The Proper Word in a Prickly Time
I am in rewrite on Cyberstorm, the fifth in my Mayfield – Napolitani series. Rewrite is the process of going over a draft manuscript with a fine tooth comb looking for anything that might improve the story other than throwing the whole thing in the trash bin.
These days, people are sensitive about word choice, and there are so many ways to offend any of the many subsets of potential readers. What’s a writer to do?
From the writer’s point of view, the important question is: When should the sensitivity of today’s readers dictate a change in what would be the natural language of a character or situation? The drift seems to be in favor of sensitivity at the expense of literary voice.
The crucial issue is that context—time; place; person’s social class, education, family background; race; physical location; social setting of the scene—may well dictate language that current day would find either odd or offensive. But what if changing the offensive word(s) would weaken the writing?
I run into the problem fairly often. Here are two examples:
In my Cyberstorm, Sheriff’s deputies looking for a car ask an older woman in a somewhat run down neighborhood in south Nashville where her car is. She says, “My nephew took it off to the shop. He said somethin’ about the tranny being all … uh … messed up.” The offending word is ‘tranny’ which the OED flags as an offensive reference to a transvestite or transgender person. Not just offensive … very offensive. But … very much in context here. Clearly, the woman’s referring to the car’s transmission, and the dialectical use is appropriate for her age and region. In this case, not much is lost by altering or removing the offending element. It’s an incidental exchange with an incidental character. I made the change to “He said somethin’ about the motor being all … uh … messed up.” A little weaker, but not a big loss.
The second one was a little more difficult. In a novel I’m writing with others, my character Louise Napolitani shows up for a job. Weezy presents her ID at a guard station and “(s)hortly, a woman dressed in an upscale business casual blouse, slacks, and low-heeled pumps emerged from the elevator in back of the guard station. Her dark brown hair was shot through with gray, and she had the figure of a person who, as Weezy’s mom would say approvingly, took care of herself.” The offensive word here was “figure.” A critique partner flagged it as demeaning and suggested ‘physique.’ Weezy’s mom would be in her early sixties, brought up in North Boston, aspiring to be socially correct. The suggested substitute sounded odd to put in the mouth of this character, so I kept ‘figure.’
There’s rarely a clear right and wrong with these word issues. Publishers are now often providing sensitivity readers to smooth the potential micro or macro offenses. I hope our current cultural focus on how things are said will moderate to an appreciation of literary voice.