Monday, 24 June 2013

Writers Who Swear

There have been some hilarious comments flying round the blogosphere recently about swearing and obscenity in fiction, particularly with regard to Young Adult and teen books, though also in wider terms.

I write for Young Adults as well as adults. But my books are generally historical, so the old 'Should this character swear?' issue doesn't tend to come up - except when it's a question of blasphemy. Though 'bloody' is commonly considered to derive from 'By our Lady', yesterday's blasphemy being today's swear word.

My personal take on the use of swearing in fiction is that, with notable exceptions, it should be used very sparingly indeed, if not sidestepped altogether. The swear word, in most cases, has been weakened by over-use. So to use them frequently is to weaken your narrative.

And before I am bombarded with exceptions, just because an occasional writer has produced an excellent novel riddled with invective - see 'Trainspotting' by Irvine Welsh - not all writers are equal to the task of making swear words seem right and natural in context. This is because few novelists enjoy genuine mastery over the English language, and those who do are extremely unlikely to throw 'fucking' into their sentences on anything like a regular basis.

It might work sporadically. A sudden, unexpected expletive can be marvellously well-placed, going off like a bomb in the middle of a dinner party. Hilary Mantel does it to good effect in Wolf Hall, for instance. Though even there it's 'fucking' used in its proper sense of 'having sex with someone', not as a mindless adjective, i.e. 'Have you read that fucking book?' A true stylist knows he or she is on to a loser once the characters have taken over the swear box.

"I am not offended by swearing. Just annoyed and bewildered that writers, of all people, should feel it necessary or important or amusing to encourage the use of swearing."

I also object to books/tweets/blog posts which promote the view that swearing is 'cool' and acceptable, that it makes you one of the gang, or more attractive, or more of a rebel, or somehow more real. If adults choose to swear, well and good. I swear all the time, I cannot deny it nor am I embarrassed by it. But if teens swear, it's usually because they have no more creative way to make an impact. Should we be encouraging that failure?

To be clear, I don't subscribe to the popular view that writers have a responsibility to improve people with their books. That's a very dangerous attitude. Writers should only have a responsibility to themselves, and possibly also the language in which they are writing, for language is our working medium and should be protected as well as stretched.

But our responsibility to language can extend to giving younger people an example of how to make an impact without using expletives. The best fiction for teens should model how to be eloquent, to use rhetoric, to employ intelligence and wit in conversation and writing, rather than fall back on those tired old workhorses that we call rude words.

I'm not sure why I feel so strongly about this. Perhaps it's my training as a poet that objects to lazy writing, to the liberal peppering of books with words that have lost all true meaning or significance. But whatever it is, I am not offended by swearing. Just annoyed and bewildered that writers, of all people, should feel it necessary or important or amusing to encourage the use of swearing.

This blog post is not going to be popular. It's neither amusing nor particularly entertaining. It does not contain large numbers of obscenities. It's unlikely to win me new followers or retweets. But what it lacks in slickness and social media-savvy, it more than makes up for in truth.

"The best fiction for teens should model how to be eloquent, to use rhetoric, to employ intelligence and wit in conversation and writing, rather than fall back on those tired old workhorses that we call rude words."

Fiction - so sorry to point this out to those who have been labouring under a delusion - is not about verisimilitude. It's not about 'keeping it real' or holding up the mirror to life. That's non-fiction.

Fiction comes from a Latinate word whose root means 'made' or 'created' in quite a physical sense, like kneading dough or making a chair. Fiction is 'made up'. It's real life, but far better organised, with the boring bits taken out. One of which is constant swearing.

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