Tuesday, December 22, 2015
To Swear or not to Swear
First, I want to make it clear that I don't take offense at such things easily. I'm not the sort of reader who will throw a book aside if one or two swear words slip through, no matter how much I've been enjoying it. If the story and characters are good, it will keep me hooked. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that swearing and profanities are never needed in literature, no matter how sparse or thick. Since words are well known to be containers of power, why sully your work by choosing negative or crude ones? It may be argued that they add emphasis, but so do thousands of other descriptive words that could be used in their stead.
I hate it when they are spread thickly all through the book, several times per page, with f-bombs gushing forth whenever a character opens his mouth. This is what I've sometimes found from popular best sellers I've picked up on impulse. Not only is it an overload of crassness and vulgarity, but it quickly gets old. Even if a character uses an innocuous word such as 'awesome' or 'amazing' in every sentence, I feel the same. The English language is vast, and this person is seriously limited in the way he uses it. Can't he pull anything else out of the bag?
Yet when they are used less frequently, or only in heated moments by characters under great stress, it still doesn't really work either. I think this is because a swear word from a character who rarely uses them hits me like a smack in the face. By the time I've finished blinking and thinking, 'Whoa, that's strong language for Fred,' my attention has been pulled from the flow of the story. It may be only a fraction of a second, but still needs to be drawn back.
I certainly get it when authors say, 'It's a matter of authentic characterisation and Mr X is a character who would swear like a trooper.' It's a challenge to get the feeling of a character across without the use of swearing, but I've often seen it done. Nobody puts in every 'uh' or 'um' a character would use in reality, so it's the same with bad language. The speech in novels has an illusory quality about it at the best of times. It's very possible to give the impression that someone is desperate, rough, cut-throat or furious without filling their mouths with foul language. Christian or children's fiction, for example, has some of the cleanest mouthed thugs, villains and desperadoes to be found anywhere, but they still work if the description and plot are sound.
During the last election, we were discussing political candidates around the dinner table. Some of our family members were put off a particular fellow because he swears. 'I wouldn't want a gutter-mouthed person as our leader, no matter what his policies are.' Whether or not this attitude is short-sighted, it would seem like an easy thing for a politician to fix if it bothers a substantial group of people. It's probably safer for them not to swear at all, if they want to pick up as many supporters as possible, and not that big a sacrifice. Sure, he has many supporters who don't mind his bad language and use it themselves. But they are unlikely to decide, 'I'm not going to support this candidate because he doesn't swear enough!' That's a ludicrous thought. He's most likely to pick up the maximum number of supporters by keeping his mouth clean.
I believe it's the same with the language used in novels. You hear people say, 'I don't read this author's books because I don't like all the swearing in them.' But it's pretty rare to hear, 'I don't read this author's books because his characters don't swear.' If you can pick up the maximum number of fans by keeping it clean, you'd be crazy not to do it.