Monday, June 10, 2013

"Strong Language" in Fiction and Film



            Since one of my blogging colleagues wrote last week about the use of "strong language"in fiction, I will add my $0.02 on the subject today. My colleague approached the subject from the viewpoint of the reader, but I will approach it from literary theory.

            Every writer must decide whether he should use words that are euphemistically described as "strong language," i.e.,"cusswords" and gutter language. These "four-letter words" so dominate fiction and film conversations today that these words often are the dialogue.
I guess I've heard them all, first as an Infantry officer and then (worse yet) as a graduate student. And I've put a good bit of thought into their place, if any, in my writing. So I've come to reject the most common justifications of using these words in fiction and film.

             The usual justification is a claim of "realism." First, it’s claimed that because people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us closer to “real life” than other words. 
            Neither claim can withstand examination.
            The first confuses "realism" with literalism. Fiction is not real life: it is an artifice that creates the illusion of real life. So if the writer must report people's words literally, what excuses him from including all other elements of life? Must every fictional day begin with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow? And what about prayer? Depending on which poll one reads, some fifty to eighty percent of Americans pray every day. Yet prayers in fiction—except specifically Christian fiction—are rarely found.
            Thus, if "realism" does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.
            Further, writers are taught not to write dialogue as it literally occurs in real life. Real-life conversations wander and are likely to end inconclusively. But novelists cannot afford to write inconclusive dialogue. They have to shape and sharpen the dialog so that it reveals character and furthers the story line. Literalism here would cause the writer to go unpublished or, if published, to go unread.
            So if literalism does not apply to entire fictional conversations, why should it apply to the individual words within them?
            Similarly, the claim that four-letter words are somehow closer to "reality" cannot withstand questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative. Perhaps it once was amusing to attribute bisexual reproductive capability to inanimate objects. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd that it's no longer humorous.
            And on representing reality, let's consider the so-called "f-word." The early English (probably pre-Anglo-Saxon) from which it descends was a savage language appropriate to those savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may have accurately described physical relationships between men and women. But many cultural changes have altered that reality.
             One change was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love, popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. And in the 1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified within marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser's synthesis held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.

            The point for "realistic" fiction is this: If the "f-word" today accurately describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience the past millennium.
            So if customary justifications cannot withstand examination, the real reasons writers use "strong language" must lie elsewhere. Writers are taught that conflict is basic to all good fiction. Frequent use of “strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s narrative structure. In other words, "strong language" substitutes for genuine creativity.
            Profligate use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter Morrie Ryskind put it, "The chic are always wrong."

Posted by Donn Taylor, Author of Deadly Additive, Rhapsody in Red, The Lazarus File, etc.

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  1. As always, Donn, a cogent argument for good writing!

  2. I've often wondered how much books and film mirror "real" life versus how much "real" life mirrors books and film. I made the decision early, as a writer, to keep strong language to a minimum. I've worked in both blue collar and white collar environments and have rarely heard "real" conversations as peppered with the f-word as what I am exposed to when I go to the theater. I have found that I tend to use such language a bit more immediately after leaving the theater, however, until I settle back into the real world.

    As a reader, I'm not offended by strong language. Sometimes, in fact, it actually seems to fit nicely with the scene. More often, however, it strikes me as lazy writing.

    Regardless, I think your summing up of the topic was brilliant.

  3. Thank you, Normandie. I hope all goes well with you and yours.

  4. I hear all kinds of bad language at my job. I'd like to take a break from it during my free time!

  5. I couldn't agree with you more, Donn. I've used some of these same points but now you've added to my repertoire of responses with a couple of arguments I hadn't thought of. Thank you.