Are we done with the profanities in book titles yet?

Illustration: Slate

Without Bullshit here, analyzing why so many book titles now have obscene words in them.

Get your hypocrisy giggles out of the way, first. This is a serious analysis. If curse words offend you, don’t read on. (If that really is you, how did you even get here?)

Take a look at any bestseller list. Right now, in the New York Times Advice and How-To list, Mark Mason’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (asterisk in original) is Number 1, and You are a Badass is Number 5.

There are countless articles about the phenomenon. Here’s Slate’s Ruth Graham:

Part of what’s driving this trend might be that foul-mouthed book titles tend to fare better in online retailers than they do in bookstores. Titles like Knight’s can pose problems for brick-and-mortar bookstores, which are presumed to be family-friendly spaces. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one bookseller who took care to position vulgar titles away from the children’s section, and another who kept Go the F**k to Sleep behind the counter. They’re similarly tricky for newspapers with conservative style guides. On the New York Times best-seller list for advice and how-to books, where The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has spent 105 weeks, the title is represented as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a —————. . . .

Despite the occasional marketing hurdle, however, clearly these books are selling just fine. That’s the surprising thing about all of these supposedly irreverent titles. The premise of their humor is that they’re shocking, but they’re now so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine being shocked by them. They are “the product of a culture in which transgressing social norms has become an agreed-on social norm,” as essayist Dan Brooks wrote of the “naughty” card game Cards Against Humanity a few years ago. . . . Profanity is now utterly basic. 

I remember the book that broke the profanity barrier: The No Asshole Rule, in 2007. When author Robert I. Sutton was pitching the book, he insisted that any publisher needed to include his title, including the “asshole” — with no, shall we say, ass-terisks. I know a prominent business book publisher whose editors liked the book but couldn’t get past their fears to publish it with a vulgarism in the title. (I like to imagine the meeting they had to discuss it.) Hachette’s Business Plus imprint took the risk, and the book went on to sell a shitload, er, I mean, ton of copies.

Sutton’s justification for insisting on the title is revealing As he wrote:

To start with authenticity, when I tangle with nasty person, I don’t think “what a jerk” or “what an abusive person.” The first thing that comes to mind is “what an asshole.”  That is also the word that nearly everyone I know uses to describe these creeps, even though they may later censor it.

He also cites the marketing value of a shocking, perfectly on-point title:

[S]ince my aim is to help people understand how to spot these demeaning creeps, understand the damage they do, and how to build civilized organizations that screen-out, reform and expel nasty people, I should use language that people will remember and spread.

Sutton cleared a path for the rest of us. Prudery was no longer a problem. And in the 12 years since that book was published, profanity has become more and more commonplace and powerful for people who are trying to express themselves honestly and clearly. I think about when Red Sox slugger David Ortiz took the mic just before the first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon bombings and said to the crowd — and the millions watching the broadcast — what many of us were thinking: “This is our fucking city.” Nobody complained about the profanity. We mostly thought “God damn right!”

So now anyone can use a vulgarity in a book title. And if you talk to serious authors who have, our reasons echo Sutton’s — we do it to clearly label something that we are passionate about, and to get your attention.

That’s why I used “bullshit” in the title of Writing Without Bullshit. Bullshit is what it is, let’s call it what it is. People like that idea. A well-written previous title on nearly the same topic was called Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide. They had to dance around what they wanted to say. It might have sold better if they came out and just called it “bullshit.”

After the children’s book parody Go the F**K to Sleep sold like mad in 2011, the barriers fell.

Can you really imagine an alternate title for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck? Or The Holy Sh!t Moment? We call these things what they are now, and if we care a lot about them, what they are may need to include a word that’s not used in polite company.

Should you use a vulgar word in your book title?

Since the barriers have fallen and the bad-word titles have published, the shock value is much lower. I think there is plenty of gratuitous use of vulgarisms in titles now. And there are problems. You can’t advertise those books on Facebook. You can’t be certain they’ll be stocked by every bookstore. Some prudes won’t go near them. And, probably much worse, you will be perceived as jumping on a bandwagon.

So my recommendation would be to avoid a vulgar title if you have an equally good or better alternative — one that is true to your concept and easy to remember and share.

Put differently — don’t use a vulgar title unless you have a good goddam reason to.

The potty-mouth trend was fun while it lasted. I wonder what will come next? Emojis? Heaven help us.

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  1. Thank you for this article . . . also include article titles . If you’re a Medium user/follower you will know that profanity has increased dramatically in titles of articles. I think people use them for their immediate shock value. Many, many, many use the profanity in relation to our President’s name.

    Poor taste is never in good taste.

    I’ll share this article on my networks.