I have recently unfollowed someone for using the C word in a tweet. The offender gave a cursory apology but, in suggesting that those of us with ‘delicate sensibilities’ should ‘cover our ears’, rather belied himself.
As a writer of court reports, some of them addressing abusive and criminal behaviours and requiring verbatim quotes, I am not unfamiliar with offensive language nor too fragile of constitution to repeat it when required. In fact, in therapy sessions, when clients have no other words for something and use, let’s call it a ‘street’ word so as not to attract unwelcome attention, I will use that word myself in the interests of unambiguous communication.
But what about fiction? I’ve noticed that none of my characters is inclined to swear. They don’t use profanities any more than I would myself and they would certainly never use that word even in extremis. So am I being prudish, unreal, and disconnected? Avoiding the gritty and down to earth man-in-the-street dialogue that demonstrates urban credibility? I’m not sure. You see, I’m pretty happy with dramas that manage without it – or at least without the peppering that seems to go with some writers’ view of realism.
Like smoking, gratuitous use of offensive language (language designed to offend, not language that has been defined as offensive by some mysterious authority) bothers me as it seems to represent a laziness of thinking. I wonder what else the characters could be doing or saying if they weren’t mouthing off or manipulating a cigarette without adding anything to the story. I particularly dislike it in books because the writer is forcing me to articulate, albeit sub-vocally, a word I would not normally use in a similar situation. Critically, I notice gratuitous swearing and smoking and I absolutely don’t notice its absence.
What I also notice and find laughable are the attempts of family magazines to asterix out particular words. Our Radio Times, a bastion of British Middle English Society, does this frequently with reports of interviews in which rock, film, and acting legends feel moved to express themselves rather strongly. Sometimes I agree entirely with their use of the word and so, to see it represented by its first and last letter bookending a bunch of *****s as if we wouldn’t know what the word might be seems bizarre. More bizarre can be the RT’s decision about what constitutes an offensive word – the colloquial for excrement apparently is, while ‘arse’ is not – and so children can read about the latter but have to guess, giggle, and smirk about the former. And substitute words such as ‘sugar’ and, in more contemporary context, ‘frack’ (Battle Star Galactica) – well, what is that all about?! After a while, we all know what it represents so how is different from the word it is replacing?
What’s the deal, then, on ‘language’ in literature? Is there a difference between the way male and female writers approach this? Do some women go overboard with it as a kind of compensatory strategy? Is there room for wusses whose characters will more likely say ‘Oh bother!’ than ‘*****!’ when the ghoul from deepest Hades rounds the end of their blind alley? And, rather like the writing of scenes of intimacy, how do you convince your mates that this is fiction darn it, and not a window on your own perverse little world!
Post script: spellcheck did not argue with ‘frack’, what’s that tell you I wonder!