Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Dash it all, Pelinor!" Or: Cursing In Literature

I love how topics, like fashion, recirculate every little while. I hope we've learned to drop the topic-version of harem-pants and tie-dyed tops, but there are some subjects that can stand a re-hashing. Back in June of this year, Abigail Hartman wrote a very well thought-out post on the subject of swearing in her novels. In Hartman's words:

When a word comes to mind as admirably suited to a piece of dialogue, do you go ahead and write it, or do you hurriedly shoo it out and substitute something that, let's be honest, is always rather stale by comparison?
Bad words are for bad things.  When your wife is murdered, when you come up against a blackmailer, when your rival's about to win the man you love, when you've just been played for a fool, "oh bother" is not the first thing that springs to your mind.  Maybe we as the authors don't condone it, but we don't have to sermonize about it (that's even worse than not using the word in the first place).  We ought to write with understanding and compassion for the nature of man in all his God-made glory - fallen glory, yes, but glory all the same.  That includes the imperfections and the red-blooded passion of the real world.
At the time, I was not terribly active on the blogs, being in the middle of finishing "final" edits for Anon, Sir, Anon and traveling all around the country, but I remember being in possession of a feeling akin that shared by Mrs. Banks:

"Oh George, you didn't jump into the river. How sensible of you!"
This post I am now writing is intended strictly for a discussion of language in literature. In my day-to-day life, I don't curse and barely even use words like "crap". This has more to do with the fact that I despise sounding common and I live in a town of rednecks who use those words in place of adjectives. Frankly, I think cursing makes one sound less intelligent. I am not making any statements as far as the morality of using "damn" or "hell". Those words are of a different ilk than the Famous Four-Letter Furies which, I believe strongly, you can do without. Those four-letter words are understood by everyone in everyplace to be used to intentionally hurt a person or, simply, to be crass.
But "hell" and "damn" are in the Bible and if you want to argue logic, "hell" and "damn" are both very effective curses. It is definitely wrong to say "damn you" or "go to hell" as directed toward a person, because that is a very serious invocation and God's word says that Jesus himself was not willing that any should perish. In cursing at someone, you are telling them you'd like them to be Satan's property forevermore and that is hideous. But likening the pain inflicted by stepping on a Lego in the dark to the pain inflicted by a lake brimming with fire is probably quite honest. I know that my human concept of ceaseless pain cannot get much worse. All the same, most people's minds don't dash to logical arguments when they hear a curse. When most people say, "Damn," they are just being sloppy, crass, or offensive. Therefore, I abstain.

As regards "hell" and "damn" in literature, however, I was conflicted for a long while. Was it terribly awful of me to include a word like that? Would I alienate readers? Would I do harm to someone's sensibilities? I've realized the answers to these questions are, in my experience: No, perhaps, and yes.

I will always do harm to someone's sensibilities in my writing. I cannot help it. That is the charm of being an author who can't possibly please everyone at the same time. I may write about the breeding habits of sardines and some reader somewhere would be displeased that I hadn't mentioned their aquarius habitat and natural coloring as well.

 As for alienating some readers, I had to go to war with this subject (friendly war, but war) when my editor went through Anon, Sir, Anon. She noticed the occasional language in the book, mentioned the fact that it might rub some readers the wrong way, and questioned my choice in using the hells and damns. The thing is, when I use "language" in my writing, it always serves a purpose. I don't drop the world "damn" in a Mark Twainian fashion (i.e. because the word 'very' is too weak), but I will use the word when it serves its purpose and forms a connexxion between the reader and the story world. If I truly believe that my job as a writer is to bring to life an existing world of a story, then that existing world will have evil people in it as well as good. It must, or you'd have no story. I must be true to those people--the evil and good--and portray them aright.

You might sit and frown that the d-word has slipped into the most heated argument of the novel, but perhaps you aren't quite perceiving the whole image. The character who used that words exists...and I am portraying him to you. What if, dear reader, I have censored a good deal of, say, Michael Maynor's language and left you with only a pale grey "damnation" out of the blackness of his brew? Surely I've dealt more fairly with you than with him? Real-life villains are assuredly not content with "Oh blow," or Farnham's "bang," and if you've any sort of fondness for reality, you'll realize the implications of cutting it away. Certain characters are meant to turn your stomach. I am not the author to turn to if you're looking for a villain who is only grossly misunderstood and not evil at all, really. My villains are villainous and come with their villainy partially intact.

"That's all very good and well, Rachel, but I heard Dr. Breen swear and I was really shocked. I thought he was a good guy."

Again with the characters. Dr. Breen, if you cared to notice his history, is a man who has lived a bachelor's existence and is really quite ill-learned in the art of behaving around women. He tries to modify his tone, his language, his actions around Vivi but the reality is that the doctor is a roughened-up, stout-hearted Catholic man with a fondness for his drink and his friends. He is neither as conscientious as Farnham, nor as level-headed. It is in his character to be blunt and with that bluntness comes the first words at hand. If Breen uses one of the duo currently under inspection, it is because Breen as a real man would also use them. (Also, can one of my British friends please tell me if "damn" is considered swearing in the UK? I have heard that it isn't and from its common usage in nearly every British classic I've read--old and new--I would nearly believe that rumor.) I would even venture to say that if Breen used "damn" quite cheerily, he'd still be playing true. But for the sake of some of my younger, gentler readers, I cut out some instances.

Someone or two advance-readers took exception to Farnham's habit of saying "bang" in place of a more common curse-word. I can only imagine what the few uses of "damn" did to them, but I'll address "bang" now. I am curious about whether the persons who objected to "bang" would also object to saying, "Blast," "Snap", "Crumbs", "Golly", "Shoot", "Fiddlesticks", "Crikey", "Darn", "What the heck", "Crud," "Criminitly", "Dash it all", "Oh my stars", "Great Scot" and any of the other phrases that so pepper my own speech. Do you never invoke anything at all, be it the revered name of chocolate pudding as Katie so memorably did? Farnham, of course, never does anything in the common vein so he invented his own expletive. Certainly he meant something stronger when he used "bang", but what do you mean when you say "Oh blast. The tip of my pencil broke."? I really am curious, not trying to mock you.

On the flip side, I had some readers say that once or twice, they thought "damn" would have fit better than "bang" in a moment and that my use of the milder term felt awkward. Of course it does. So does "blast", when you're trying quite hard not to let fly the realio-trulio yellow-eyed owl. Farnham's essence is awkward chivalry and he tries especially hard to be clean-cut in the presence of some particulars.

In laying out my views on the subject of cursing, I don't intend to argue anyone off their stance, or even defend my uses. Really, I am writing on this subject for conversation's sake. In fact, if you've thought out your opinions on the matter and want to do a post in response, I'd love to chat. (Or if you have no inclination but still want to chat, the comments sections is always receiving.) I was not as succinct, scholarly, or compact as Abigail in my post on questionable words but am I ever? Just as I am true to my characters, I'm true to myself. You'll get nothing but the real stuff from me.


ghost ryter said...

I pretty much have the same view as you. There are vulgar four-letter things, and then there are curses. I use both sparingly in my writing when there is need, and in certain instances I'll do the ol' b---- thing. This is, as a side note, one of the advantages to writing fantasy--you create your own cuss words!

Anonymous said...

Good points! I pretty much feel the same way you do; it all depends on the character. This also reminds me of a post author Maggie Stiefvater wrote one time, where she said, "If I’m using them in a novel, it’s because I’m trying to tell you something. I’m trying to make you feel something about a character that I don’t think I could pull off as effectively in a different way."

When you think about it, swearing's pretty weird anyways. Especially because we've made up most of them, and the huge taboo that comes along with them, in the first place.

Rachel Heffington said...

ghostryter, that is true! In a fantasy world, people needn't use exact this-world language. ;)
jenna, quite right! I can't tell you how many times my antiquated vocabulary has got me in trouble because I've accidentally said a word that people regard as "bad" now. And some of the words are entirely made up! It's true!

C said...

I do really have some thoughts on this matter, but I'm not sure where to start. Gaah, person this is a conversation for when we talk in person, someday. I'm much better at in-person discussions, you know!