Vladimir Putin recently introduced a law that will implement a ban on explicit language in plays and films which will result in a fine. Books that contain swearing are to be sold in sealed packages with explicit-language warnings.
I’m glad I don’t live in Russia. I’d be carrying around a lot of plastic. Done well, I quite like a bit of profanity in the books I read. There’s a reasonable amount in my own novel too. When my story Terry Taliban was short-listed in a competition last year, the judge gave it an X rating.
Note: This story contains some swearing but we feel that it is acceptable and realistic within the context of the piece.
Most of the swearing comes from the main character Terry, a homeless refugee with a limited command of English. Terry is based on a real person who used to frequent my local library and he actually spoke like that. He is responsible for seven fucks and two bitches which he uses to express his desperation with life. The other two fucks occur during an impassioned argument between the narrator and her depressed husband. Seeing my story described as “obscenity splattered” got me thinking about the role of swearing in fiction.
“ But is it really necessary?”
Anne Widdicombe / Mary Whitehouse types will always twiddle their pearls and ask this question.
I’m not sure what it means though. Lengthy descriptions of thunderstorms or sex scenes between couples in their seventies aren’t necessary in books either but if they add something to plot, character or themes, then surely they have a place? In the correct context, swearing can say a lot about a character and can make for naturalistic dialogue.
I recently read Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, an extremely funny book, where swearing is used to represent the main character Jim Dixon’s frustration and unhappiness in his job as a lecturer. Jim’s thoughts are peppered with insults about his boss and his colleagues.
“You wordy old turdy old scum, you griping old piping old bum…”
“The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation”
Words like turdy, bloody, bum and crap seem very mild nowadays but were considered fairly naughty when it was first published in 1954. For me the above are excellent illustrations of playful and creative use of swearing. They are examples of good, not bad language use.
Swearing for Effect.
Effing and blinding in books in order to shock or to be funny or to create hip and cool characters can sound forced and grate on the reader if over done. I did this myself in the early drafts of my novel until a good editor pointed it out to me then I cleaned up my act.
Does it depend on genre?
It could be argued that some genres of fiction, for example modern crime and horror, justify swearing more as these novels paint worlds that are gritty and life- like. I’d go along with that but then there are exceptions, the crime writer PD James for example. Her books are pretty much swearing free but if I remember well her murderers tend to be upper class.
Young adult novels are an interesting one. Teenagers have a prolific and experimental interest in swearing but if a YA writer represents that in their work how does it get past the gatekeepers before it gets to the reader, i.e. the librarians, the booksellers and ultimately the parents who hold the purse strings to buy the books?
Does it depend on class?
Traditionally it’s thought that the working classes are the most prolific cussers, but an article in Time magazine last year found that the upper class are equally as foul-mouthed.
Interestingly, it seems the lower middle classes swear the least because as social strivers they need to maintain a respectable moral facade to get on, but the upper classes, having already secured their place in society, swear all day for Queen and country. But then I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any depictions of foul-mouthed upper class characters in modern fiction and I can’t come up with any.
People who object to swearing in fiction usually object to swearing in life. The ones I have come across often tend to be older or religious and often both. Stephen Fry has interesting things to say on the subject. Here’s a clip of him luxuriating in the joys of swearing. Have a look. He’s fucking funny.
Two Top Cussers.
“The fact that you use the term “cunt” in the same breath as “sexist”, shows that you display the same muddled, fucked-up thinking oan this issue as you do oan everything else.”
Irvin Welsh, Trainspotting
Dirty Herbert was a main man when it came to liberating the swear word in fiction. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was put on trial for obscenity in 1960 thirty years after it was written. It contained a number of fucks and cunts but escaped a not guilty verdict and was a landmark in terms of censorship for sex and swearing in novels.
My novel, The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan is currently available on Amazon on Kindle promotion at 99p. http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCIQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.co.uk%2FThe-Relative-Harmony-Julie-OHagan%2Fdp%2F1781331227&ei=HctuVd3EJ7GP7AbW-ICQDQ&usg=AFQjCNGkjw-O6ffZIQCwndOyV7sYWLDrOQ&bvm=bv.94911696,d.ZGU