I ran across this post by Lara M. Zeises, which touches on the use of the f-word (fuck) in novels. Some of the comments were interesting as well. It got me thinking. Unpublished novelist that I am–but still a writer.
First I searched for the word fuck in my current work in progress, which is a contemporary YA. So far fuck and variations of fuck make an appearance close to a 100 times. It mostly appears in dialogue between characters and high-stress moments in the narrative. I used it because people–teenagers–talk like that and more importantly, my characters talk like that. That is no justification or defence of my use of the word (because I’m not sorry I used it), just context. Also, it wasn’t a conscious decision in this particular novel so for the time being I’m going to assume and trust that this is the way the story wants to be told. If I get published it might be something I have to give more consideration to but since I’m not at that point yet, never mind.
Can we still assign the word fuck the same kind of power it might have had 50 years ago? I don’t think so. Even used sparingly, I don’t think you can rely on fuck to pack the wallop that it used to. Realistically, this is no longer a word most people extend themselves to use when they want to get vicious. Look at it’s progression through movies. The Best Picture of the Year probably had the word fuck in it more than once and I’m sure people younger than I am have seen it. And I know people younger than I am have fouler mouths than I do.
Lots of people don’t like swearing. I get that, sure. I know plenty of them.
But then I ran across someone using this quote in the comments:
“Let’s rise above profanity, shall we? It alienates conservatives and makes liberals think you’re second-rate.”
Quoting it in relation to swear words in novels flummoxes me. I don’t think of profanity as something you ‘rise above.’ Especially within the arts (literature, plays, movies etc.,) and I don’t think the people who create art use profanity with the idea that they are degrading their work or improving upon it by doing so. I’d like to think they’re more or less doing as their creation dictates. I certainly don’t think I am lessening or cheapening my own novel in progress when I write fuck and I definitely don’t think it could be improved by eliminating it. I’m kind of hoping the entirety of the text would be judged by more than that. I also realise I have no control over how people interpret my work once it’s out there and that’s fine. But I can still hope.
I also find the line of thinking–which I’ve run across in the past–‘if good books can be written without swearing in it then they can all be written that way!’ to be out of touch. Language has changed and so have the times. When a novel I’m reading wants to reflect something I’m exposed to–in this case, profanity–I haven’t got an issue with it. If the novel is cuss-free that’s also cool with me. If the book is good, I honestly don’t notice the word fuck (and all of it’s sisters, brothers and cousins) nor do I notice the absence of the word fuck. Profanity doesn’t pull me out of the reading and it doesn’t make me cringe. Bad books make me cringe but that’s usually for more reason than whether or not I find some swears in the dialogue or narrative.
So I want thoughts from anyone reading this! How do you feel about profanity in novels? Weigh in.