Thursday, July 30, 2009

what would George Carlin do?

Here's one George Carlin would've loved:
Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner, while on tour for her newest book, Best Friends Forever, was recently asked by a Massachusetts bookstore to refrain from using profanity. The author obliged (and her fans asked her to compensate by signing personal profane inscriptions in their copies), but it's got me wondering if the bookstore has the right to make such a request, and if it's in an author's best interest to deny it.

I've discussed (and defended) my use of profanity in my novels as a matter of word choice. As a writer, I am conscious of every word I put on the page. Every word needs to have purpose. Not some. All. If I use a curse word, I question its purpose: Does it suit the personality of the character? Does it lend something to the emotion or action of the scene? Does it generate a bigger laugh? Does it plain sound better? There's a difference between the words "crap" and "shit" even though they're synonyms. Ditto for "screwing" and "fucking". What makes me choose one over the other (or neither) has nothing to do w/ decency or possibly offending my reader.

An editor requesting an author to make changes during the drafting process is totally different from a bookstore asking an author to make changes after the book has been published. If a bookstore asks an author to censor him/herself at a reading, they are, essentially, asking that author to change the meaning of a character, thought, scene, etc. How can this be? It reminds me of Ed Sullivan asking Jim Morrison or The Rolling Stones to change their lyrics when they performed on TV, or shooting Elvis from the waist up because his dancing was "too sexual". They obliged (although Jim Morrison demonstratively rolled his eyes in front of the camera and deliberately defied the request). We've come a long way since Ed Sullivan, or so I thought.

But perhaps the real issue isn't one of censorship but money. Why book these authors in the first place? Jennifer Weiner is an extremely popular author (I'm still waiting for her to come to Raleigh!). She packs a bookstore. Best Friends Forever hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. If a bookstore denies her appearance because of her book's content, they lose money. If she refuses to censor herself, she stands to lose money should she choose to refuse to appear otherwise, or the bookstore refuses to let her. Both could stand to lose customers either way.

To defend the bookstore for just a moment, I can understand them not wanting to do anything to potentially lose a customer. They need their customers desperately. And I can understand Weiner wanting to please her fans by being there (and they got what they wanted in the end).

I once did an open mic reading at a bookstore where we were asked to "keep it clean" in case little kids came in. I changed one curse word, and I can't tell you how much I regretted it, how much I cringed when the different, less effective word came out of my mouth. The moment didn't impact the reader the way it was supposed to as a result. And it was a key moment. worse stil, it made me feel and seem like a bad writer who made a bad word choice. If I could've done it over, I would've kept it intact and taken my chances.

And yet, if my novel broke wide open and I started doing readings across the country, and someone asked me to censor my work, would I cave? I'm a new author, itching to sell books and make a name for myself (not to mention make money)? Is that sacrifice worth it? Or such a trade-off akin to selling my soul?

What's the answer? Should bookstores have the right to ask authors to change content due to political correctness? Should authors refuse to do so? What would Geroge Carlin do?

What would you do? As a bookseller or author?


Candy O'Donnell said...

Sometimes profanity just fits...

mamie said...

I have been at Quail Ridge Books a time or two when they have asked the author to hold down the profanity. Their reasoning is that it is a family bookstore and they would like for everyone to feel welcome there. Of course, one might argue that if a family is uncomfortable with profanity they can leave while the author is reading, or that the author can choose not to read in a family bookstore, or that the publicist should be considerate of the situation when scheduling readings. But bottom line, I think the store has the right to be respectful of all its customers and asks its guests - other customers or authors - to do the same.

PS haven't forgotten your photos. I've been taking pix of fountains.

mamie said...

um, I got carried away, and that comment should read, "...ASK its guests...." I HATE TYPOS!! Especially my own :)

Elisa said...

You make an excellent point, Mamie.
After all the years I worked in retail before getting my degrees, I can still hear the golden rules echoing in my head:

Rule #1: The customer is always right.

Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, see Rule #1.

I sent the post to Jennifer Weiner and she responded, adding that the reading had been scheduled in the afternoon, where it would be more likely that kids would be there. But she also said it was a tough call for her, personally.

No need to worry about typos, Mamie -- this is a blog!! And I'm going to email you about photos in the next couple of days. :)