How much swearing is TOO much swearing? Is there even such a thing as too much swearing?! Lavie Tidhar, author of By Force Alone, on sale now, dives into that question, and what “bad” language means to our concept of speech in the article below. Check it out!
I once wrote a picture book called Going to the Moon, about a boy with Tourette syndrome who wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. It starts, “This is Jimmy. Jimmy goes to the FUCKING school. Jimmy has Coprolalia. It makes him use socially-unaccepted words. Like FUCK.”
(I may have been stoned when I wrote it. It really was a long time ago).
The thing is, Going To The Moon – a book about words and what happens when you can’t control them, about bullying and dreams – might actually be the best thing I ever wrote. It was illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, who went on to be my partner on the comics mini-series Adler (issue #3 out now!), and I think only thirty people ever bought one (the publisher lost the second box of copies).
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that if language matters, “bad” language, or swearing, matters too. It is the sort of thing we try to teach children not to use while, most often, using it ourselves. It’s everywhere, in music, in films, graffitied on walls. And it’s old.
I suppose some readers have the quaint notion people never used to swear. The c-word, so offensive we call it “the c-word”, was used by Chaucer and Shakespeare. Shakespeare in particular takes absolute delight in working in rude puns into his plays, reminding us that Elizabethan theatre was set in the veritable den of vice that was Southwark, a stone throw from the brothels and the bear pits. And swearing was hardly restricted to the barbarous English. The Romans, whose absence haunts the pages of my recent book By Force Alone, swore like troopers. Just in Latin.
So when writing historically-set novels, even if they occasionally feature a leprechaun or a dragon (or Jewish kung-fu masters, or aliens), the question becomes not, “Did they swear?” but rather, “How much did they swear?”
My first novel, The Bookman, an almost young-adultish novel really, originally had exactly one instance of the word “fuck” in it – because, in American movie ratings, one instance is allowed and I thought it was funny (I cut it out in the end but I still like the joke). And I am not a huge fan of swearing for its own sake. I’ve taken to removing instances of swearing from my work unless explicitly called for. I also, as it happens, write children’s books (The Candy Mafia is out this September), and I couldn’t even use the word “fat” as a description (or, indeed, mention in passing the smell of cigarette smoke). Words and their use change over time. Where Roald Dahl takes awful delight in tormenting Augustus Gloop and his parents (Dahl’s inherent cruelty is never more evident than when he targets overweight people), today’s children’s authors must do better (and I always felt bad for Augustus, a happy child finding utter joy in food and tormented for no good reason by that awful Mr. Wonka).
I suppose I only discovered the sheer joy of sweary abandon when I got to write the character of “Wolf” (a down-at-heels Adolf Hitler who never rose to power) in A Man Lies Dreaming. Wolf’s rage, hate, and frustration were incredibly liberating! As his life gets worse and worse, the expletives come pouring out with greater savagery and emphasis. In the second half of the novel the exclamation marks multiply! It was great fun! At least for me! (I don’t think many people ever bought that book, either, though it has its fans).
So when setting down to write By Force Alone, a book about terrible people doing terrible things (which is the history of Britain in a nutshell, really), how else could they possibly speak? I may have somewhat overused the c-word, I must admit, though modern Brits do use it more freely than their American counterparts. The knights are gangsters, and gangsters (at least, movie gangsters) make poetry out of obscenity, a fact that owes a debt of gratitude to Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi more than most. Pileggi makes “fucks” sing.
In his influential essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, Raymond Chandler set down the idea plainly. How should his hero speak? “He talks as the man of his age talks,” Chandler says, “that is, with rude wit [and] a lively sense of the grotesque.”
I can’t promise I delivered on the wit, but I certainly did on the rude parts, and I’m pretty sure I did ok on the grotesque. As one rather confused Goodreads reader put it, “Swearing, some sexual scenes, violence and graphic descriptions do not make it suitable for a younger age group.” You’d think the blood dripping sword on the cover might have been a clue, too, but fuck that.
Swearing for its own sake is a pointless exercise, and you should go wash your mouth with soap (as people used to say. Do people still say that? Did it ever work? I rather doubt it). But used well, there is a wonderful theatricality to swearing, a slapstick joy like a custard pie in the face.
And if someone doesn’t like it, then fuck it.
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