To swear or not to swear ... ?

I’ve noticed a trend on review sites, of one-star reviews that come from readers offended and angry about finding swear words in romance novels. Often these readers specify they’ve returned the book, got their money back, but decided to leave a one-star review anyway. According to these readers, a romance shouldn’t have swears. It means there’s nothing redeemable about the story.

I’ve got these reviews myself. Lately, for my first book, a reviewer found it “peppered” with the f-word. (For interest, the f-word appears 13 times in all 360+pages, the first in Chapter 3 in the context of a very rude patient, the next in Chapter 5 from a very fearful patient, and again the third in Chapter 8 where the rude patient is now a thief and threatening the heroine. There isn’t another until Chapter 18.)

Now, I know swearing is not everyone’s jam, and one person’s light profanity is another person’s shock-horror. I’m not here to respond to a review, but I am curious about this.

Swearing is a fascinating subject for me. I include it in my stories for different reasons - sometimes to authentically represent the dialogue of people in particular groups and display their style of social bonding. My first three novels are particularly like this - maybe we swear more in Australia, but I’ve never been on a mine, or a construction site, or a remote location where no one was dropping the f-bomb, sometimes worse.

Research supports these aspects of swearing - that it has important social functions. It helps to prevent physical violence by giving big emotions a verbal outlet. It’s used as a kind of social bonding in all kinds of groups. Studies also counter many widespread cultural beliefs we have about swearing - it absolutely is not a mark of a lower-class or dumber person - swearing is found in all social classes. And, the all-time kicker, it doesn’t corrupt children, despite the fact that we all seem to carry the hang-up that we shouldn’t swear around them. This paradox in itself is interesting.

So, swearing (and other taboo words) have an incredibly interesting place in our language. It’s processed in a different part of our brain to other language, and becomes associated with strong emotions. This is why more swearing seems to come out when we’re really upset or angry. But it’s also a thing that does seem to require a lot of social information to allow us to deploy swearing “correctly” (that is, to try avoiding offence). So, you know not to swear around someone’s grandparents you just met, but at a bar watching a game, you might think very differently. Intent also seems to matter - words said in anger or to hurt are often more offensive than words meant humorously (though again, one person’s humour is not another’s).

Maybe this is the issue with books - being a text-based thing, that social context isn’t the same. A reader can easily come to a novel like mine expecting that romance doesn’t have swears, and then be rudely (to them) surprised.

I’m proud of my books, all of them. I’m not shamed by the language I’ve used - it’s part of who I am and part of some of my characters. I think taboo words play a huge role in our language and society and I want them in my word palate. I’m sorry I don’t meet every reader’s expectations, but that’s the game. I’m sad to get one-star reviews over this issue, but really, there’s nothing I can do about that either.

So, what do you think? Does swearing in a story put you off? Curious to hear what you think.