First, I’d like to share some good news. Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact just won SIBA’s YA book of the year award! I am, as you can imagine, pretty thrilled.
Now to business.
Or should I say, now to f***ing business?
I just finished Scott Lynch’s truly wonderful The Lies of Locke Lamora, a novel recommended to me by several readers of this site, for which, much thanks. This was one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in a long time: gripping, funny, complex, moving, the works. It made some of the best use of world building I’ve ever seen in fantasy, and worked with subtlety and economic grace at the sentence level. So: two thumbs up.
It’s also extremely profane.
I was caught off guard by this initially because the story begins when the protagonist is a child, so the casual (and vivid) f-bombs and the crudely referenced body parts and human activities, gave me pause. I’m pretty tough to offend, but I generally assume that ‘foul language’ needs to have a purpose, even if that purpose is simply comic. If it feels like merely a shock tactic, a pale snatch at an intensity the author can’t otherwise deliver in prose, or a thin reach for ‘realism,’ I’m going to get bored and irritated.
In this case, I got used to the profanity, but I was two thirds of the way into the book before I started to understand its purpose. I don’t want to give too much away, so let me simply say that the story follows a young and clever thief through a particularly devious and deadly affair while interweaving the narrative with flashbacks to seminal moments in his past training. Much of the story—especially at the beginning—is picaresque. We are entertained by Locke’s deceptions, successful and otherwise, as he fights to make a living against the dark and dangerous backdrop of the city in which he lives.
Some of the key to the profanity is in that danger which ratchets up in shocking and graphic ways a little over half way through the book. There were deaths depicted early, but I was surprised by how far the author was prepared to go, so much so that I had to rethink what kind of book I was reading. While the beginning is playful (even with that dark background) the latter part of the book has an altogether different kind of grit, a different brand of suspense that comes from knowing that the book is not going to pull its punches.
That’s where the profanity comes in. All those Not-For-Young-Ears expletives made me realize that while I had been taken in by the initial lightness of the book (much as Locke’s various dupes were taken in by his cons), the darkness had been there from the start. It was part of the story’s world, a world where bad things happen to good people, people we like, a world whose harsh realities shape the people—including the children—who live in it.
One of the danger that fantasy fiction always runs is that it can easily become too fey for its own good, that it loses its grip on reality and becomes mere diversionary ephemera. There are various ways to keep your novel anchored in some form of reality, and profanity is one of them, because it sounds all too real and familiar. Most of us—let’s be honest here—use it, at least in private, and we all hear it constantly. To deliberately leave it out of our fiction, therefore, needs as much justification as to put it in.
TV (especially US TV) is circumscribed by all kinds of censorship on this subject, but good fantasy and scifi often finds ways around such institutionalized delicacy. Why the frack shouldn’t it? How can you expect your viewers to believe in your gorram show if they never get to hear a single (insert muttered Chinese phrase here) curse word?
I don’t want to get into moral arguments here, and there are obvious provisos about the scale/frequency of how you might use profanity, or about the age of your readers (I don’t use real profanity in my middle grades books, for instance), but this is a serious point. If our characters are never profane, how can we expect them, their world and their problems, to seem real? Profanity does not necessarily make a book better, more earthy or whatever, but I do think you need a reason NOT to use it in your writing. Whether it’s right for you and your story is your call, but you need to consider it.
And since I began with a bit of good news, here’s a bit more, and a bargain for those MW users who check in today. The re-imagining of Shakespeare’a play, Macbeth, a Novel, which I cowrote with David Hewson and contains a discrete sprinkling of profanity, is today’s Kindle Daily Deal!
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