I’ve noticed a recent marketing trend that I feel needs closer examination. Some promotional websites and authors have taken to labeling certain suspense novels as ‘Clean’. What this really means is the book contains no swears. I understand that some readers don’t like strong language, and, on the surface, this new label makes sense. But do we really need to define books this way? Suspense novels, by their very nature, are geared toward adults only. Most people don’t hand their 10-year-old a novel by Stephen King or Lee Child. So we’re not protecting children; we’re coddling adults.
If you read a book’s description, chances are you’ll have a good idea of the content. Also, most websites allow readers to sample a book before purchasing so you’ll know what you’re getting into. My own feeling is that, if language offends you, suspense probably isn’t the best genre for you to read.
My worry is that this trend will lead to mandatory labeling of books, similar to what is done with music. The difference is that warning labels on CDs are a ‘Parental Advisory’, because children do listen to music their parents might not be familiar with. That is not the case with novels. It’s absurd to consider that authors and publishers would be forced to include warnings on their book covers. Since my books don’t qualify as ‘Clean’, by contrast I’d be stuck labeling them ‘Unclean’. Now that sounds ridiculous, right? Personally, I prefer Realistic Suspense. My book labels would look like this:
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for strong language. But I do believe in realism in writing. And I don’t think adults need any further coddling. Our society is leaning too far into ‘political correctness’. I don’t want to go back to the days of Pilgrims, where our words and behavior have narrow guides for tolerance.
I’ve read great books without a single swear, and I’ve read great books that would require neon warning labels. What matters to me isn’t whether the book includes strong language, but whether the language sounds realistic in the given situation. Some characters wouldn’t swear. The absence of harsh words defines who they are. Other characters almost require foul words to spew from their mouths. Removing them makes the book ridiculous. It’s like watching the Sopranos on the USA Network, when they bleep out half the words and even remove some scenes. If language offends you, chances are the entire program will offend you. Tony Soprano did a lot of bad things. The words he used were the least of his offenses.
This leads me to another question: Does it even make sense that Clean Suspense can focus on a gruesome murder, but the ax-wielding lunatic cannot curse his victim? The definition of clean in this instance feels more like sanitizing or whitewashing. But that’s an entirely different rant for another day.
Back to the language issue. Why is it socially acceptable to say, “I’m knee-deep in poop,” but not “I’m knee-deep in shit.” Both words mean the same thing. If I say “poop”, you know exactly what I’m referring to. Why does simple word choice mean the difference between ordinary conversation and something that would relegate me to the Unclean Suspense pile?
Or consider this scenario: In Clean Suspense, I would be allowed to write, “My son is as stubborn as an ass.” (And he is!) In this instance, ass refers to a mule and I am safely within my boundaries of cleanliness. However, I could not write, “I fell on my ass.” In this instance, ass is a body part. Same word, different use. I’m now in the Unclean pile again.
These are all just words; a bunch of letters arranged to make a particular sound. All sorts of people use all sorts of words in all sorts of situations. If I say, “Screw you!”, you know what I’m implying, right? So why is that any different than saying the actual word implied?
This labeling trend disturbs me. Adults should not need warning labels. What happened to using common sense?
Life is messy. Life is beautiful and dirty. Life doesn’t fit nicely into any categories. I write about life. If you read one of my books, be forewarned: You will encounter Realistic Suspense.