IWSG: Are Australians more worried than Americans about political correctness in fiction?

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“Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!” Alex J Cavanaugh

For this month’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group post, I’d like to talk about political correctness in fiction. Do you temper your writing style to accommodate other people’s insecurities or do you throw political correctness to the wind for the sake of ‘real characters’?

I take somewhat of a middle road. I want my characters to be as authentic as possible, but I’d prefer to do that without offending people.  I’m sure writers’ and readers’ opinions fall across the whole spectrum on this issue, but I noticed something interesting during my beta reader stage for The Big Smoke. I had a number of beta readers from both Australia and America, and several of my Australian readers pointed out phrases that could potentially offend people’s sensitivities. None of my American readers made comments of a similar nature. Is there something in that, do you think? Does it say something about our different cultures? Are Australians more worried than Americans about political correctness in fiction?

Obviously, my sample size is quite small, so I wanted to see what you think. These are the phrases that some of my Australian readers suggested I re-word:

  1. Robert forced a laugh. ‘Don’t worry about Cindy. She’s a schitzo.’
  2. I nodded in the direction of this fat chick in super-short shorts. ‘There’s your talent. Whatchya waiting for? Make a move.’
  3. She named me after the opera singer. Seriously, could you get any gayer?
  4. I was about as coordinated as a nine-year-old girl with bow-legs.
  5. And that hair. That fake, slutty red hair.

I took my readers’ advice on board and changed these phrases, but I’m interested in what you think. Would you suggest re-wording any of the above to avoid potentially offending people? Or do you thinks it’s OTT to even consider these phrases potentially offensive? I’ve numbered the phrases so you can be specific if there are particular ones you’d  like to refer to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. In your comments, please identify where you live (country) so we can see if  cultural influences could be at play. Looking forward to hearing what you think!

P.S. Don’t forget to support other insecure writers!

22 Comments

Filed under Beta readers, Insecure Writers Support Group, The Big Smoke, Writers, Writing, Writing style

22 Responses to IWSG: Are Australians more worried than Americans about political correctness in fiction?

  1. Interesting. I’m from USA, and the only one that really gives me pause is #3 – I wouldn’t say that. I’m not sure about “slutty” in #5 – it’s not a word I’d probably choose, but it might be okay in context… of character voice etc.

    • Character voice and context are the key factors, aren’t they? I think that each of these phrases suit the voice and context, but there are other ways to achieve the same purpose without offence, so that’s what I’ve now gone for.

  2. USA here…
    I wouldn’t cut or change a single one of them. This is fiction, folks. If it fits the character, then go for it.

    The only (related) thing that bothers me is when the author tries to cram a particular view down my throat through their writing. Fiction is no place for soapboxes, but it is a place for characters with personalities–even if they aren’t politically correct. 😉

    IWSG #177 (until Alex culls the list again. 😛 )

    • I agree – I’ve read some very obvious ‘soapbox’ writing and it’s a major turn-off. I think you can work a ‘mesage’ into a story, but it must be done subtly and naturally, otherwise people will feel like they’re reading a fable!

  3. I am in Europe and I think that most of the lines are ok. It is fiction, they are characters and the great thing about characters is that sometimes they don’t give a damn. And that’s good 🙂

  4. ‘Bad’ language in itself doesn’t bother me. For me, it all comes down to the question of who is talking. I’ve been put off by a main character (that we are supposed to like) making homophobic, sexist, etc. comments. I spend a few hours with them as a reader, and I’m supposed to root for them. At the very least, if they don’t know any better, I’d want them to go through a learning process in the course of the story.
    If I’m reading a mystery, and it’s the serial killer talking, I’m not surprised or offended, because I’d expect that kind of behavior from such a character, and I know in all likelihood they’ll pay for it in the end.
    I try to go by these rules as reader and writer.

    • Yes, I agree. That’s why I decided to change examples 2 to 4, because they are from the perspective of my main male character who readers are supposed to like. While I still imagine that a 17-year-old boy would say things like that (without meaning offence), I decided it’s best to avoid the chance of him unintentionally offending readers.

  5. In our thoughts and conversations with people we are close to we are not worried about being politically correct. In order to write authentically, you have to be true to your characters and a little less worried about being pc.
    Anyway, that is what this American thinks 🙂

  6. Interesting. I’d say 1 and 3 definitely have to go.

  7. Hi! I’m wandering over from IWSG. Interesting topic!

    If it’s not absolutely necessary, I would take the words out. Personally, all of them offend me and I would have a hard time liking the character talking. If that’s your intention though, then it works really well.

    Re: #3. So glad you took it out!

    It’s not a matter of offending people, imho, but rather of perpetuating a thing (homophobia, sexism) through our chosen language that just shouldn’t exist. There can be other ways to make a point. I don’t think we should preach or infuse morality lessons in our work. But if it doesn’t need to be said, just don’t say it. The less people that say it, the less it will be said. Get it? It makes sense in my head. 😉

    I’m Canadian, and I don’t consider myself a prude, though this post may come off that way.

  8. I don’t see how you can refer to most of what you highlighted as being political incorrect or anything political. They are all just poor writing. If I was reading a book and came across such language I would stop reading it. And complain about the “author”.

    Because some of the phrases are abusive, demeaning, words bullies use, shocking clichés and just poor language that does not make any sense, such as in number 4.

    I don’t know who the market would be for a book with phrases like those in it.

    • Political correctness is not about being “political” in the sense of government. To quote the all-knowing Wikipedea, *”Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent.”*

      In other words, these phrases could cause offence, which means they’re politically incorrect.

      The phrases are all from the perspective of older teenagers as the book is ‘New Adult’ fiction. Thus, the target market is teenagers and others who enjoy reading about the transition from child to adult.

  9. I don’t see those as politically incorrect either.
    Write in your style. That always works best.

  10. Interesting question, Cal. I think, just as you’re never going to get everyone to like your book, you’re never going to avoid offending anyone either. People are just too diverse in their sensibilities, and something that is innocent for one person could be morally reprehensible for the next. As long as you, the author, hold no politically incorrect agendas behind the political incorrectness of the characters, who actually have an obligation to be flawed, I think those phrases are fine. You’re telling a story, not trying for office. And if all of fiction were politically correct, we’d be deprived of some of the most interesting characters in literature.

    • “…if all of fiction were politically correct, we’d be deprived of some of the most interesting characters in literature.”

      That’s a very good point, Dan. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thanks for adding an Aussie voice to the conversation. 🙂

  11. Hmm … Well, I personally probably wouldn’t have written any of those lines, but if I’m reading someone else’s work and it fits the character … well, I don’t really stop to get offended by it!

  12. Arlee Bird

    I didn’t find any of your phrases to be offensive. I try not to write anything I personally find offensive. When it comes to making characters realistic I think you have to go with what seems right. I typically will avoid profanity in most cases since I think there can be more creative ways of expressing this.

    Your examples are not only tame, but they create excellent words pictures while conveying a personality.

  13. Joseph

    I think if it suits the character and gives the reader a better sense of how they’d behave and speak in everyday life, then I’d leave it be. I know when reading Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, there was plenty of foul language which made my stomach wince, even for just a second, but that abruptness exists in all of us.

    I’d be more inclined to say what we may deem as ‘improper language’, if it’s used when a character is speaking, then it should remain regardless if it offends.

    Although not a novel, this topic reminds me of what tv executives would have been thinking when reading any of Chris Lilley’s scripts, such as for Summer Heights High. Plenty of raised eyebrows I’m sure! (see character Jonah: http://summerheightshigh.wikia.com/wiki/Jonah_Quotes ) If this was released as a book, I’d ‘sure as hell’ want the language to remain.

    So me personally, there is a time and place for that raw no-holds-barred language and it’s what makes Tim Winton (and many others including the script writer – Chris Lilley) so special.

    (From Brisbane/Australia)

  14. The Golden Eagle

    I don’t see anything wrong with those sentences, per se (American here). Lots of people are offensive in real life whether they mean to be or not (particularly within their own heads, which is the POV of a great deal of fiction) and it seems to me like it shouldn’t be any different in writing. Fiction can be powerful, but character voice is also important.

    Just my opinion. 🙂

  15. I think if it fits the story and the character almost anything goes!

  16. I think it depends on what you are going to say. You don’t want to offend a huge group, but you don’t want to be so politically correct that your book is boring. This is a difficult question. But what you don’t want to do is write another “Save the Pearls” book. Google that and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

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