Oh, the Profanity


When my first book was published, twelve long years ago, my characters cussed and cursed their way through the unlikely adventures I had concocted for them like drunken sailors on shore leave.  Their conversations were veritable cesspits of fruity idiom.  At the time I thought I was being terribly clever.  I believed that this was what writers did when they wanted to be edgy and interesting.

Of course, I was wrong.  Because of its very ubiquity in everyday life, swearing in novels is usually rather tedious, and just serves to slow down the dialogue.  (It has the added disadvantage, I can attest, of making your mother reluctant to brag about your book to her friends.)

I worked all this out somewhere between books 3 and 4.  I realized that swearing was actually a bit boring, and the expletive count plummeted.  It was liberating, this release from the tyranny of profanity, but also challenging – there was no more camouflaging banal conversations behind a wall of expletives.  I like to think my books improved as a result, though.  My characters still swear, of course – just a lot less than they used to.  They do live in the real world, after all.  (Well, you know, sort of.)

I’m curious to know what other people think about this.  Are you put off by bad language in novels?  Do you even notice?  Are there some words that you will tolerate, and others that you won’t?  And are there particular authors whose use of profanity makes you want to applaud, or throw the book away?  (I always think Philip Roth swears with splendid panache.)

Personally, I’m all for swearing, if done correctly.  Extensive, not to say excessive, use of the vernacular can work beautifully on occasion – I present, as Exhibit A, Derek and Clive.  To further reinforce the point, the clip below is perfect example of how persistent and filthy language can be utterly hilarious.  Maybe it’s just me, but this song gets funnier the more it goes on.  It’s all about context.  Enjoy – but please don’t play this out loud if there are children or easily offended Christians about.


Comments 6

  1. I agree, though I’m a dreadful curser in real life. My first drafts are always littered with expletives, and then in the rewrites I take out about nine in every ten. A little goes a long way. I write YA novels anyway, so I wouldn’t get away with as much swearing as I would in an adult novel, but I quite like that restriction. It makes me work harder (and it also makes each expletive work harder). I picked up an adult book the other day, one that I’d been looking forward to, and found two bodily functions and a very taboo swear word on page one. It didn’t shock me, but I just thought, ‘Oh, give over, you big kid.’ Actually what I thought was ‘I can’t be arsed’. So I didn’t read it after all.)

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    Gillian – I agree: using fewer expletives means they have to work harder. And I share your reaction when confronted with a stream of swear words at the start of the book. If you’re bored/exhausted after a couple of paragraphs, what incentive is there to turn the page?

  3. I don’t mind foul language in a book if it fits the characters and the scenes, but sometimes it seems like it’s put in there as filler and that gets old very quickly.

  4. I actually just published my first novel and a comment I received from a book club organizer…touched on this subject…
    The thing is she’s in her sixities, a hard-core Christian and reads historical fiction…not exactly my target audience. It’s like getting Samantha from Sex and the City and a pastor’s wife in a room together…But I will say it’s hard to know where to draw the line between staying true to your “craft” and trying to write for a larger audience…

    I suppose you can’t please everyone…

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    Kim: it’s a difficult balance, to be sure. But ultimately you need to do what is truest to the book. And (although it’s easy for me to say) I shouldn’t worry about comments from readers like that – you can’t, as you say, please all of the people all of the time. Write what you need to write; the audience will follow.
    Congrats on your novel. I’m intrigued – what is it about?

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