Wednesday, August 26, 2015



Donn Taylor

            I've posted this several times over the years, but it's important enough to repeat.

            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 Literalism here would cause the writer to go unpublished or, if published, to go unread.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 of 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."

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  1. I definitely agree with your stance on language in novels and movies. The "realism" excuse is a tired one.

  2. Donn, I couldn't agree with you more--although I'm glad you're the one who said it because I certainly couldn't have been more "on target" (or eloquent).

  3. Thank you, Linda and Deborah. Reinforcement helps.

  4. As writers, words are our tools, and that includes curse words. And if you don't want to use the belt sander, that's fine, but that doesn't mean belt sanders can't be used well.

    To give an example, there's a scene in The Wire that's about five minutes long, and pretty much the only word used is f--- (and several of its various forms) and it's BRILLIANT. It perfectly displays everything both detectives are feeling, seeing, and discovering as they investigate an old crime scene, and it couldn't have been done nearly as well with any other word(s).

    To give another example, this time from young adult which isn't already peppered with swears, Mrs. Weasley yelling, "Not my daughter, you bitch!" to Bellatrix Lestrange just before their duel. Particularly effective because 1. to my knowledge, it's the only swear in seven books and b. no one would have guessed Mrs. Weasley was going to be the only one to swear in seven books.

    Swearing (or not) has always been an important part of a culture's decision, just as it's always been an important part of an individual's life choice. Beyond that, psychologists have shown that swears bypass the higher-order language processing center and come straight out of the amygdala (the "primal" emotional center), meaning that even people who are against swearing still swear in certain extreme circumstances.

    Most importantly for writers, swearing, like any other style choice, sets and reinforces tone. To put it another way, if A Song of Ice and Fire describes in great detail Gregore Clegane crushing a man's head with his bare hands, it would be dissonant and weird if another character's response was, "Well, darn it." ASoIF is not the kind of series that works even with soft swears.

    Finally, Mr. Taylor, when you discuss "modern" relations between men and women, your biases are on full display. There are many, many modern couples who, for lack of a better term, f--- and little else. I'm not a fan of that lifestyle, but I'm not going to put on blinders and pretend it doesn't exist.

    Ultimately, I think you've pulled up a straw man argument that reinforces your personal feelings on the matter. Do lazy writers use swearing to generate false conflict? Sure, but that's almost certainly one of the more minor offenses they're committing; they are, after all, lazy.

    But that doesn't mean the masters of the craft can't use swears effectively, just like any other tool in the box.

  5. I suppose it all depends who your target audience is.

  6. Ah, Sam, thanks for your reply to my opinion blog. First, you're welcome to hold different opinions on the subject. Your response begins well by citing examples you consider to be effective writing. If these are effective, though, it is because of their total narrative structure rather than the "strong language" itself. I don't doubt that some examples exist. The question about whether they could be as effective without that language depends on the extent of the writers' creative powers.
    However, if you want to refute someone's written word, you need to deal with what was actually said rather than what you think was said or wish was said.
    My actual statement was, "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 of the past millennium."
    Contrary to your claim, this in no way denies that some people do exactly that. In fact, reversion to a primitive state (or the desire to) is a major theme of early-to-mid-twentieth-century literature and culture. This atavistic longing is found not only places like Eugene O'Neill's dramas, but also in and out of art with examples varying from the Tarzan stories to the Third Reich. It still exists, and it represents the very real impulse to flee from the full complexities of human life.
    Beyond that, Sam, you would do well to avoid ad hominem arguments, particularly when they are based on wrong assumptions. What you dismiss as "biases" and reinforcement of "personal feelings" are in fact carefully studied positions worked out by a specialist in literature. They result from thought, not feeling. The straw man argument is yours, not mine.
    One further bit of advice: You have good analytical and rhetorical ability. But if you wish to be taken seriously, you need to come out from behind your anonymity--speak in your own person, take responsibility for your ideas, and show willingness to receive the best return fire your rhetorical opponents can deliver. For your development in that direction, you have my best wishes.

  7. I wrote (apparently) a 7,000 character essay first countering your points with regard to my ad hominem and expanding upon what I mean by your biases, then moving onto the various straw men, how they're used and why they're made of straw. The comment form only allows 4,096 characters, so I have to skip all that, and go straight to the stuff that's topical: swearing in fiction. If you want the whole thing, I'll gladly email it to you; it is a thing of internet argument beauty.

    I'm from a family of arguers. We enjoy it.

    Do you have a response to any/all of the following reasons to swear (I've got a few more now):

    1. Swearing can set and reinforce tone. For some genres (gritty ____, horror, etc.) not swearing would be distracting given the rest of the content and the emotional goals of the work. See, for instance, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, which became infamous for using "fug" instead of "f---".

    2. Swearing bypasses the higher-order language processing of the brain and goes straight to the amygdala in a way that other language can't. As writers, one of our primary goals is to elicit an emotional response. By abandoning swearing, we're limiting the range of emotions which it's possible to elicit.

    3. Realism. No, really, though. Whether f--- accurately describes modern couples actions (and what if, say, I'm writing about Anglo-Saxons?) the fact of the matter is that nearly all people swear, it's just a matter of degree, and people in certain cultures/professions (the military and graduate school, for example) swear a lot more than others. People have probably sworn since the first neanderthal stubbed his toe on a rock. While fiction is an illusion, there's always the matter of degree, and not having a character swear in a situation where that character would swear is disingenuous in a way that skipping the shaving scene isn't. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, fiction should be true even if it didn't happen.

    4. George Carlin cursed to combat censorship (see: 7 Words You Can't Say on TV). His position was that free speech and the right to say anything was one of this country's most valuable tenets, and the inability to say certain words in certain situations (or certain mediums) eroded that principle.

    5. The use of swears does not need to be "justified".

    6. Finally, what do you even mean by cusswords? Are we at Carlin's seven? The only one you site is "f---". Personally, I view language as a means of transferring information, and the information that's transferred is always more important than how it's transferred. In other words, to repurpose an idea from Louis C. K., saying, "the 'N' word" is just as offensive to me as actually saying, "N-----" (or, to be honest, using these dashes which most people are okay with) because the same idea gets transferred.

    Or, creative ways of not swearing. This is from King Lear, said by the Earl of Kent:

    "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, superserviceable, 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."

    I count one word in there that most people would consider a traditional cussword. Though, it's usage is literally as a comparison to a female dog, so even that's only borderline. And it is deeply offensive; it's positively vile. And that's the point. How something this vile and insulting okay, but "f---er" isn't, even though the idea being transferred is, arguably, milder.