Monday, 1 July 2013

WHO'S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WORD? by Valerie Laws

Naffing heck, smegheads! Today I’m considering swearing in books, so take a break from pinning crinolines round your piano legs or uttering paint-peeling oaths as you quote Pulp Fiction: whichever end of the sweary spectrum you inhabit. Recently, I gave an hour’s author talk/reading to an audience of 160 delightful people. They were very appreciative, and at the end, a queue of book buyers formed (a beautiful sight). One man waited patiently until it was his turn. But he wasn’t buying. He was waiting to tell me that he’d bought my crime novel, THE ROTTING SPOT, previously. He told me it’s a very good book, BUT there’s some swearing in it. (Very little, in fact.) And he wanted me to know that he didn’t think there was any need for it. I was fascinated that he’d felt the need to say it. It reminded me of another town, a group of mostly older women who listened to
my pathology poetry from ALL THAT LIVES with great attention and interest. At the end, at question time, one woman stood up and said more or less the same, about swearing in THE ROTTING SPOT.
          She said 'Older people don’t like swearing in books.' A mini-riot almost broke out, because the other older people were insulted, and they were quick to say they didn’t mind at all, if it was ‘called for’ in the story. And for the two who felt driven to make the point, there have been hundreds who have taken it in their stride or not cared.
          Now don’t get the idea the book is all effing and blinding. It’s in occasional scenes in rough wine bars, or at moments of great stress, and almost all of the book is curse-free. Though I did take a risk by having some of it right near the start. But it also has skull collecting,murder, bereavement, suffering, suspicion, violence, fear
'The Rotting Spot' by Valerie Laws
- it's crime fiction after all. Strange how offensive some people find swearing, when they don’t turn a hair at violent death. Of course different strokes are caused in different folks, by different aspects of the unholy trinity of sex, violence and swearing, or ‘profanity’ as I’ve seen it called in discussions.

          I would argue that we as writers shouldn’t fear words, powerful though they are. We are there with our chair and whip to tame the critters. To make use of them, put them to work. It’s not convincing, in this day and age, for characters who’d swear in real life, to say ‘flipping heck’, though many people now swear at higher frequency than even the most liberal of us could stand in a book; boredom would kick in even if outrage didn’t. In comedy, they’ve dealt with this by inventing swear-words, to keep a family TV audience. Ronnie Barker’s Porridge used ‘naff’ (which was originally from Polari, the fairground/gay underground language used when being gay was illegal in the UK) for all occasions. ‘Naff orf!’ and ‘naff all’ ended up as part of our language. Ditto Red Dwarf, where ‘smeg’ was the curse de jour.
          I’ve invented some oaths for saucy Lydia Bennet in LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG, who uses modern teen acronyms like ‘FFS’ which in her world means ‘for frock’s sake’.
          Why raise this in a blog about electric books? Well much has been written about gatekeepers lately, and how instead of publishers and agents, the gatekeepers of ebooks are the readers and buyers, and how this is a good thing. And it is. But can the gatekeepers use their power for censorship? I’ve seen the swearing issue and the related ones of sex, and more rarely, violence, discussed online in forums and reviews. Some US writers in particular have been very concerned about reactions of readers to sex in their books, with good reason.

'Naff orf, there's naff all swearing in here!'
I’ve seen readers’ diatribes about any mention of ‘pink bits’ (sic), recommending publishers who boast they only publish ‘clean’ books. Very telling use of vocabulary there... Ditto swearing. Reader reviews can be used to push an agenda, and one-star reviews stating the book is well-written but shouldn’t have swearing/shagging/stabbing/gay relationships in it are clearly meant to teach the writer a lesson. And crucially, ebooks can be altered after publication. I’ve seen authors (on facebook etc) asking, should they take down their book and clean it up, to please the self-appointed censors, and get those five-star reviews they crave? Should they edit their next book accordingly? I must admit I was shocked to see this, assuming that a professional writer chooses words carefully to get across what they want to say, and if that involves the odd oath, so be it. That we choose to show scenes of sex or violence to tell a story, or create characters. Of course we all draw the line at different places (pink places, even). We all have our buttons pushed by different things. I like Tarantino
Just say that again, I dare you, m*&^%$f&"£$!
movies and swearing doesn’t bother me. In fact one of the funniest things I’ve read is the ‘
Skinhead Hamlet’ by Richard Curtis. Very cleverly, even though it’s practically all f-bombs, it tells the story of the play pretty accurately.
          But other things, such as women being subjected to sexual violence in fiction yet again, helpless and degraded, I find harder to take. Sometimes it works in a story. Sometimes you feel it’s just put there to shock out of laziness. That’s one reason my forthcoming crime novel, medical thriller THE OPERATOR, has alpha male murderees, surgeons in fact, to help right the balance! This post has been very ‘clean’, so here’s another filthy but funny piece to balance that out too. Advice for authors from Joyce Carrol Oates.
          I’ve been talking about adult fiction here, though in YA fiction, swearing seems to be a no-no, as parents don’t like it and they pay for the books their YA’s read. It’s a minefield, folks. A supply teaching friend in all innocence recently decided to calm some restive lads by reading them some poetry. Too late, she realised 'The Owl and the Pussycat' was a mistake. ‘Oh lovely pussy, oh pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are...’ Poor old Lear, he’d have been smacked with a few one-star reviews for that one!

My website:http://www.valerielaws.co.uk
Twitter: @ValerieLaws
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/valaws 

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It has been on my conscience that I allowed myself to self-censor in the opening pages of "The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride". Steffi says something along the lines of "I love my dad to bits but sometimes be can be a real ****". Everything told me that someone as blunt as Steffi would use the "c" word, but every woman or girl I come across tells me they hate the word and I was pretty sure that the publisher would veto it, so I opted for "bastard". I think Steffi would use the "b" word too, so it wasn't the end of the world, but for me it lacked the impact I had wanted. It still niggles away at the back of my mind that I should have had the b***s to go with my instincts.

Andrew Crofts said...

That last comment wasn't meant to be anonymous - my finger slipped!

Dan Holloway said...

I was once elimnated from the Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Award in the second round, when you get two reviews from their Vine programme, becaue althoug one reviewer gushed praise, the other said that although well-written the book contained some swearing which was as a rule wholly unnecessary and unjustifiable except by lazy authors. I rarely get upset by reviews - I wear some of my one star reviews ("I want to erase this book from my mind. While parts of it are well-written in a lyrical fashion, this is by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read. Out of thousands and thousands of books--including more than a hundred about serial killers and psychosexual deviants--this book has the single worst and most disgusting things in it I have ever laid eyes on." - get in!) with pride, but I think judging a book by your own and not by its criteria really is a dereliction in some cases, and swearing is one of those cases.
I would have thought the question of swearing is as easy as it gets - do your characters swear? If they do, then you reflect that. If you don't, then you reflect that. Let your characters be themselves - whatever that is

Bill Kirton said...

I find the concept of a swear-free environment (except when grandchildren are listening) difficult to imagine. Also, at a recording of one of my radio plays once, an actress who was a devout Christian asked me if I'd mind her character saying things like 'Gosh' instead of 'God' and 'Goodness me' instead of 'Jesus Christ'. Out of respect for her beliefs I said OK but it obviously changed the nature of the character. Gratuitous swearing for effect is different but lots of quite normal, gentle people (as well as characters in crime novels) colour their language with little oaths and indelicacies. I did, though, have a colleague who, sadly, died earlier this year, whose preferred oath was 'Rats'. When my stepson once asked him what he said when he got really angry, he replied 'Hamsters'.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

That was appalling of the actress. It wasn't her beliefs at issue but her character's. Would she have agreed to play Goneril and then demanded the part be rewritten to make her a model of filial duty? The director should have told her "Do your job or I'll fire you and find someone who can".

julia jones said...

No time to say anything except that I'm LOVING Lydia Bennet's blog - and will say that at great length anon.

Chris Longmuir said...

When I alerted one of my readers to the presence of sweary words in my new book (she'd previously complained), she said it wasn't so much the swear words that got to her, it was the ones which took the Lord's name in vain. I must say it gave me a different perspective on which swear words to use!

Lydia Bennet said...

thanks, all! interesting experiences. I too am shocked about the actress, Bill. No writer should change words because of the habits or beliefs of an actor. I wonder if she mentions her reservations while at the audition stage... I'm thinking not. Julia, so glad you are enjoying Lydia Bennet's Blog! Going indie should free us from publishers' scruples but how much we kowtow to readers' is another matter.

Kathleen Jones said...

As a person I hate offending people who hold different views and am probably a bit of a coward too, since as an anti-theist I will often soften what I say so's not to hurt the feelings of someone I'm arguing with.

As a writer I'm just the opposite. My characters swear and blaspheme and trample all over people.
Does this mean I have a split personality? :-))

Loved the post valerie!

Lydia Bennet said...

thanks Kathleen! our characters sometimes do things we can't - my detective Erica Bruce does a lot of running, possibly because I can't.

Pauline said...

On the teaching theme, I'll never forget a moment in my early days of teaching English, when I chose to read 'Song of the Battery Hen' by Edwin Brock to a year 7 class: the wild excitement over 'chickenshit'! 'Oooh, teacher, you've said a naughty word!' But I ploughed on serenely, explaining that the coarseness was important to the idea that the poet was conveying. They got it. No angry parents contacted the school later.
Surely it's the reason we say these things, not just the words we use, that holds the key? We still have vibrant shades of meaning in English - let us protect this, even if it means foul language as well as lofty words. The most awful insult my son ever used - the other 5 year old was sobbing with the indignity - was when he called another boy a *Washing Machine*. Quaint - but said with hatred, it's as harsh a swear-word as any an adult might say.
Let’s not ban swear words – we’d lose some wonderful pieces if we did. Could Margaret Atwood have written ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ without using a naughty word? Ditto certain works by D. H. Lawrence… Even Shakespeare was not above character building by using sexual word-play – look at the start of Romeo and Juliet. Let’s make words work for us, not get precious about them.

Dennis Hamley said...

Val, how marvellous to find someone else who thinks the Skinhead Hamlet is a masterpiece. Among the ten funniest things I've ever read. I suppose that YA books are a special case. Back in the 80s somebody wrote to Collins complaining about swearing in the p/b ed of my Fourth Plane at the Flypast. Rosemary Sandberg, my editor, asked me to write a letter explaining myself, which I did, energetically. Pleasingly, she used it as a blueprint for countering future complaints. I then had a long, fractious and in the end broken-off (by me) correspondence with a Scottish woman who disapproved of my use of 'pillock', of all inoffensive words, in a book for younger readers. I stopped when she called my little book 'contemptible'. I would have answered with a rather stronger adjective but decided I'd better not. But I'm just preparing Out of the Mouths of Babes for ebooking. The original printed ed contains a a fair amount of swearing. But only one 'fuck', which I insisted on keeping in the face of editorial opposition. As I'm not marketing the ebook for YA I've decided to up the 'f...k content quite a lot because in places it really needs it. Actually, I'm quite enjoying the process. For Shakespeare's obsessive use of bawdy, see Pauline Kiernan's Filthy Shakespeare, (Quercus). You'll see the bard in a totally different light. EVERYTHING HE WROTE is filthy and explained here with scholarly but sometimes riotous clarity. Great book. Buy it.

Jan Ruth said...

Enjoyed this very much!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Valerie, I couldn't agree more. Somewhere on Amazon, a reviewer who loved The Curiosity Cabinet has subtracted a star 'because of the swearing.' Well, that's her prerogative, but I won't be self censoring any time soon. It was the F word. Donal, my island fisherman used it. And no, he wouldn't be saying 'the van's out of order.' I'm just back from the Isle of Gigha and I KNOW what he would say! And as for sex - well, just wait till the new trilogy comes out, that's all I'm saying! Bill, I'm genuinely shocked by the actress and the radio play. I assume you were so shocked yourself that you agreed, but your producer should have said a very definite 'no way'. In fact the correct term is 'RTFL' - loosely translated as 'read the lines!' But you make a very serious point. Nobody has the right not to be offended although they seem to think they have.

Lee said...

Most of you seem to agree that the appropriate use of swearing is fine in fiction, but continue to use euphemisms here. What are you afraid of? I refuse to use something as lame as 'F-word' when everyone - but everyone, even a 10-year-old - hears 'fuck'. A writer who isn't willing to offend doesn't deserve to be called a writer.

Reb MacRath said...

Fine post, Val. In the 25th anny rewrite of The Suiting, I found that I'd undergone some major changes. One of them had do with X-rated dialogue. In the original version of my book, most of the blue dialogue had been in Joual, Quebec French. So readers could look there or not look for properly filthy translations. Good idea, I still think. But 25 years ago I also used quite a few deep blues in English. And this no longer worked for me. Too easy and too common. I ended up removing or rewording nearly all of the English offenders--except for just a couple that acquired far more impact from the scrapping of the rest.