Monday, May 2, 2011

The Language Choice

“Stop!” shouted Wardle. “What in the name of all that’s—”

“Inflammable,” mildly suggested Mr. Pickwick, who thought something worse was coming.
~ Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

A much-debated subject that frequently comes up among writers, especially Christian writers, is the use of profanity in literature. I've been meaning to write something about this for a long time, because it's a subject I feel strongly about. I may be opening a can of worms (maybe 'nightcrawlers' would be a more accurate expression), but I can't help it.

I was raised in a home where profanity was not only not tolerated, but never used, so I don't like hearing or reading it. Even an otherwise well-written book littered with profanity leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak, and if it's particularly prevalent I can't finish the book. I know I can't be the only one who feels this way. Yet I'm continually surprised at how many people argue that swearing in literature is not only okay, but somehow necessary to strong writing.

There are a lot of angles to this discussion, but I want to focus on the one argument in favor of unexpurgated language that seems to come up the most often and which irks me the most - the argument that it's necessary because it's realistic. We must convey through a character's speech just how tough, evil, or otherwise flawed they are, and such characters are bound to swear. While they certainly may, I believe there are valid reasons for us not to transcribe their every word.

First, consider the reader. Not every person who picks up a book is so strongly committed to realism in every detail that they are willing to be bombarded with language they wouldn't want to listen to in real life. No one is going to toss your book aside in disgust because there is no swearing in it - but there's a good chance that many who would otherwise enjoy the story will toss it aside because there is. I don't see the point of offending potential readers with something that is of no actual benefit to a story, but simply included because the author feels its 'realism' provides artistic merit.

Which brings me to my second point. I would go so far as to argue that committing to writing dialogue without profanity is actually challenging ourselves to a higher standard of creativity. For the record, I do not think the solution is using a dash in place of the offensive words. Constantly coming upon -----ed out words is like being continually tripped while trying to run. But authors could and did manage to convey the unsavoriness of certain characters in the days before profanity in books became socially acceptable, without resorting to the blankety-blank method. It is a challenge to convey that a character is swearing without putting the words on the page, but when the writer meets this challenge it can actually add something to your work instead of taking away.

"[He] offer[ed] further remarks concerning the fellow's character and antecedents - and he neither minced his words nor relied altogether upon Webster's unabridged dictionary," wrote B.M. Bower in The North Wind Do Blow. Bower lived in the real West and had no illusions regarding the speech patterns of cowboys, yet she consistently came up with some of the cleverest and sometimes wryly humorous methods of skirting this language that I've ever encountered in a book. It's not only more pleasant but more intellectually stimulating to read that a broken spur was "something tangible upon which to pour profanity, however, and the atmosphere grew sulphurous in the vicinity of the blacksmith shop and remained so for several minutes" than to have the salty tirade spelled out.

That was Chip of the Flying U, in 1906. Bower had no choice. Or perhaps, if she was like me, there was no choice to make anyway. Today there are practically no standards, so every author has the choice to make for themselves. If you're a writer, which method will you choose?


Emm said...

I too, dislike hearing/reading profanity, and have thought for a long time that it probably wasn't necessary in solid, strong writing. A lot of my mum's books that I read growing up (such as Vanity Fair) had some liquid-papered through words. And there were also the Richard Hannay stories that she painstakingly went through one summer to sanitize for me -- not knowing that I'd read them months before. :)

I will admit I do find it very enjoyable to see how some authors convey to their readers that a character is using words unsuitable for our innocent little ears (Or shall I say, eyes?).

Thanks for addressing this, Elisabeth. It needed to be said.

Lynn Benoit said...

I agree. Sure, swearing happens in real life but that doesn't mean fiction has to mirror it. And indeed, a good writer can express the true meaning of a character's dialogue without profanity in a way that mindless swearing cannot.

H. Scott Dalton said...

Well put, Elisabeth. To be sure, I've read a handful of stories that might have lost something without the swearing--but those are few and far between, and not the stories that I remember and read again and encourage my children to read.

My own rule of thumb is not to write anything I wouldn't let my children read. I don't use profanity in my writing. It's good to know there are writers who still share my view.


Ron Scheer said...

Reading a lot of B.M. Bower era western fiction, I've noticed the various ways authors skirt around this issue. Now, as then, word choice depends on the audience. A reader looking for sanitized fiction needs to be accommodated if you want him/her to read what you've written.

I only weary of gratuitous profanity of the most ordinary kind, since it suggests a lack of imaginative effort on the part of the writer.

Cowboys, however, were known for their particularly inventive and humorous use of profanity. I have to say that any effort on the part of a writer to portray that entertains me to no end.

Christina Lucas said...

I've struggled with this a lot in my current wip. I think you just made some very good points as to why maybe my novel can live w/out the F-bomb. Great post! Thanks.

Raising Marshmallows said...

I haven't used profanity in my writing...yet. I've read books where it works, and I've read books where it doesn't.

Earlier books were written mostly in past tense. It's easier to censor the f-bomb when narrating something that has already happened. Present tense, the character's dialogue has to be more accurate. Sometimes dancing around the word is worse than using it and moving on.

Marian said...

Your post sums up my thoughts perfectly. I get uncomfortable when characters swear; and if there's particularly strong language, I'll give up on the book altogether. I hear enough of it in public already; the last thing I want is to find it in a book.

Besides, as many great Victorian authors have shown, bad language/profanity is unnecessary to a good book. And like the example you posted, one can always use "tell" instead of "show" if there must be any mention of swearing at all.

Carradee said...

"No one is going to toss your book aside in disgust because there is no swearing in it"
Actually, I've read of people who do.

I'm another one in the "I don't swear in real life" club, though I know more foul language than I care to from my brother's reaction to frustration or pain.

I'm also a visual learner from words, particularly typed monochromatic, so I have to make sure I don't read an excessive amount of swearing, unless I want to stop thinking and perhaps saying it.

However, I have much bigger issues with blasphemy than swearing. Blasphemy will make me toss a book aside far more quickly than some crass language, but it also depends on how it's used. Many authors, you can tell that they use the language because it's "real", without considering what the best way of incorporating it would be.

I'm a fan of a few authors who never blaspheme and rarely use crass language. One such author has a book series with a character who's incredibly foul-mouthed, and you as a reader remember him that way—using vulgar demeaning terms for women, even—but if you read through the series and look at what's actually on the page, you can see how the author creatively lets you know what was said. There's still an occasional swear, but the author obviously thought before deciding to include it.

In my own writing, I prefer the creative methods of describing swearing, but I've found a few places where they don't fit. I'm still prayerfully considering how I'll handle those cases.

Elisabeth said...

Thank you so much for the comments, everyone. I've really enjoyed and appreciated reading them.

elkjerkyforthesoul said...

Saw your comment on Kindleboards under the "clean reads" thread and I agree with you and enjoyed this post. Especially like the quote about humorously working around the bad language.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Thanks for visiting - I appreciate your comment!