The Wrong Word

Are writers censoring what their fictional characters say?

At this beginning of the Bronze Age of working from home, I’m quickly putting together the new issue of the small literary magazine I edit. Mine is the kind of journal that falls into the category “and elsewhere.” As in, “So-and-so has been published in these amazing places, and elsewhere…” Getting work ready on time during the outbreak seems senseless—but only if you’re discounting that other superbug: the sense of our time running out.

While gathering the stories, I encounter the equivalent of a kid slapping their hand to their mouth to keep from blurting out a curse word. In one writer’s very short story, a conversation between a mother to her daughter ends with mom landing a slap-in-the-face insult on her daughter. She calls her a hussy in the story’s jumping-off. I won’t say anything more about the piece because I don’t want, in writing this, to call the writer out.

It’s a good story: interior, free-form and deeply empathetic. But, that word, “hussy,” waters it down. I write in my comments back to the writer:

Urge you to consider “slut” since hussy is overpolite here.

This is, I hope to communicate in my comment and my email to the writer, a word that’s up to the heavy task of launching this particular story.

A day later, the writer hovers somewhere between two zones: that kid’s gob-smacked shame at letting out a bad word and the luckless paranoia of ex-con who just wants to lie low and not draw attention from the heat anymore:

Dear editor: I’m open to ideas, but the biggest worry for me is the potential offense we may cause with the term ‘slut’. It’s a sensitive time. I’d rather err on the side of caution…  I like “home-wrecker”, “desperate woman” and “promiscuous woman” just fine.

I see the tone and diction of the story getting all over the place with those suggestions, but I read the story several times with them in mind, to check myself. Meanwhile, I find a note from the author in the margin accounting for the use of “hussy” as particular to the mother’s age, but then they duck and cover again:

Also there is a worry of causing offence to feminist readers if we use that term.

I feel more than frustration; I feel angry, but I’m not sure about which: that pressure has spooked the writer into this kind of reaction, or that the writer has succumbed to it. So I write back, in part:

It’s one character speaking to another in a story, not your voice leveling the word slut in judgment on a character or a characteristic of women.

Who can use the wrong words? Are fictional characters now subject to our heightened sense of out-of-bounds-impropriety? I worry about the other stories I’ve published. Could they have suffered from self-censorship? Would they have been better, or more intense, or funnier, or just more had the author not been afraid?

slut

Worrying about only the writers in my journal keeps me from worrying about the larger literary world, where the warning shots of the Great Awokening have started hitting their targets and inflicting real damage, sinking books or shredding their reception so violently the work’s chance at being opened by an unbiased reader is gone. I guess if the horse gets out the barn door, track it down and shoot it in the leg.

You can’t write as yourself if you’re writing not to offend, trying not to get one’s work canceled. This chill is catching—and testing the health of the work. A writer shouldn’t have to protect themselves by secluding their art in the house of propriety. Art doesn’t shelter in place. I’m afraid that writers across this culture are stocking up and staying inside. The only test art should take is the test of time, not the test of the day.

After more back and forth, the writer takes the story to their writer’s group and comes back with “tart.” It’s also my job to know when to step back and remember this is someone else’s story and ultimately, they should have it their way, especially if my edits might leave them forever unhappy with it.

“Tart” it is, instead of slut. Say it. Own it. Just don’t tart-shame.

 

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Morgan Beatty

Morgan Beatty is a television writer in New York City. His short stories have appeared in Fence, The Brooklyn Quarterly and The Santa Fe Writers Project.

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