Profanity in Literature

Profanity and shit in literature……

Someone asked me why there is so much profanity in my writing.

“Fuck you,” I replied.  Not really.

Mostly, I strive for my writing to be authentic.  In the real world, people swear.  If writing is a representation of the real world, why wouldn’t it have profanity?  Not only do my characters swear, but there is a liberal dose of four letter words in my narratives as well.  I have never been a fan of “proper”.  Some writers strive to elevate the discourse and, in doing so, elevate society with their art.  Good for them.  I strive to muck around in the viscera and entrails of our human existence and, in doing so, celebrate the very imperfections that make us fascinating.  Maybe some day I’ll write something with a seventy year old, British etiquette teacher as narrator, and I’ll refrain from the profane…..although I already imagine her muttering “fucking kids today” under her breath.

If good writing is about finding the exactly right word, then removing profanities from consideration is taking a bunch of arrows out of the quiver.  People, and characters, don’t have “Oh darn!” moments.  They have “Oh shit!” ones.  Some times characters don’t make love or have mad passionate sex.  Some times they just fuck.  In real life, teenage boys swear like longshoremen.  Longshoremen swear like longshoremen.  If you have a seventeen year old male character who says, “darn,” I call bullshit.

I have been told that the presence of profanity in my work will restrict my audience.  I’m okay with that.  Someone who will not read my work because of the presence of the word “fuck” would probably not like my work even if I changed it to “flip” (I’m from Utah.  Flip is the Mormon F word).  Shakespeare, for his time, was lewd and very profane.  He seemed to have a decent career.

The use of profanity demonstrates a limited vocabulary and a lazy writer.  That’s another argument I’ve heard.  I briefly considered going off to count all the words I know.  Then I said “fuck that.”  Occasionally, a character may defecate (see?  that’s a big word), but more often they’re going to take a shit.  As for laziness in the writing, every “fuck” or “shit” or “damn” in my work received the same consideration as every other word.  They are there because I thought they were the best choice. 

I don’t use profanity for shock value.  There are many instances when the absence of profanity would be more shocking.  Faced with, say, someone backing into your brand new car then driving away, few people would say, “Gosh.  You’ve damaged my automobile and quite perturbed me.”  I salute anyone with that much restraint.  Most of us would launch a screed (see? another edumucated word) involving a whole bunch of “motherfuckers” and new profanities we made up on the spot.

The presence of profanity in literature is not for everyone.  I’m cool with that.  Am I going to remove it from my writing?  Fuck that shit.

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13 Responses to Profanity in Literature

  1. “But what about the children?”
    All I can say to them upset at linguistic uncouthness is watch ‘The Departed’ or ‘Goodfellas’ on network TV and tell me the edited version doesn’t sound completely motherfuckin’ wrong.

  2. Rob says:

    There’s been some science that suggests swearing during a painful makes it easier to take the “ouch.” However, it doesn’t work as well on people who swear frequently.

    My problem with the overuse of profanity is that the words cease to be profane. I’ve heard the word “fuck,” in all of its various usages so often, that it no longer shocks. Is it how real people talk? Fuck, yeah, but the impact is gone. It’s just another wasted word.

  3. Tom Scoville says:

    Oh my heck!

  4. Kelly Gamble says:

    I love you DRL, I really do. I will say, however, I do not have the word ‘fuck’ in my novel, but only because I couldn’t find any reference to when it was first used in the same sense that we use it today. So could you please research the history of ‘fuck’ and get back to me?

  5. This made me get off my verdamnt pillar of propriety and let my character swear when he was pushed off the cliff: Thank you!

  6. Natalie says:

    Fabulous. I have swear words in my book as well, again, because they are appropriate. My characters come up with some ultra colorful new swear words as well, just for the hell of it.

  7. What can I say? Such language! I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell yous.

    From my Star Island inspired witness protection crime novel … which works better:

    “I’m Jimmy Mangino,” Jimmy said. “The guy you and your friend Donnie were sent here to whack. All I want is some confirmation. Give me that and you can go. I’ll break your hand first, the one you grabbed my wife’s ass with, but that’s a pretty fair exchange considering I’m a made guy and you should know better. Technically, I can kill you for even flirting with her, never mind being the disrespectful jerkoff you were. So, you have two options, my friend. You can tell me what I want to know, I break your hand and you can find your way out of this jungle, or you can play tough guy.” He stopped to show Albergo the .380 he’d brought along. “You do that, clam up, I’ll whack you right here, leave your body for whatever the fuck crawls through this place nights. So, who gave the order, the old man or one of his sons?”

    “Hi, I’m James Mangino,” James said. “The fellow you and your friend Donnie were sent here to stop from breathing. All I would like is some confirmation about that. Give me the information I want and you can leave. I’ll injure your hand first, the one you inappropriately touched my wife’s buttocks with, but that’s a fairly fair exchange when one considers that I’m a gangster and you, as an apprentice gangster, should know better. Officially, I can stop your breathing for even speaking to my wife, never mind being the disrespectful lout you were. So, you have two choices, my young apprentice. You can tell me what I want to know, I injure your hand and then you can navigate your way out of this reserve (not far from Portsmouth on I-95), or you can make believe you’re in the movies.” He stopped to show Albergo the .380 he’d brought with him. “Should you choose unwisely and not speak, I’ll stop your breathing right here and leave your corpse for the various nocturnal carnivorous species that inhabit this forest. So, who told you to stop my breathing, the older gentleman or one of his male offspring?”

    Oy vey …

    Great fuckin’ post, Darren. Motherfuck me, I enjoyed it.

  8. Pingback: Why Are Certain Words Profane?

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