In polite, or politically correct circles, one may refer to it as the ‘F word’.
This word first became a public literary issue after it was used in a major novel, Norma Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’, published in 1948.
Only, it was NOT.
Mailer’s publisher prevailed upon him to change this expletive; this four-lettered, description of sex, to ‘Fug’, so that it did not offend readers.
Given the fact the book is about men during a war, ‘Fug’ occurred an awful lot of times.
The result was a backlash, a cluster of criticism and discussion in literary circles. This gave rise to the anecdote about Tallulah Bancroft saying to Mailer, “Oh, you’re the man who can’t spell that word”.
However, times change.
Nowadays, the F-word has lost much of its ability to shock. Far fewer people are now offended by its inclusion in a book or, for that matter, in conversation. Still, authors often debate the role of ‘racy-talk’ in literature.
How much is too much? When have you gone too far, or not far enough?
Okay, before we get stuck with just this one word, let us consider the vast and rich palette of risqué words available, and to clarify their ‘technical’ differences. Once we can differentiate between profanities, obscenities, curses, and the like, it should be easier to determine how, why and if we should use them.
Is often used to denote an objectionable word. ‘Profanity’ literally means words that are proscribed profane – that is words described by religious doctrine. ‘Proscribed’, in this context means ‘forbidden by written order’, such as, in Judeo-Christian tradition, taking the Lord’s name in vain (that is, not in Prayer).
“For the love of God, stop complaining,” or “Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing.”
These call upon a deity, or fate, to cause harm in a visitation.
(Mild) “Damn this zipper.”
(Strong) “God Damn her.”
‘Damned’ is to be condemned to Hell.
‘Hell’ can also be a curse, “Go to Hell,” or a mild profanity, as in “Oh, Hell, the rivers polluted again.”
To swear means to take an oath, or to proclaim an oath.
Now, for anyone uncertain about oaths, (married folk take note.) An oath is a resolution or promise which calls upon a deity’s assistance in carrying it out. (Think about how many are in your marriage now!).
Examples: “God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again,” or simpler, “By God, I’ll show you.”
You can swear to bear witness, as in “I swear, you are the best cook in this town.”
These are words that denote something disgusting or morally abhorrent. (Often connoting sex). The F-word is considered one of the most objectionable, along with the C-word.
The modern inclusion of adding the prefix ‘Mother’ often ups-the-ante.
Non, or less objectionable variants of the present participle form of the F-word, besides ‘fugging.’ include, fecking, freaking, flipping, and fricking.
To be honest, I have no idea why the letter ‘U’ is so ‘flaming’ important.
‘Screw’ is accepted as of the milder, and therefore more acceptable terms. Please note, both the F-word and ‘screw’ are used, not just used, to describe intercourse, but to connote ‘Taking advantage of’.
“That Garage screwed me out of £300 for unnecessary repairs.”
Generally, words referring to both male and female pelvic areas are considered obscenities.
I like this one because this word, this term, covers a lot of bases. If it is crude, objectionable, and falls outside the aforementioned categories, you have a vulgarism.
‘Bitch’, ‘Son of a Bitch’, ‘Bastard’, ‘Jackass/Ass, Asshole’, and even ‘Crap’, fall under this heading.
Now…whether use should use, or not use, any (or all) of the above?
The literary world is divided around the use of spicy talk, which should not be surprising as our readers are equally split.
Take two ‘Tough-Guy’ authors, Lee Child, and Tom Clancy. Lee does not use any profanities in his writing. Most readers do not notice this. Whereas Tom’s books are littered with profanities…and he certainly sells a lot of copies.
Some readers may be turned off by even one, single, solitary curse word…possible? Maybe. But what is certain is that no one will buy your books purely because you use raw language. (Although at one time, years ago, they may have done so).
Does all this mean your safest path is to use no raw language at all?
Writing is a journey, and all journeys involve some form of risk. History proves some writers achieved success, or at least notoriety because they shunned propriety. Harry Caulfield’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ was shocking in its era.
As you write, look for a balance with what you feel comfortable writing, what you, as the narrator feels is right within your style for this book, and what suits the characters and the story you are creating.
What may be right for one piece of work may be wrong for another.
Okay…Why ‘TO USE’
We humans get angry. We crave precise expression and there is something about cursing and using vulgar language that works for us as a release valve for our emotions.
Who has not, at some time, experienced a moment when a string of expletives has not felt exquisitely sublime rolling off your tongue?
The same is so for your fictional characters. Be true, be honest with them. Let them have their voice.
Moreover, if you want your stories to be realistic about the settings, battlefields, bars, and domestic disharmony, well-written raw language will bring your characters to life, and give them a heartbeat and authenticity.
HOW TO USE
Spicy language works best when it’s used sparingly, or at least in moderation. That way, you preserve the element of the unexpected, which can be a pressure-reliever for both character and the reader. Aside from conveying anger or frustration, raw talk can also be humorous, in that it reveals how a character truly feels about something.
Take this line for instance: “I ate another doughnut.”
Compare it with: “I ate another goddamned doughnut.”
You instantly get a clue about this character and her relationship with doughnuts.
You may have one character who habitually uses profanity, in contrast to others who don’t. That, in itself, is a good individualiser.
If you, yourself, are not too familiar with foul language, a problem can occur when used wrongly, or as often happens with inexperienced writers, it is thrown in will-nilly. If it is used it MUST sound real. If you are uncertain, try visiting areas where this language is commonly used, construction sites, wharves, military establishments, and prisons for example. Grab a coffee in a nearby café at lunchtime and eavesdrop on the clientele’s conversations.
However, a word of warning. Even if, say a group of Miners, use an expletive every other word, it is unnecessary for you to make your own characters speak exactly that way. Just as when using dialects and accents, you must use raw talk wisely. This helps keep the reader grounded in your imaginary world and avoids the pitfalls of over-use/overdoing it.
Consider your characters, and employ common sense.
A hospital Matron, wearing a starched linin apron, may not utter a single un-PC word in public, but she may let loose a barrage in the principal’s office over a dispute, or howl out a string of profanities during sexual fulfillment.
How NOT to USE
I mentioned some writers, Norman Mailer and Tom Clancy, who chose to include bad language in their works, but they pale into insignificance when it comes to the literary genius. The bard himself, William Shakespeare, knew how to spice up his writings, and attract an audience in doing so.
He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs. (Cuss is simply a variant of Curse), in King Lear; but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion. Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:
KENT (TO OSWALD): “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition”.
Knowing the historical references helps; for example, “broken meats” means leftover table scraps. But even without that, we can luxuriate in the rant. This is a beautiful speech for many reasons: It’s forceful, it’s unique, it covers many aspects of insult, it clearly communicates one character’s contempt of another, and, important for many in Shakespeare’s audience, it avoids serious curses and obscenities.
It’s a shining example of how a writer can invent insults way more entertaining than those found in the standard lexicon.
You can do it by brainstorming aspects of your characters and their circumstances:
“He was as appealing as a baboon’s butt.”
“You are the worst thing to happen to the world since call waiting.”
“May you be condemned to an eternity of weak coffee, warm gin, and a driveway paved with roofing nails.”
By now, I think you will agree that it’s useful to explore, and even challenge, your own comfort zone.
Certainly, if it is not you, it won’t ring true. But whether you decide to write common curses and vulgarisms or not, your characters do need a verbal pressure valve. Do not use tacky asterisks to replace vowels. Just have fun with the process and remember that a ‘fug’ by any other name might sound remarkably original.
If your novel purports to reflect real life, then it must include profanity, if the life they reflect includes the use of profanities.
Let’s get real folks, you may have grown up in an era when books and movies were censored, but do you really think that in the Old West, cowboys actually said “You no-good-so-and-so,” before drawing their six-shooters and blowing holes in one another?
Did the troops, dug into their foxholes during WWII, always speak to each other in such a decorous manner?
I think not.
Some popular entertainment admittedly goes OTT in drenching dialogue in profanity, such as in the awful opening sequences of ‘Born on the 4th of July’, but that is an exaggeration, not a fabrication, of reality.
So, why do people swear?
This will not cover any unfamiliar territory. I expect every angle regarding this has been covered in every bar, in every corner of the world.
People swear because most of the profanity is emotionally charged. It can express anger, fear, sadness, joy, despair, frustration, ignorance, racism, homophobia, ageism, violence, sexism, and all the other ‘isms’ and ‘tions’ you can name.
Occasionally, a swear word can encompass all the above in a single word. That one word can grab people’s attention like no other when timed appropriately and, let us face it, very few things are quite as entertaining as listening to a person who has raised profanity to an art form.
You may disagree with those statements. I do not give a flying fug… see what I mean.
When you read that you do so as if I had written the word in full. Even though I ‘bleeped’ it out of your mind by supplying alternative details. Now your reaction was either positive or negative, depending on your personal personality. But you reacted.
As I mentioned above, nothing groundbreaking. Just a prelude to the answer you are seeking.
‘Should YOU use profanity in YOUR writing?’
Writing is a process that takes pieces of us and puts it ‘out there’ for the world to see. It does not matter if you are writing literary fiction or genre fiction. Every character, setting, plot, and sub-plot reveals a little about who we, as writers, are.
I doubt, very much, if a single day passes without you worrying about what you are writing.
(Read that again if you wish, I’ll wait.)
You see, every word we scribe invites judgment, criticism, commentary, and, introspection. When we write something which surprises us, we often, most times, question where it came from.
That is because we writers are a self-conscious group. We are often scared of rejection. But if we filtered every word, considered the perception of each sentence through, say our mothers, or fathers, minds we would write nothing. Nothing at all.
What we have, what is so special, so personal, is that little bit of ourselves we add to the mix. Some reveal themselves in the plot, some in character, but most in the voice, in the narration, in our storytelling. That is where much of our fears lie, in revealing too much of ourselves, exposing our innermost to ridicule and rejection.
BUT… if you do not add it to the mix the reader will smell you coming from a mile away. You will be small like a fake, read like a fake, and be discarded as a fake.
So, how does that answer the question about using profanities in your writing?
As a writer, you need to be true to yourself. You need to be true to your characters and voice. But don’t forget the other people you need to be true to:
Your Audience/Genre – If you forget who your audience is, for a single sentence or word, you will have lost them. If your audience demands a lack of profanity, then you had better not allow profanity to slip into your work. Not unless you are OK with alienating the very people you are trying to reach.
Your Editor – Your editor wants you to succeed. Your editor wants you…needs you…to sell books. You ignore your editor’s advice at your own peril.
Yourself – I know I have said this, but I repeat it here for a different reason. If profanity is something that you are personally uncomfortable with then you will sound fake if you try to use it, regardless of the character in question. In fact, if a lack of profanity is one of your defining personal characteristics, then your characters will sound fake if you use it. Because your characters are nothing more than an extension of yourself. An audience can smell a fake a mile away. Be true to yourself, whether that means using profanity or avoiding it.
I am not going to tell you the world is going to smell like roses after you write something that raises people’s eyebrows. Especially if those eyebrows belong to people who are closely related to you, or who travel in social groups that are important to you. But you did not become a writer to fit in, did you?
I hope not.
Your writing has a chance to entertain, to move, and bring people together.
It has a chance to shine a light on topics you care about in ways other writers have not.
It also has a chance to alienate you.
There is a chance your writing will be considered so offensive that society wants nothing to do with you. It is doubtful it will ever get that bad. Yet all writing is taking a risk. Every time you put pen to paper you are stripping down and getting naked in front of the world.
There is never going to be a time when you do not question, at least once, “should I have written that?”
Recently, I have read plentiful cursing in Stephen King novels, Nora Roberts books, and even (very sparingly) in John Grisham stories.
I have seen the use of cursing in both genre fiction and literary fiction. In some books just a little and in some a fair amount.
So, in full and final answer to the question… You are a writer. Welcome aboard the crazy train.
© Paul White 2016
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