Friday, October 5, 2012

Profanity in writing - guest post by client Donn Taylor

Every writer must decide whether he needs to use words that are euphemistically described as "strong language"—"cusswords" and gutter language. These "four-letter words" so dominate fictional and video conversations today that these words often are the dialogue.

I guess I've heard them all. And I've put a good bit of thought into their place, if any, in my writing. So I've come to reject the most common justifications of using these words in fiction, drama, and film.

The usual justification is a claim of "realism." First, it’s claimed that because people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us closer to “real life” than other words.

Neither claim can withstand examination.

The first confuses "realism" with literalism. Fiction is not real life: it’s an artifice creating the illusion of real life. So if the writer must report people's words literally, what excuses him from including all other elements of life? Must every fictional day begin with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow?

Thus, if "realism" does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.

Nor can the claim that four-letter words are closer to "reality" withstand questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative. Perhaps is once was amusing to attribute bisexual reproductive capability to inanimate objects. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd that it's no longer humorous.

And on representing reality, let's consider the so-called "f-word." The early English (probably Anglo-Saxon) from which it descends was a savage language appropriate to those savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may have accurately described physical relationships between men and women. But many cultural changes have altered that reality.

One change was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love, popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. And in the 1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified by marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser's synthesis held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.

The point for "realistic" fiction is this: if the "f-word" today accurately describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience the past millennium.

So if customary justifications cannot withstand examination, the real reasons for using "strong language" must lie elsewhere. Conflict is basic to all good fiction. “Strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s narrative structure. In other words, "strong language" substitutes for genuine creativity.

Profligate use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter Morrie Ryskind put it, "The chic are always wrong."

© 2000, 2008, 2012, Donn Taylor
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature (especially Renaissance) at two liberal arts colleges. His novels The Lazarus File andRhapsody in Red have received excellent reviews, and he has also authored Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences such as Glorieta and Blue Ridge. He and his wife live near Houston, Texas, where he continues to write fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.


Terry Burns said...

I make no bones about it, I don't represent anything with profanity or inappropriate material in it. You know, it's a funny thing but if I actually say something about that when I reject something people want to argue about it nearly every time. Other reasons for not taking something they seem to accept easily if not always gracefully, but profanity, they feel compelled to explain to me how wrong I am. They feel I do not understand that it is necessary for realism, or to reach a certain audience the way a more mature rating on a movie will pull such an audience in. They explain even for a Christian writer to reach out to someone who really needs to hear the message they have to say they need to write in language they will relate to. Baloney. As a writer I had people cussing in many of my books, bad men do that, but I have never used a single profane word. It is the action and the emotions that are important, not the language. A good writer can do it easily. And they should.

MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA said...

Thank you so very much, Donn, for your brilliant post. Your logic is impeccable. I especially appreciated your statement that "'Strong language' helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s narrative structure." This is a keeper quote. :) One last thing: It's about time we stop calling lazy writing realistic writing. IMHO, your post has completely shot down that argument.

Linda Yezak said...

Totally agree, Donn. Thing is, such trashy language is not a "realism" in my life. I know no one who salts their daily conversations with curse words--and if I do, they have the sense not to do so around me. Perhaps the idea that they can control their mouths ought to be considered "realism" too.