Fantasy Profanity

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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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50 comments to Fantasy Profanity

  • This is a g#%#@! !@%$#@ #@#!&$ fine post!

    And congratulations on the award.

  • I don’t have much to add, and I like/agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. So, to your post I say:

    Damn skippy.

  • Congratulations, A.J.!

    Hm. The overarching deity/force for the main characters in my YA is the Land, so I have a bit of fun with any contemporary conjugation of “Lord/God”, replacing it with “Land”. “Land’s sake” is one of my main character’s favourites. That said, the MC/perspective character is quite clean-mouthed herself, so when others are foul mouthed, she usually just says, “X cursed”. And a few of the characters are pretty mean-spirited, so their words are hurtful even if not specifically profane. The adult-level UF I’m working on, though, is definitely going to be a bit darker and, well, dirtier.

  • Dave,
    thanks, man!

    Raven,
    brill.

    Liilian,
    I must say I rely too much on those mild Britishisms sometimes in my writing (in WILL for instance), though I know that Americans find them quaint rather than pointed. I’ll have to consider whether this is a good thing or not.

  • Laura,
    thanks! Good point that use/non use of profanity can be a good character marker. I should have said that.

  • Great Gildorf’s balls! Interesting post. 😀 I tend to use profanity sparingly, but in what I hope are appropriate places, and usually only with certain characters. Even the intensity depends on each character when I’m writing. In fantasy and far-flung sci-fi, I tend to make up curses for the setting, but in sci-fi I’ll sometimes drop an “antiquated” word or two, again depending on the personality of the character. In UF, I tend to use damn and hell most. I rarely use the f* word.

    Course, in the steamy parts of the romances, all bets are off. 😉

  • LLL is still one of my favorite books of all time. I have the sequel and have been waiting till I have an unbroken stretch of time to read it.

    Like Raven, I agree with basically everything you just said.

    Frack yeah!

  • “Overusing profanity weakens its impact; not using it at all denies writers a powerful ally.”
    —William J. Book

    Aside from moderating its use, I have only one real rule for the use of profanity, and that it is to use it correctly. “Damn”, for whatever reason, is more often used ungrammatically than properly, even in book titles, James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel being but one example. It should, of course, be “damned”. Just because you’re cursing is no reason to ignore the tenets of the language.

    It is generally wise, too, to follow Mark Twain’s advice:
    “When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.”

  • Daniel,
    yes, as in all things, moderation is probably the best default, though moving up or down the intensity meter can have useful effects.

    Scribe,
    I just got the sequel too. May hold off till I’ve read Thieftaker though before starting. There are supposed to be more coming but there’s been a long delay. Know why?

    Wolf,
    nice Twain quote :) As to the grammar issue, I follow common usage (esp. for profanity) rather than a more abstract notion of correctness so ‘damn’ over ‘damned’ doesn’t bother me, though I see your point.

  • AJ, my personal use of profanity was brought home to me on the 4th at a family picnic when I said a Bad Word in front of the children. Oops. Time to start watching my mouth.

    However, despite the fact that I use it in common language, I almost never use it in books. I have never lost a reader by not using profanity, but I have lost readers by using it. (Key in dreary music about the first two Gary Hunter novels, full to the brim with appropriately used F-bombs and a large number of readers who complained, several times in writing, other times in person.) As I am in this business for the numbers, and scaring away readers is never wise, less profanity is better. My 2 cents.

  • sagablessed

    Light use of profanity does give a powerful tool. But, like salt or Bhut Jolokia (ghost) chili, use sparingly: just enought to add flavor without burning the reader.
    I do not recomend waiting for Thieftaker. Hel’s brittle tits, no.

  • Faith,
    that’s fair. I do think though that we worry too much about scaring readers off with profanity. Sure, it will drive some away, but unless you are writing in a genre like cozy mystery I don’t think it’s inappropriate per se, I suspect most readers will roll with it. 50 shades of Gray, anyone? But yes, add this to the things to think about before committing.

    Saga,
    well, now I have to dive in!

  • This is a topic to which I’ve given much thought already, and I’m still not done thinking. I combine linguistic profanity (i.e. “foul language”) with other profane and ugly things that can appear in fiction and call it, collectively, the “Dark Matter”, and I’ve struggled in myself with what’s the best way to portray the Dark Matter and even whether it needs to be portrayed directly at all.

    For myself, I’ve mostly been charting a path of a “middle-road” nature, with regards to linguistic profanity and other dark matters. Generally, I avoid using the words of what I call “The Greater Pantheon of Profanity”: you know the ones… the really bad ones, and especially the ones that are the most offensive, racist, and/or misogynistic. I just can’t condone their use in my own writing, because I would never condone their use in actual speech. Instead, if I think those words are appropriate, I’ll use them obliquely. Where possible, I’ll replace them with equivalent words from the “Lesser Pantheon of Profanity”: profane and semi-profane words that are less shocking, offensive, or titilating (at least to me). Words like “Crap” and “Damn” and “Hell”. (It’s hard to do this with patently racist or misogynistic profanities. The only way I could see justifying the use of such words is to make a political point about how unjustifiable I find their use… but that’s writing may way around in logic circles, I think, and where that stops I have no idea. So I try not to put myself in that situation.)

    I think foul language is only the tip of the ice-berg, in this regard. Even more vexing, to me, is how to portray profane activity: how do you portray when characters (especially Villains, in my book) not only say things that are foul but do things that are vile, reprehensible, and even unimagineable?

    I wrote about this somewhat extensively here and here; I discuss foul language first and then the broader topic second.

    In all honesty, I can’t say I have a perfect answer for this question, but I do think it’s wortwhile for writers to consider the implications of what they write. Some writers, maybe a lot (I wouldn’t know) may have no qualms about the use or over-use of profanity in their writing. But for me, it’s a real moral quandary because I try to eschew the use of serious profanity in my everyday life (try, and sometimes fail). So to me it’s been a legitimate struggle to think about how I approach this question.

  • Cindy

    Congratulations on the award!

    I going to side with Faith on the use of profanity in books. As a reader, I don’t like it. It is so seldom used in a way that is really important for the story.

  • KR1L3Y

    This is a great topic. When I was young I was told things along the line of “Profanity is the common crutch of the conversational cripple.” and “Profanity is the weapon of the witless”, so I never got in the habit of using it. Due to my lack of experience with it I don’t think I will ever include any profanity in my writing – I doubt I can make it sound natural. That being said, I don’t have a problem with it appearing in the books I read, the movies I watch, or the music I listen to, as long as it serves a purpose.

  • AJ, I have no idea why. I read the original in 2009, right when it came out. Sequel came out last year. Maybe it takes 2 years on average?

  • Stephen,
    yes, I’m not referring to words I wold consider politically offensive (racial epithets etc.). That’s a different issue for me, as is the representation of what you call dark acts. THese things have to be handled very carefully.

    Cindy,
    thanks for the congrats. Obviously, your taste is your own, but I think what I’m arguing with here is the familiar assumption that the profanity has to be important to the story to justify its inclusion. Profanity is, I think, a part of life, and that’s a good enough reason for me to include it. I need a good reason NOT to.

    KR1
    yes, I heard things like that before too. In general, I have come to believe that people’s moral concern with words is frequently misplaced, particularly since I frequently see the very people who maintain such levels of decorum in speech violating all kinds of moral and ethical principles in their beliefs and activities.

    Scribe,
    unless Amazon is wrong, the first two books actually came out in 2006 and 2007, which is why I was baffled by teh delay. Maybe those dates are wrong?

  • wrybread

    @ A.J. (and anyone else who wants to comment): Do you have any suggestions for the use of “politically offensive” words in a historical context? The reason that I ask is I’m currently writing a fantasy novel set during World War II and I’m trying to decide whether or not to have my characters use racial terms that are appropriate to the time period (“Japs” for Japanese for example), but considered offensive today. Any suggestions on how much/how little to leave out in terms of period racial language?

  • A. R. Gideon

    I only ever have a problem with profanity if it’s used to much, it doesn’t fit with the mood of the story, or if the author is using profanity replacements that are just too damn silly. To me I would rather see a character say “Holy f**k” than “Good golly gosh” lol. I have had books that I’ve fallen out of because the author would have characters curse, and it just didn’t fit their character. On another note, I personally think that profanity can be a great tool if used right. Take the movie “The Raven” for example, the one about Edgar Allan Poe. The movie has a grand total of one f-bomb, but it came in the middle of a scene where Poe is on the verge of a breakdown and the tension is starting to peak. I don’t want to reveal too much as there are most likely people who haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t I highly recommend it) but the scene was great, and the f-bomb was really powerful, not just because it was profane, but because it really showed you just how desperate Poe was becoming.

  • KR1L3Y

    @AJ – You replied “I have come to believe that people’s moral concern with words is frequently misplaced”. I hope my comment didn’t come off as describing a moral concern with the use of profanity. The people I was quoting criticized those who used profanity not due to moral issues, but due to a feeling of intellectual superiority. They felt (wrongly in my opinion) that people only used profanity due to a week vocabulary. I don’t think this is any better than a moral aversion to profanity, just different.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interesting topic. I think my allegiances in the matter are a) use the tools that fit the character. If, e.g., you’re writing about WWII soldiers, their speech should contain “Japs” because most won’t even think to speak differently. And b) use the characters necessary for the story. This tends a little bit more toward Faith’s comment. Do you really *need* such a foul-mouth MC, or could one who is less explosive or speaks more creatively be just as effective. A similar example from my WIP: I am a teetotaler by lifestyle, but none of my characters are because they wouldn’t even *think* to eschew alcohol. However, neither does my story require any of my characters to be heavy drinkers, so it’s really not an issue one way or the other. Also, writing alternate-world fantasy, things like direct f-bombs often seem ~anachronistic and, IMO, have to be placed *very* carefully.

  • Yeah, AJ, I realize for most people they’re totally separate issues. But I’ve come to view them as different aspects of related issues: those notorious “shades of gray”. I treat them similarly in how I approach them, with respect to my attempted “middle road”, which is the vein of “moderation in all things”. So I try not to use profanity, in particular, unless I think it’s necessary, and certain profanities I will almost certainly never use. Inluded in my “greater pantheon” is not only racial epithets and the like but the notorious “F-bomb”, etc. I try not to use the F-bomb in my own work where ever possible. I will likely never use racial epithets and the like. But I do recognize that those are different levels of profanity. Which is why I’ve got that “lesser pantheon” that I consider more acceptable for use in my writing.

  • rebnatan

    Why assume that all cultures, all societies, all planets are like ours, where profanity is a casual part of the conversation? This is especially the case in speculative fiction. It’s not that many decades ago where you could NOT swear in public, and it was a degrading to the speaker to use profanity at all.
    How profanity is defined has also changed. The “f” word is everywhere, but the ‘n” word is forbidden. Can you call a homosexual a faggot? A lesbian a dyke? Now granted, these are pejoratives directed at people, but they are the profanity of our day. “Alice’s Restaurant,” an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement might be too obscene for some people because of how it characterizes homosexuals. I had an editor quit on me, it seems because she was offended by my use of these words. I doubt if she’d have quit if I’d used the “f” word.
    Using the “f” word, turd euphemisms, describing people by colloquial terms for genitalia is as daring as putting salt on french fries. Real conversations can be had without them.

  • wrybread,
    good question and a tough one to answer. There are a couple of problems, I think, with going with a straight historicist take, both related to the fact that your reader is not of that period. 1. People may not be offended exactly because they KNOW that such terms don’t necessarily mean what we take them to mean now, but I think it will be harder for them to like/connect with your characters. The second problem is that if they do connect with your characters, they may also feel that such terms are actually acceptable. In other words, you have a familiar problem with writing stuff in period, when that period isn’t that of the reader. I’d use such terms very sparingly or where they fit a character who has other problems, or I’d consider finding a way for the book to undermine/correct their use.

    A.R.
    yes, substitutions that sound like censorship are always jarring to me too, even if the censorship is the author’s self-censorship.

    KR
    not at all. I didn’t think you were defending the position. My comment was supposed to be a (slightly intemperate) agreement :)

    Hep,
    I agree, though I think Wrybread’s remark is a tad more tricky because he’s talking about usage that was common and not considered offensive at the time, so it;s not just about putting such words in the mouths of bad guys. Good guys would use those terms too, but now those words will taint them.

    Stephen,
    I see what you mean, but for me the difference is one of kind, not degree. F bombs and the like I generally avoid because I don’t want to cause offense unnecessarily, but I actually don’t find the word especially offensive myself. Racial epithets, and the like, are a different order of bad, for me, because I think they promote foul thinking, not just foul language. I don’t consider myself so politically correct that I can’t imagine ever using such terms if a story seemed to demand it, or even using them with a touch of humor, but such things have to be handled VERY carefully, both because people can easily be offended and because, for me, these issues matter far more than just a curse you wouldn’t utter in polite company.

  • Rebnatan,
    ok, I guess, but as I said to Stephen, I do think we are talking about two different things here. The profanity I’m addressing is not the same as words aimed at denigrating people by race, gender or sexual orientation. Also, my point is not that profanity makes you daring as a writer, but that it represents the world most of us live in better.

  • Good discussion, one that highlights the difficulty of deciding how to approach this tricky and personal issue. This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for my WIP. It’s set in the future and most of the characters are military; based on my limited experience most soldiers cuss. At this point, though, there are so many invented curse words for future worlds I’m hesitant to make up my own. I’ve actually thought about using “frack” and “gorram” and somehow working in that these words came from old earth entertainment!

  • AJ, I couldn’t agree more. Profanity is part of common usage in the real world, so sprinkling it into our characters’ dialogue makes what they say feel authentic.

    By the way, I get tickled every time I read about fracking. For a second I forget they’re talking about natural gas and think they’re just being foul-mouthed.

  • Sisi,
    that’s a cool idea. In truth, though it could work, I’d be wary of inventing curse words for books (unless they were, say, specific to the religious world of the book or something) since as a reader I think I’d see that as a dodge. After all, if your world uses the same word for ‘table,’ ‘hat,’ ‘sword,’ as we do (and it does, or your book will be at best annoying, and at worst incomprehensible), then why don’t they use the same word for f***?

    Thanks, Misty! I feel the same way about fracking. I had no idea geologists were such Battlestar Galactica fans.

  • Congrats AJ! That’s awesome!

  • First of all, congrats on all the good news. Excellent! Gives hope to the rest of us…

    As for profanity, I happen to LOVE profanity when it’s done well. That probably sounds odd, but I think about the scripts to THE DEPARTED or MY COUSIN VINNY and I find them so compelling, in part because the profanity is so beautifully integrated into the dialogue. It has a rhythm, a cadence, that makes it something far more than a string of “bad” words. Done well, profanity can bring so much to a book or script. Done poorly, and, like anything else done poorly, it can detract or even ruin a work.

  • Thanks K :)

    David,
    that’s a great point. There is a poetry to profanity done well. Thanks.

  • quillet

    Congratulations! Did you dance like Snoopy? (Happy happy joy joy) 😀

    Excellent article, and an amazing conversation in the comments. This topic is clearly very fraught.

    I’ve gone back and forth on the swearing thing umpteen times, myself, and finally decided that it’s just another tool for a writer to use to greater or lesser degree as s/he sees fit. In the end, any cursing or lack thereof has to fit the story, the world, and especially the characters.

    …Which is a verbal way of sitting on the fence! What am I, a diplomat? I’d better admit: I refrain from most curse-words in my own WIP, because my invented culture considers their casual use vulgar, a mark of lower class. Instead, my main characters swear mostly by their gods, though different characters do so in different ways. One frequently says, “Veneth’s teeth!” (I took my inspiration for this from old-fashioned swearing by “God’s wounds,” later collapsed into “zounds.”) Others swear more mildly by the moon goddess’s light. One character, when rattled, swears once by the death god’s balls — then promptly says, “Sorry. Sorry!” But nobody has used four-letter words…yet…though they will if occasion demands it. Frack, yeah!

  • Razziecat

    Very interesting post. The first time I encountered much profanity in fiction was in high school when we had to read “Catcher in the Rye.” The MC swore more than the kids I went to school with which, believe me, was a lot! 😉 I don’t use profanity much in real life and still don’t get much past “hell” and “damn” in my writing, but only because I get embarrassed typing out those words. It’s something I need to get over, because profanity has its place, although I’ll probably never use it to the extent that, say, Scott Lynch did in his two fantastic books (I recently re-read these and enjoyed them just as much the 2nd time around).

    Re: the next book in the series, my understanding is that it was delayed due to health issues. More info can be found on Lynch’s blog at http://scott-lynch.livejournal.com/ If I recall correctly, the book is written, and I think (I hope!) it’s due out in 2013.

  • Vyton

    A J,

    Congratulations on the much deserved recognition. This is an intersting post. I grew up cursng/swearing/profaning when it was just the guys. But,I never heard my father ever utter a swear word. In the Air Force we improved on it by constructing long, hyphenated strings. Again, it was just the guys around — mostly. To me, writing about military life without a liberal use of cussin’ just isn’t realistic. Writers who try to use these words without understanding the form write things like, *Oh, s**t, I just stepped in some doggy poo-poo.*

  • quillet
    makes sense. If it’s in keeping with your world, great. The only caution I would offer is that such made up phrases are always going to sound a bit quaint to a contemporary reader–which might be a good thing. If you want a more visceral response, you may have to get a little dirtier :) And yes: total Snoopy dance.

    Razzie
    Salinger is a huge figure in this debate, and one who I still hear every time a first person narrator curses however mildly! And thanks for the info re. Lynch. I hope those books are in the works.

    Vyton,
    thanks for the congrats! And you raise a good point: use of profanity should be situation specific as well as character/world specific. Many characters who do curse only do so in the right situation, and can (like most of us in reality) keep a lid on it where necessary.

  • AJ, many congrats.

    This post is fascinating for me on several levels. As a reader, my first love is fantasy. I agree that profanity in fantasy has to be appropriate.

    I do think we Americans go overboard on being PC sometimes. If I picked up a book and KNEW it was set during WWII, believe me I wouldn’t be offended by anybody saying “Japs” dozens of times. It fits the era, for crying out loud. The book is a mirror of THOSE times, not THIS time. The dilemma reminds me of the newspaper article talking about the debate over whether or not to rename Jew Lake. People said it was offensive, but didn’t explain HOW. Oh, that’s a different soapbox, I know. I just think people need to get de-sensitized about certain things.

    My novel WIP is not fantasy. One of my protags comes straight from a street gang and you better believe he swears a blue streak, often, and in two languages. To ease up on that is to hold up a distorted mirror, and that’s not why I want to write. I realize some people will not be comfortable with the cursing in my novel, but I’m not comfortable with romance novels, either. 😀

    Thanks for the post. So much of what I read on MW is applicable to fiction writing in general. It’s one of my happy places on the web.

  • TwilightHero

    Congratulations, AJ!

    I HATE words like frack and gorram, because they’re obviously stand-ins for the real deal. It’s like He Who Must Not Be Named in Harry Potter. Why not just call him Voldemort? Even if there’s a good explanation for why these words are profane – and there’d better be – it takes a while for them to really seem like part of the world they’re used in.

    The balls and teeth and other body parts of gods and the like, however, I can accept :)

    I tend to walk a middle ground when writing profanity. I’ll use damn and hell and bloody, as well as words that qualify as swearing for reasons I try to make self-evident. But though I use it quite frequently in real life – fuck yeah 😛 – I’d never put the F-word in my story, for the same reason I don’t write explicit sex scenes or (overly) graphic mutilations. As faith said, I don’t want to turn people off. And I fully agree that overusing profanity is just as bad as not using it at all.

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm. I should have used asterisks for that…ehehehe. Sorry people.

  • ajp88

    David, have you seen In Brugues? You’d love it…

    As far as profanity in my novels, if someone is legitimately offended by fictional beings using “curse” words in a story they’re reading, I don’t want that person to be a reader of mine. That notion is far too ridiculous for me to stomach. Art should challenge and unsettle you, if you ask me.

  • StPat

    I am not a writer. I am halfway through my first novel, with no expectations of it being published. I write for me. That being said, I feel as if profanity is relative. Most of the words that are considered profanity now where not always considered so. I gave this topic a good deal of thought, and realized that books without profanity do tend to ring somewhat surreal Profanity, however, doesn’t need to be the words that are popularly recognized as “cursing.” If world building is done correctly, it seems like a writer could invent their own curse words. Words that do give the work that gritty feel; without offending sensibilities. Perhaps the invention of curse words would give a book a “fake” feel, but it seems that if a reader could be conditioned to accept it, the words could become real. I have read several books with made up profanity, but found myself using the made up curse words outside of reading (never out loud, thank God.)

  • Razziecat

    ajp88 actually makes a very good point. Scott Lynch actually addresses this on his blog, pointing out that there is a good deal of violence in his books. Some very nasty things happen to people, and yet some readers were more bothered by the frequent use of the f-word than by the bloody, gory violence (which, by the way, isn’t the worst violence I’ve seen in a novel, but it is present). That struck Lynch as absurd, and it strikes me that way, too.

  • AJ, loving this discussion (and the image of you doing the Snoopy dance.:) )
    Razzie says of Scott Lynch: >>Some very nasty things happen to people, and yet some readers were more bothered by the frequent use of the f-word than by the bloody, gory violence (which, by the way, isn’t the worst violence I’ve seen in a novel, but it is present). That struck Lynch as absurd, and it strikes me that way, too.>>

    I use almost no cussin’ in the Jane Yellowrock novels, and yet there is a mountain of violence, to whom few object, just as Lynch states. And yes, it’s an obsurd reaction. In RL, profanity hardly raises a brow in most people, but violence is a social, ethical, and legal no-no. In fiction it can work in exactly the opposite way.

    While I am waxing on, did I ever say … CONGRATULATIONS on all your great news!

  • Owllady,
    I guess offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder. I DO think that terms which denigrate or stereotype can be genuinely dangerous because they subliminally encourage a culture to think in damaging terms. References to the human body and its activities which some would consider offensive seem to me far less problematic, more about social niceties than anything of real moral/ethical weight.

    Twilight,
    yes, I think that substitute curse words need a particular rational (from within or–as in the case of censorship–from outside the story) and that overusing profanity is as bad (or worse) than underusing it.

    ajp
    it is perhaps dangerous to dismiss readers who might not like what you do, but there is something healthy about being able to ignore those who just aren’t on the same page with you. As with readers who object to a book because it isn’t the genre they like, readers who don’t like profanity are really looking for a different kind of book, so there’s not much point worrying about losing them. You write the book which you want to.

    StPat,
    profanity is certainly relative, yes. Invented words might well work, but I doubt they’ll ever have the same gut-level impact on a reader who doesn’t already know/use them in real life.

    Razzie,
    agreed. Violence in our culture seems to exist in a curious ethical blindspot. I’m not opposed to its representation in art, of course, but it does seem to get more (and problematic) leeway than the (to my mind far less dangerous) issues of profanity or the glimpse of a nipple during the superbowl half time show. Please.

    Faith,
    Great point about foregrounding this in terms of genre expectations. I hadn’t thought of it precisely in that way, but you are absolutely right. And thanks for the congrats :)

  • StPat – *every*body starts off writing “just for themselves”.

    That’s how it starts. :)

  • Tom G

    Good post. In my fantasy I base cursing upon the religion, for the most part. Morgain’s bloody fists! Blood of the Gods! Etc..

    For my UF, I used common cuss words, but in moderation. Other than a character who says, “F%@k me to tears,” I don’t drop f-bombs.

    I am ex-Army, and cussed liked a sailor. Huh? Anyway, like another ex-military man said above, we could put together long strings of cuss words, and be quite creative. And we tried to be creative. Let me say I was shocked when I first joined the Army. Shocked. But I knew I had a problem and had to get a handle on it when on leave for Thanksgiving I asked my Grandmother to pass the F-ing potatoes.

    That was met with profound silence. Ack! In the years since I’ve almost weened myself completely off swearing, and I really consider and reconsider every use of it in my fiction.

  • ajp88

    Razziecat
    GRRM has a great quip somewhat similar to Lynch’s. He’s been known to say that he can describe in exquisite detail an axe entering a man’s skull, the bone splintering, blood and brain fragments flying away from the force, and no one bats an eye. Yet if he were to describe a penis entering a vagina in the same amount of detail, he receives a mountain of angry letters. It’s that same sort of twisted puritanical hypocrisy that leads people to be offended by a word.

  • Wolf,
    yep, that;s how it starts :)

    Tom,
    that’s priceless!

    Razzie
    yeah, I’m with you on that.

  • AJ, I agree that society should be careful about stereotypes and being offensive. There have to be some standards that society mostly agrees on. It’s just, well I guess I’m afraid that in the effort to be non-offensive, we could become sterile. Art *should* change you, IMHO. Sometimes it might offend you, but if the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, will we feel anything? Censorship can go too far, is all I’m saying. No easy answer to that.

  • AJ, I think I see better what you mean by differences in kind, there, inasmuch as some profane terms have the function of being intentionally harmful to specific target whereas others are more general adnd non-specific in their offensiveness. (An F-bomb is general and by its nature doesn’t target, malign, or denigrate a specific person or class of persons. An N-bomb is particular by its nature does.) I would still categorize them both as profanities, but I can accept that they are different types of profanity.

    Like I said, I can imagine having a situation where I thought even a word in that latter, more offensive category were still useful and pertinent. (I can, for example, imagine the existence of Huckleberry Finn, having read it of course.) But I’m not sure I’m a talented enough writer to use that sort of thing correctly, and in a way that calls attention to the problems inherrent in the use of the word without simultaneously being too pedantic about the issue. (Huck Finn does that well. But I’m not Mark Twain.)