot be used in a Steeple Hill novel:
Breast (except for breast cancer if necessary)
Buttocks or butt (alternatively, you can say derriere or backside)
Damn (try “blast” instead)
Devil (except in the religious sense, but the circumstances would be rare)
Dang or Dagnabbit
Father (when used to describe a religious official)
For heaven’s sake (can use “for goodness’ sake” instead)
For the love of Mike
For Pete’s sake
Geez/jeez (but “sheesh” is acceptable)
Heat (when used to describe kisses)
Hell (except in the religious sense, but this would be rare)
Holy cow
Need/hunger (when used to describe non-food-focused state of being)
Sexual attraction
Tempting (as applied to the opposite sex)
St. [name of saint]
Swear, as in “I swear…” – Christian characters are not supposed to swear.
Undergarments – of any kind

The following are allowed only in the context mentioned: 
Angel – only when used in a Biblical context
Miracle – only when used in a Biblical context
Oh my God/Oh, God – ONLY allowed when it’s clearly part of a prayer
Heavenly – only when used in a Biblical context
Although you can say “He cursed” or mention cursing, do not overuse. Furthermore, only non-Christian characters can curse.

Situations to be avoided: 
Kissing below the neck
Visible signs or discussions of arousal or sexual attraction or being out of control
Double entendre
Nudity – people changing clothes “on screen” or any character clad only in a towel
Hero and heroine sleeping in the same house without a third party, even if they’re not sleeping together or in the same room
Also, Christian characters should not smoke, drink, gamble, play cards or dance (except in historical novels they may dance but please limit to square dances and balls, no “sexy” dancing like waltzing cheek to cheek), and terms associated with these activities should only be used in connection with bad guys or disapproving of them or such.
Bodily functions, like going to the bathroom, should be mentioned as little as possible and some euphemism may be necessary but we don’t want to sound quaint or absurd.

(Note: this is only one publisher - a lot of the others are more liberal)

I have to admit that as a non-American some of the items on this list leave me well bewildered. For a start I don't even know what a doodie is and who is Mike and why aren't we allowed to love him? And what could be offensive about the term "gosh"? And are some readers so conservative they would be offended by the mention of  priest in an inspirational novel?

So here is my question - assuming that we put to the side the kind of words that are universally acknowledged as cursing - what kind of language/situations in an "inspirational" novel do you find unacceptable? Or is it all contextual? Do you think that Christian publishers should err on the side of conservative in the language they allow or is this one of the reasons many people perceive Christian fiction as being too sanitized and unrelatable?


  1. I was actually shocked by this list. It seems very limiting. I'm wondering why Bishop and Father can't be used, too ... perhaps because they denote a specific denomination? wow. this is surprising, interesting and down right confusing ...

  2. I agree Tracy. I can understand why they may not want characters to identify with a specific denomination but to me that's very different from not allowing any mention of any kind (or person of the cloth) in the whole book!

  3. Tracy and Kara, I'm glad it isn't just me! This kind of thing is what gives me the irrits with inspirational fiction. I like to read stories about people of faith, but the limitations of the genre drive me mental. It seems crazy to describe as inspirational a genre that doesn't deal with real life. Young Christians live in a world where sexual attraction is not just acknowledged, but indulged by most at the slightest provocation. I'd like to read stories that show people dealing with that reality and still resisting. But it's a bit hard when you can't even mention it. That seems to me not so much inspirational as fantasy.
    As a Catholic, the anti-Catholic bias of this list also irks me. Can't mention Father, Priest, Saint or Bishop? Pastor, Elder, Minister and the like are presumably okay. I am aware that some Christians think that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon and that we need to be 'saved' but I can't say that I find it an attractive attitude!

  4. I am not Catholic, but I agree with Imelda. The prejudice in this list is overwhelming. We are the Body of Christ. The Good Shepherd knows his own, whatever church they attend. One can promote a pure gospel of Jesus Christ without identifying with or rejecting a specific denomination. And Kara, please don't think that all Americans are this conservative. I, too, want books that deal with real life. We can be discrete and still not sound like we are living in a 1950s time capsule.

    You ask what kind of situations we find unacceptable. I am concerned at the number of Christian writers who inadvertently promote the Romance lie that true love conquers all. When was the last time you read a book where the heroine refused to get involved with a guy because he did not have a solid relationship with the Lord? She prays for him and usually, by the end he is showing some spiritual interest, but I rarely see anyone who makes a deep commitment to the Lord and capacity to be the spiritual head of the home the top consideration in a relationship. Is anyone still teaching that we should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers? And yet how many divided homes and struggling marriages are there in our churches because nice Christian girls put other qualities first in their choices?

  5. I've seen that list before and am equally offended by it, but, for a bit of clarification, Steeple Hill didn't make up the list. They are conforming to the CBA (Christian Booksellers Assoc.) standards, and CBA is ultra-conservative. They are also the biggest market for Steeple Hill and other Christian book sellers. So the list is more profit-motivated than morality-motivated.
    The prohibitions seem particularly obtuse if the novel is about fall and redemption. How can a character be redeemed if the author isn't allowed to name the sin? Or how does a character resist temptation, if temptation can't be seen?
    I'll stop now, before I offend someone :-)

  6. (Stacy A): I'm a pretty conservative person, but my writing would never pass these strict rules. Seriously, people, we live in a real world with real people who make mistakes -- even Christians screw up (whoops, probably shouldn't have used that phrase) and need to repent. My characters use Real Life language -- if it's an offensive word I star out the pertinent vowels so it doesn't slap you in the face, but an abusive father who has turned against his faith isn't going to say "Darned Girl" when verbally assaulting his daughter. Probably why getting published will be a long shot for me, at least in Christian publishing (and my stories are all very overtly Christian, so secular publishing houses won't be too interested).
    There is such a thing as going too far, definitely. I don't want sex scenes in the books I read, and I don't like being slapped in the face with bad language (though I can handle it if it's toned down). But my experience with Real Life is that it's tough, it's gritty, it has no resemblance to fairy tales and the only way we can ever get through it is to take that realness and rawness to Jesus and have Him transform it.
    I'm not sure any of this is making sense (darned cold medicine), but basically I think it's silly to whitewash life to the extent these publishers demand, which probably explains why I don't read their books! Sometimes I want escape, yes, but it has to be believable.

  7. Stacy, maybe your work will be perfect for self-publishing. I'm sure there is a market among Christian readers for overtly Christian novels that don't read like they are in a '1950's time capsule' as LeAnne put it (that is exactly how some of them read, LeAnne!). And through church groups you have a ready-made promotional platform.
    LeAnne, you raise a good point. Westeners generally reject the idea of arranged marriages, subscribing rather to an idea of romantic love and personal agency. But for people of faith who want a long and faith-filled marriage, arranged marriages, which preference values and behaviour over looks and charm, often produce better results. I'm not advocating that we go back there, but I, for one, would love to read the story of a love that grew between two people who chose each other, or were chosen, for more pragmatic (and/or faith-based) reasons. That strikes me as very inspirational!

  8. I was appalled by this list. I don't use a lot of language and there are some wordsI would never put in the mouth of any of my characters.But as others have pointed put we do live in the world and writing needs to reflect that and sound true to life. No point sanatizing everything so much a Non Christian wouldn't even stay the distance to read because it doesn't ring true.Aren't they often the audience we are trying to reach? For me they are, anyway.

  9. What an interesting conversation! Alice mentioned that these are CBA's standards not Steeple Hills. Can anyone expand on that for me? How does that work in terms of "Christian" publishers that allow more liberal language in their books? Does it affect them being able to get their books on the shelves of Christian retailers who are CBA members?

  10. Most secular writers don't have any such problems as anything goes. Even so, quite a few writers do uphold a clean standard. As for using swearwords, that's not too difficult, you can say the character cursed or had a foul mouth. Robin Lee Hatcher's Redeeming Love was pretty explicit, but then she didn't write for Steeple Hill. We'll just have to write for the publisher who'll accept your work. With those guidelines, I know my latest book wouldn't pass muster with S H even though it shows consequences to sexual sin, as we see many times in the Bible!

  11. After having been treated as a mouthpiece of Satan by some CBA publishers because I did not conform to what a 'real' Christian should be, I had recently started talking myself into toning down a romantic encounter in one of my manuscripts and resubmitting it. But after reading this list, I fear that there would be nothing left of my book. I don't think I'll bother now. Very disheartening.

  12. Freakin' loopy! Am I allowed to say freakin'??

  13. Kara, as an American, I'm gasping! NO, we're not all like that. And the hysterical thing is that it's Harlequin! I think they're being overly careful because their other lines are so spicey (am I allowed to say spicey?) On the other hand, when my very genteel daughter moved to England she shocked people by words she innocently used that she had no idea had any unsavory context.

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  15. [Sorry about that. I just wanted to get my picture up twice.] A common language is not necessarily common when you change cultures. When we moved from Brazil to Mozambique we found that the common Portuguese word we used for queue was derogatory slang for a homosexual. Needless to say we changed to a different term. One of the problems I find with slang is that young people assign suggestive meanings to words that have perfectly legitimate meanings and then you have said something shocking that you didn't intend to say.