In Defense of Indefensible Language
Recently, I was engaged in an interesting online discussion about the merit—or lack thereof—of foul language. I am not, I should hasten to add, a big fan of swearing in general, though I’ll admit to letting more than I’d like slip under pressure. (Hey, I’m working on it!) But having been raised in a strict New England home where a mere shut-up could get you grounded, I’ve tried to instill the importance of proper language in my kids. I certainly don’t encourage it as conversational habit.
That said, as a novelist dedicated to authentically re-creating certain moments and places in history, there are times when I feel compelled to curse. For my first novel, the cursing was less copious than creative; set in China, it utilized slurs like steaming ox vagina which—while unsettling visually--I still found sheepishly thrilling, simply because they were kind of brilliant. (I mean, who thinks up stuff like that?)
In my more recent novel, though, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I was faced with a different situation. The novel is set against the Pacific War, and tells the story of the Tokyo Firebombing from both Japanese and American perspectives, including Japanese and American military men. As everyone knows, soldiers and sailors and airmen curse—a lot. On the Japanese side, at least, the cursing was minimal—in part because Japanese (unlike Chinese) is a language relatively devoid of real curse words. Slurs and expletives tend to be related through tone and expression rather than actual vocabulary.
On the American side, however, almost every source I consulted confirmed that these guys used swear words kind of the way they used oxygen. They peppered them into everything—from ammo checks to passing the salt at mess. It wasn’t the way I’d like to talk as a writer or a mother (or just a fundamentally articulate, considerate human being). But as my interest lay in re-creating the world of a soldier/sailor/airman as accurately as possible, I felt I didn’t have much choice. So for those sections in which my characters were training, flying huge bombers off of tiny ships, bombing cities and [spoiler alert!] crashing in enemy territory, I had them curse up a blue streak. I was even kind of proud of myself, as a non-swearing kind of woman, to have been able to rise to the occasion.
Which is why I was a little surprised upon reading some of the feedback on sites like Goodreads.com, in which a few readers expressed discomfort or even disapproval with my use of swearing. Several reviewers said they “hated” the cursing and found it upsetting enough to be distracting; one reviewer even expressed surprise that I was a mother (!) Such reactions bemused me. Was I supposed (I wondered) to write/fight a war with soldiers who spoke as though they were at Sunday School while under fire? Wouldn’t that be distracting to anyone who knew better—which was (one assumes) everyone?
I took the question to a forum I sometimes visit with other authors, asking them about their experience with cursing in their writing. I found that they had various responses to it. Most had encountered the issue on one level or another, though many were able to write around it (as I mostly did in my first novel) because they were writing about people cursing in a foreign (or even ancient) language. Some, however, felt as I do-that our jobs as writers is to recreate worlds as accurately as possible, even if that makes the reading experience less comfortable. Others, though writing about Americans who would naturally be expected to be foul-mouthed in certain scenes, still refrained from using “offensive” language because they don’t want to distract or upset their readers. It was all certainly food for thought—especially given that of all the potentially-disturbing things covered in my novel (war atrocities, personal betrayal, infidelity, mass bombings of civilians) profanity hadn’t even occurred to me as being on the spectrum.
But it did raise some really interesting questions on what we write and read for. Is it, in the end, for mere comfort and pleasure? Do we read simply to confirm our sense of how the world should be? Certainly, reading a sanitized version of the world as we know it is probably comforting to some. But for me, a good book—like any good piece of art—is one that not only illuminates and inspires but also disturbs. It’s one that pushes me past my comfort zone, into places where I’m forced to question my own assumptions and those of the world around me. An example for me (which I’ve written about for the excellent blog BookRiot.com) is the novel The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. It’s an exquisitely-crafted work with truly transcendent moments of poetry and writing. It also is a searing account of rape and incest—things I most certainly am not comfortable with—am, in fact, far less comfortable with than simple cursing. In fact after reading the book, I was stunned—and have continued to be, pretty much every time I go back to think about it. But at the same time, I am amazed by how much beauty, love and simple hope there were in those pages—and even (perhaps unbelievably) in that one unthinkable scene. For me, it confirmed Morrison as a master writer of our times—and the novel as a reading experience that mattered all the more--because it made me profoundly uncomfortable. It made me squirm, and even kept me up for a few nights. But to be honest, I wouldn’t have changed a single word.
All of which is not to say that those who find cursing problematic in fiction are wrong to feel the way they do. Another thing I love about books, after all, is how profoundly personal they are as an experience; how every one is entitled to their own perceptions of what they read, and to evaluate that experience in their own way. I also love the dialogue stems from having different opinions about our reading experiences—for in many ways, in the end that’s really the point. We may not agree about things like structure, character development, plot or language—but even in disagreeing over them we are (as E.M. Forster famously said once) “only connecting.” Without those disagreements, both reading and writing would be empty exercises in agreement and mutual satisfaction. Maybe that’s even how some people would like them to be—which (again) is bloody well fine by me.
For my part, though, after giving the subject fairly significant consideration, I plan to keep on swearing away where it seems right to me—at least in my books. Hopefully, a little less in front of my kids.
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Monday, June 10
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