I Wish You’d Stop Using That Word..

Posted April 24, 2014 by Debby in Uncategorized

Today I have a different kind of discussion post for you, one where I truly want to hear your opinions. I want to talk about politically incorrect insults or slurs in books. I can’t even think of the right terminology for this. Insults are a commonplace thing, and certainly in books they just have to happen – it tells a story, gives a distinct voice to characters, and yeah, sometimes people are just plain mean and that needs to be represented. But some insults are really inappropriate and should just not be a thing anymore – and I’m thinking about ones that have indeed been more or less banned (i.e. the n word) and ones that are still a touchy subject (i.e. faggot, retard).

As I’m writing this, I’ve been reading Steve Brezenoff’s Guy in Real Life, a contemporary book involving characters involved in gaming: MMORPGs and table-top gaming. Now, for the most part, I’m enjoying this book – it has an addictive quality that keeps me going back to it, much like my on-again-off-again relationship with MMORPGs. BUT. This book is continually using faggot/fag/gay as an insult – five times already, and I’m only at the 75% mark.


To say that this makes me very uncomfortable would be an understatement. I have so many QUILTBAG close friends and even family, and I love them with all my heart. This should not be an insult – neither to people who are gay, nor, in this book’s case, to people who are not gay but do “lame” things, like a guy playing video games, a guy using a female avatar, or a guy simply not going out one evening or not hooking up with that girl. But then I was met with another question in my mind – doesn’t it paint an accurate picture though? I know gaming culture. I know the guys who spend HOURS on their MMOs, who are competitive as all hell, and yes “faggot” does get thrown out a lot as an insult when other gamers show “lame” or “weak” behavior. It’s wrong then too – but doesn’t that mean that the book is accurately depicting our society today?

The problem to me is that whether or not this is a term that gets used in our society, if you put it in your book as a casual insult that’s okay to fling around (as indeed, no one in the book has remarked how wrong it is to say this about people – even though there are also LGBT characters in the book), I feel like you’re more or less accepting its usage in society – almost, in effect, endorsing it. Much like the rampant sexism in September Girls, in an ideal world, I would only want such inappropriate behavior and language to be used in a book if you’re going to make a strong statement about it being wrong.

A lot of why I was disappointed in September Girls was not only because of the aggravating sexism that I had to witness, but that it was labeled as “social satire” – but the character didn’t learn anything by the end – he didn’t resolve to change his behavior. Instead, it was just sexism and misogyny on display – and especially in young adult literature, this could very well send the wrong message to readers. A lot (but certainly not all) young adult readers are still in their formative years, so using such language and depicting such behavior could cause them to accept it as “normal” and start emulating it in real life. I don’t want that to happen.

Now I’m not saying that books have to be all rainbows and butterflies. Insults are a part of life – this does happen. Some people are mean, so some characters in books are mean. But I wish that insults like faggot or retard would just be placed off-limits – unless you’re going to make a point about it being wrong. If you don’t, you may either encourage this negative behavior by making it seem accepted, OR you may seriously alienate and aggravate your readership. And for your benefit, Cuddlebuggery has recently compiled a list of insults and swear words that you could use instead. You have SO many options. Just pick ANYTHING else. Another insult would serve your purpose just as well, and is any reader really going to despair that you called that character a shit slinger and not a faggot?


But I want to hear from you.

I know I’m not the only one who has been annoyed by this – either faggot, retard, or other similar inappropriate insults, like slut or whore. In fact, in certain of my book blogging friends’ reviews, it can be the subject of an entire paragraph in a review and lead to the subtraction of a star rating if a book uses such a word. Now I have a higher tolerance than most, because usually I do try to first place it in context and see if it’s realistic, and if it’s only one time, I’ll usually let it go. It also depends on the type of story and the subject matter.

But what about you guys? How many of these “insults” can you stand in one book? Does it affect your rating and review? Will you put the book down if it happens (too often)? Or do you just ignore it? (No judgment here!)

Let me know in the comments!

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19 responses to “I Wish You’d Stop Using That Word..

  1. I’m so conflicted about this issue. On one hand, I understand the need for authors to write the characters realistically. But at the same time, I find those words abhorrent and don’t tolerate them being used (this also includes sexist and gendered language.) For me, when reading, the line I draw is if the main character is using those words and (usually you can tell) this isn’t a story about the MC learning that they’re an ass and growing from it. While it’s nice when books feature characters that won’t tolerate that language, I think it’s not very realistic to expect that to happen the majority of the time.

    • Yeah, I struggle so much with this debate between realism and acceptability. Ugh, it’s so hard. But I agree, if it’s used, I want the characters to grow. And that definitely didn’t happen in Guy in Real Life, so that makes me rather disappointed.

      On the other hand, awareness about ableist slurs is increasing, and at least in our community there are a lot of people nowadays who indeed don’t tolerate this. So I would almost argue that it is becoming realistic that if such a word is used, another character in the book could say something about it. But I guess that’s my wishful thinking.

  2. I totally know what you mean! Normal insults like “dickhead” or “idiot” don’t make an impression on me. But when I see “faggot” or “you’re gay” then I kind of stop and just think “really?” I don’t really see a point in it. I saw Kat’s post too and literally, there are so many other creative ways to insult someone. Not that I’m promoting insulting or anything but when it’s needed, your can be interesting at the same time. Awesome post Debby! One like this definitely had to be written.

    • Exactly! All the usual curse words and insults are totally fine by me, but encountering “faggot” was really jarring.

      Thank you 🙂 I hope I can do my part and spread awareness about this a bit, because I think most people just don’t think about it, and the more we let it slide, the more authors will think it’s okay.

  3. First, I think it really depends on the book and the genres. I think I’m easier with these words if I read a contemporary, because that is often about our society and if we like it or not, teenagers do use these words as insults. I think it is a realistic portrayal and if it’s handled well, it could serve a purpose in the story. I do agree with you however, I like it when the author emphasizes that it’s wrong to use these words. I don’t have a certain amount of words, I guess it has to do with the situation and how the words are spread in the story. When I read Tease, I had SO many sluts/whores in the start of the book that it was a huge turn off for me.

    If I come across words like ‘you are a faggot’ in, let’s say, fantasy it bothers me, because there are so many other insults you can pick from. It doesn’t feel authentic to use in such a genre and I don’t think it adds something to the story. If it doesn’t happen often I can ignore it though and it probably doesn’t affect my rating, but I would point it out in my review.

    • True, if handled well, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. Since so much of YA realistic fiction is about character growth, that would make sense. But when it’s just used without a second thought? That’s upsetting. I don’t think I could handle reading Tease, to be honest. But then again, the language aside, there are enough other negative critiques of that book.

      I definitely agree, ableist slurs in fantasy and sci-fi are just unacceptable. If you’re creating a new world, take the opportunity to make some new insults. I’m starting to be more attuned to this recently, and I think from now on it will be something I point out in reviews. But yeah, for one time or something, I can let it slide to where it doesn’t affect my rating. But still, these words can be upsetting and that is something to alert potential readers about.

  4. I agree with you that certain insults really aggravate me, both in real life and reading them in books, faggot, gay, whore and slut are the ones that make me the most uncomfortable. I swear like a sailor, but I steer clear of those terms because I see them as denigrant and unnecessary… and I make a point to say something about it to people that use them in real life.

    • Haha, same for me, I swear SO MUCH in real life. I have to actively remind myself to keep my language clean at work. But these slurs? Yeah, never. I think indeed most people are just ignorant about this – they just don’t think about it, so I try to say something if I hear it being said (even though I usually don’t like creating conflict). But now I hope some authors will take note as well.

  5. Meg

    Um, no one in the book ever said anything about it? For real? Not cool. I have a bunch of friends that play Call of Duty and I don’t even want to think about the language that gets tossed around there but the point is, anytime someone uses a questionable/downright awful word, I shout NO. WRONG. BAD. GO TO THE CORNER AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE DONE AND GO HOME IF YOU DON’T GET IT (what I’m trying to say is, it’s not like it wouldn’t have been realistic to have someone say something. That is, if my experiences are representative of everyone else’s which is not true, but whatever, tangenting).

    Unless the slurs are really over-the-top, I won’t quit a book over it. However, that doesn’t mean I approve. Seeing the word ‘retard’ tossed around casually in print makes me full-body wince (are all winces fill-body? Tangenting again, stop Meg, focus. Put down the extra cup of coffee and back away slowly). As I type the pre-tangent bit I realize that only really applies to contemporaries. I don’t see any reason for those words to be tossed around in Sci Fi/Fantasy or anywhere an author is inventing a world bc wtf, you can’t invent a world without those words? (I won’t necessarily quit over it, but that’s more bc I consider DNFing a personal failure because I’m obnoxiously stubborn like that)

    I also try and reserve total judgement because I know that I’m not exactly blameless here. Growing up I used a number of problem words before I really realized how awful I was being by using them (I hid behind the ‘but I don’t mean it THAT way’ excuse wish is a horrible, non-excuse excuse) and I know that occasionally one of the more common abelist slurs like ‘stupid’ ‘idiot’ and ‘crazy’ will pop out though I am trying to scrub them from my language.

    Anyway, fabulous post. I love all the conversation around this topic. I think a huge part of the reason these words are still in play is because a lot of people haven’t had that ‘omg I should not be doing this’ lightbulb moment and I think talking about it is the way to get there.

    • Exactly! I think it is becoming realistic nowadays that someone would say something. I might go back and look at who said it exactly when in the book, but there were also a couple instance that it was just in the narration – that he expected/thought his friend would call him a faggot for how he was gaming and stuff. It’s all just so pointless that way. Like why even? Ugh.

      Yeah, I also think IF these words are used AT ALL then it should only be in realistic fiction. Sci-Fi Fantasy? Well now you’re just being lazy. I also don’t DNF over these books though – same as you, I feel like a failure if I DNF. *sigh*

      I think everyone’s probably used those words as a kid. But like, the 90s, everyone was ignorant about it. Blaming our past selves is pretty pointless in that respect. I just hope that with posts like mine and yours, people will start thinking about their words, because indeed – most people haven’t realized how damaging it can be. I hope authors take note as well. Just. *sigh* I’m not usually a BE NICE kind of person, so this makes me feel kind of like a hypocrite, but I still feel like we can draw lines.

  6. I can get pretty annoyed with insults that are wrong to use, such as faggot, gay and retard. As someone who falls into the LGBT part of society, I can find it highly insulting, if not completely unnecessary in books and sometimes, I’ll even forget an author completely and never go back to their work again because it’s gotten to me that much, however, when I review books, i very rarely tend to focus on the feature of those words in the review entirely, and more as something inclusive to the writing style. I truly believe that an authors choice to include these slurs when it’s not vital to a point in the plot or character development highlights how an author thinks and behaves, and I don’t particularly want to read work from author who doesn’t support everybody’s rights and treats these words with such a laid-back attitude. Such an important topic Debby, and I’m glad you brought it up.

    • I truly believe that an authors choice to include these slurs when it’s not vital to a point in the plot or character development highlights how an author thinks and behaves

      I think that’s an EXCELLENT point, and you could well be right in that. I think ignorance here is the main issue, so I’m going to do all I can to raise awareness about it, including mentioning that they happen in reviews. It can be upsetting to readers, and I really hope that if authors get this as feedback, they will become more aware.

  7. Ohhh, I’m not sure. Great discussion topic. The use of those words IRL makes me uncomfortable, and definitely makes me think less of the person who uses them, but would it have them same impact on me in a book? When I was younger I definitely remember those words being thrown around a lot more than they are now (I’m talking 10-15 years ago) and I think if the author is depicting an ignorant asshole, then the use of those words makes sense, and gets the point across pretty clearly. If the author is using those words in normal dialogue by a “decent” character then I’d question what they’re trying to achieve. I think fiction can and does hit on a lot of issues that can be sensitive i.e. discrimination, domestic violence, rape. Because an author writes about those I don’t think they are endorsing that behavior, but these things do happen IRL and if they are trying to write an accurate portrayal of life then I can see why they are included. I think novels can shy away from real-life occurrences too often because of the fear of offending and sometimes I really appreciate it when an author is like, “do you know what? This word is used, this happens, I’m going to write about it!” I think it takes a lot of balls to do that. I wonder if words like “gay” and “faggot” cause more shock (if you will) at the minute because over the last number of years it has become a highly sensitized issue?? But yes, even though at times I can appreciate the reasons they are used, they can still make me uncomfortable as a reader. I guess it all depends on the context.

  8. Great topic. I really had to think about this one because I wasn’t sure how I felt. If an asshole character is saying something assoholic then I don’t really mind because I find it realistic and by making it come from a negative mouth I think it comes across as a negative thing that you shouldn’t do which in and of itself has worth. The slut/whore thing is one I struggle with because I am a woman who is not personally offended by the terms. However I know others take them very seriously and I do try to be mindful of those sensitivities. In the book I am writing at the moment, my character makes a comment about how she is not a prude or a slut and I have gone back and forth a million times on changing that line because I don’t want to offend anyone. Where I struggle is that I know tons and tons of women would think that exact thought and compare themselves in that manner so it is a realistic thing to think/say. I’m not sure if it is worth stripped realism in the hopes of avoiding offending anyone.
    It’s a tricky thing to deal with and I am curious to see what everyone says.

    • If an asshole character is saying something assoholic then I don’t really mind because I find it realistic and by making it come from a negative mouth I think it comes across as a negative thing that you shouldn’t do which in and of itself has worth.

      While I agree with you there, and that case would probably pass as acceptable in my mind, I’m thinking more of the gray areas (of which occur plenty), when say, again using Guy in Real Life as an example, it’s the main character or the main character’s best friend who are just throwing these words around without a second thought. That’s when I get uncomfortable, precisely because the message it’s sending out is so unclear.

      I think your case of the prude/slut thing… it’s an interesting one, but I think you can probably make it work in your favor, because indeed, women are insecure and thinking about their self-worth. The slut concept is a harmful idea perpetuated by society, but the base definition is just someone who sleeps around. And in that sense, if it’s a character’s internal dialogue, evaluating themselves on that kind of spectrum, then yeah, readers will probably find it okay and be able to relate to it. The part where it gets tricky would be if, say, the character then goes on to evaluate OTHER characters on that same spectrum. Then it could quickly get to slut-shaming territory which many readers are not fans of.

  9. I think I’m more like you. Certain insults (just like certain behaviors) make me cringe, but I’ll allow them as long as at some point, it’s pointed out that it is wrong wrong WRONG. “Retard” is high on the list for me, because it’s a slur I heard a lot growing up (from other people) but that we were NOT allowed to use at home. It got my mom’s green eyes just a-glowin’. But, if I remember correctly, it’s a word that’s used in DEAD ENDS by Erin Jade Lange, a book that I LOVE, and I was okay with it. A character uses it to describe one of the main characters, a Downs boy named Billy D, and the word NEVER appears on the page without someone else (either Billy himself or another character) stepping in and putting a stop to it.

    • I’m glad they handled it that way in DEAD ENDS. I think that rather than completely banning the books, more instances like that in literature should happen, because there are so many people who just don’t realize how demeaning it is, and they might learn from that. The interns at my office keep saying retarded and each time I correct them they’re like, “Oops, yeah, I know, I meant stupid,” — but I don’t think they really GET it. I’ll keep correcting them, but it’s sad how this is just seen as acceptable to them when it shouldn’t be. And for them, English isn’t their first language, so I feel like I should be more understanding, but that’s also just sad in a way. They don’t have the same standards and teachings about political correctness… which can be very annoying.

  10. Becky

    Whenever I see the R word (or some variation) in a book, it always feels like a punch to the gut for me. My younger brother has autism and is severely disabled, and required much of my parents time while we were growing up, so I would often read books to escape or to entertain myself. It feels like the writer is basically reminding me that he- and by extension, I- are and always will be different to the rest of the world. Equally, I hate it when books half-ass it and write an ‘apology’ in the book for the earlier use of it (Case in point, I think it was one of the House of Night books where in the mid double digit books, they finally had a stupid enforced plug for the r-word website. Guys. I mean, seriously? Don’t pretend you care now.)