From time to time, I get emails or letters from readers taking issue with the language I use in my books. Usually it’s holy-than-thou nonsense claiming that my use of this word or that offended their pure eyes to such an extent that never again shall they check a Gregg Hurwitz book out of the library. I like responding with four-letter declamations because, well, I’m witty like that.
But the other day, I got an email that struck me for its civil tone. I’ll like to share it here and include my response.
I just finished reading They’re Watching, which was absolutely awesome. It’s the first book that I’ve read of yours and I look forward to reading the rest of your books.
However I wanted to write you about something I find very dismaying. In your novel you frequently use God’s name in vain and I can’t understand why someone so educated finds it necessary to do so. Surely there are enough curse words in the English language that can be used as exclamations instead. I am an avid reader, since I’ve been keeping track of books I read in a database I’ve read 1104 books to date, I only mention this to show that I’m not a book a year reader. I’ve written to a bunch of authors regarding this matter and have received a response from some stating that the majority of people speak this way and they are merely just trying to make their characters realistic. A poll was taken that determined that 83% of Americans are Christian. So I believe it is the loud, vocal minority that speaks this way, especially Hollywood, and not the silent majority.
So I just thought I’d speak up for the silent majority. I think you are an excellent writer and taking God’s name in vain in your novels adds nothing to the story and leaving it out would take nothing from it. In fact, John Grisham and Brad Meltzer are authors who do not take God’s name in vain in their novels. So you see it also isn’t a requirement to become a famous author. I know you already are famous, all I’m saying is that it wasn’t a requirement for them to get there.
Just something I hope you’ll give some thought to when you write your next novel.
To which I replied:
Thank you for writing. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the book, and I also appreciate your civil and thoughtful tone in conveying your issue with the language I use. Since you took the time to express your question, I’d like to answer it thoroughly.
To begin with, the percentage of Christians is indeed close to what you claim. The last demographics show Christians at 76% in 2008 (though continuing to decline). So — a clear majority. But conveying what is pleasing to a majority isn’t really the aim of a writer or artist. It is writing what is true and offers a veneer of verisimilitude. Indeed, as other authors have stated in their answers you, I do want to write in a manner similar (though not precisely similar) to how people really talk. And there’s no telling what will offend folks — whether they compose the majority or minority. If I eliminate seeming religion-referencing exclamations in favor of sharper swear words, that will upset people too (and has — I’ve received those emails as well).
Lastly, as one of the few Jewish kids in my Jesuit High School, I had the advantage of approaching religion — and the commandments — from a relatively fresh perspective. And what I was taught (and what makes sense to me) is that taking the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t really refer to a frustrated utterance, but rather using God’s name in pursuit of hypocritical, manipulative, or un-Christ-like aims. Like a preacher swindling his flock. Like waging an illegitimate war in the name of God. Like a cult leader abusing members in the name of Jesus. This makes intuitive sense to me. I understand why this would be more offensive to the moral parameters of a religion rather than naming God or Jesus in an utterance. I’ve always taken someone’s declaiming, “Jesus!” to be shorthand for nothing more than “Jesus help me!” or the like — not offensive to my mind.
That said, I do feel compelled to add that when I’m writing characters, each comes with his or her own morality which I allow them to express in full, whether that be in action or language. I’ve written rapists and serial killers and cult leaders and psychopath businessmen. And I’ve written my share of protagonists who are flawed and imperfect and, I hope, three-dimensional — who sound and act as we do. And in painting this ever changing cast, I try to make use of not just one moral perspective — nor just the moral perspective of the majority — but the vast and sundry approaches to life and language that characterize the human condition.
All best to you and thank you for writing,
This is an email from a favorite reader. Love it!
“Like most journeys that lead to uncertainty and danger, there’s always a woman. And this one was no different. Actually, it was text book; classic 50′s detective stuff. Boat ride to South America. Jungles. Foreign cops, jails and jar-heads. The usual stuff. And the bombshell you knew was too good looking to hang with a mug like yours, which meant that she was playing a game; most likely at your expense. Even knowing that, I was sure to take the fall. Not the stereo-typical blonde type, you might expect. More of a “woman in red” with equally stunning red hair that makes Jessica Rabbit look like a two-bit crack head turning tricks…or maybe the way she looked at me…holding a copy of “They’re Watching” in her long, slender, knife scarred hands. Obvious cage fighter injuries, to be certain.
I wasn’t going to post this just yet, but it seems word has already leaked out, so what the hell. Here’s the announcement. There’s a great team assembled for this one — can’t wait to get underway.
– — –
Rights to Gregg Hurwitz’s latest thriller, They’re Watching, have been snapped up by David Dobkin (The Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Nights, Clay Pigeons) and Jeff Kleeman’s Big Kid Pictures, with an eye for Dobkin to direct. Big Kid Pictures is currently in pre-production on Jack the Giant Killer, (directed by Bryan Singer), The Change Up starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman, and is developing a Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie for Warners. Jeff Kleeman oversaw and developed The Thomas Crown Affair, The Hunt for Red October, Golden Eye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough. Playwright and Emmy-award winning screenwriter Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under, The Pavilion) will adapt, and Hurwitz will produce.