Like many kids, I heard foul language first by adults around me; with the typical paradox that if I did the same, the punishment was harsh and the assumption was that I learned it at school. Schools that I attended didn’t tolerate the use of ugly words, and for a grade-driven kid like me, not worth the trouble. (I've heard many good/bad stories about schools today, so I'm not going there). I began reading novels during my pre-teen years, around eleven or twelve. Some of the early books I read were bestsellers, like “Jaws,” “M*A*S*H,” and “Catch-22,” which contained a fair amount of profane words. It’s embarrassing now to reflect as a child I could read something and not really understand it, which led to plenty of forgettable moments when I spouted out colorful words that I had no idea were “ugly.” Though I cherish the early freedom of reading I was given, it clearly has two sides.
College opened up the rebellious part of me as happens with many students. Within a couple of weeks my spoken language degenerated into something like the old James Whitmore play “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.” Obviously, my mother was horrified when hearing me talk on the telephone with my friends when home on break. But I knew better than to swear to her, or my grandparents, kept my grades up, and later won a scholarship, so potty-mouth and all, I made it through. (I never said I was a classy student).
Years and maturity fortunately gave me restraint of public bad-mouth rants, keeping them in the privacy of my home or car for catharsis after a bad day with only occasional bad behavior my husband frowns at.
I was reading a recent review of the series “Game of Thrones” with a reference to George R. R. Martin’s books that I reviewed last year, and mention was given to the profanity (and the sexual material) in the books and the show, and that it didn’t add anything to the story. As I think about it, I agree, and it's an excellent epic. As an adult, I don’t think much about it as I read it, but I don’t recommend it for kids.
For writers, what role does profanity play in our stories? My books have some profane words that help define “profane” characters. Other writers I’ve seen have characters use profanity because it makes the dialogue sound real, meaning, if a character is on a helicopter in a gunfight, then some raw words may erupt in the moment. But does profanity make or break a story? I doubt that. It does limit the genre, and it’s understandable to me that parents are concerned about what their kids read. Like anything else in a novel, there’s no scale to weigh the integrity; there’s only reader preferences.
I’ll continue to keep respectful restraint of words inappropriate for polite society. If I had kids in my house, I’d want to set an example better than what I was in college. Authors, write what you think is appropriate; many bestsellers have plenty of profanity and many do not. The readers always decide.