Over the past three years I have noticed a trend in American book publishing which concerns me: In fact, I find it offensive. Some publishers are using profanity in the titles and the text of their adult non-fiction books.
At this point, I want to note that I am not Cotton Mather: I oppose censorship of all kinds and support the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statements. But this is an affront not only to the English language but to the intelligence of the reading public.
When I refer to profanity being used in book titles, I am not thinking of books such as “The Damned Engineers” or “To Hell and Back”. I’m talking about words that this newspaper would refuse to print. Some publishers dipped their toes in to test the water by using the first letter of the word followed by asterisks. But by now, they’ve abandoned all pretense.
Similarly, I also have noticed publishers allowing non-fiction writers to use profanity in the text of their books. These are about a variety of subjects, such as history, politics and self-help.
In one example, I noted it several times in an otherwise excellent book about the recent presidential campaign written by two respected journalists. I want to emphasize that these were the words of the writers – they were not quoting people.
The latest Oxford English Dictionary includes 171,476 words currently in use in the English language – an intricate and powerful language which provides infinite possibilities for conveying our thoughts and feelings. These two journalists couldn’t express their sentiments without resorting to four letter words?
Perhaps they were doing it so that the really cool writers would like them and ask them to eat at their table.
Now many of you are aware that my opinion of American publishers is that they combine the business practices of Don Corleone with the standards of P.T. Barnum. What will grab people’s attention the most drives sales, and if pimping out the adult non-fiction market brings in the dollars, then many publishers are happy to do it.
Unfortunately, driven by social media, profanity inflation has been setting in for some time. When all of those words become mainstream, what will publishers do, then, for that attention-getting shock value? And what choice words will be available to us when we slam our fingers in a kitchen drawer?
Our country is polarized and angry. Is the pushing of profanity by American book publishers – who should be setting a standard – really what we need now? I think not.
It is discouraging that the same industry which once printed works of non-fiction such as Carl Sandburg’s iconic “Abraham Lincoln” now is publishing titles which have the tone of a high school lunch table. Being an eternal optimist, I hope that this trend may reverse itself. But in the meantime, it’s an embarrassment to us all.