Sunday, 4 April 2010

Profanity - yay or nay? (strong language used)

A few days back I published my review of Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill. One of the points I made about the book was the level of profanity - and this was the point picked up by those who kindly came to make comment on said review. It got me thinking on the subject of profanity in book - and the line which we all have (conscious or not) beyond which our comfort level has been breached.

Mine is 'cunt'. I hate the fact I've even written it there. I never use it myself and I don't like seeing it in the literature I read. This is the word that Adam Nevill used in Apartment 16 that I took such a dislike to - my personal line was crossed at that point.

Yesterday at Eastercon I had a very interesting chat with Jason (Kamvision) and Cara (murf61) on the subject.

Cara also has issues with the same word - so is it a gender thing? No, not at all, it seems, because other women who read my review disagreed on my point that the swearing was rife. Maybe some women feel more uncomfortable with that particular word, but to others it is absolutely normal.

Is it the particular genre? Jason felt that this might be part of the issue. I confess, I am not the most familiar with the horror genre, and so I do not know whether Nevill's book contains a lot of swearing in comparison to other novels in the same genre. In addition, horror is a genre where attempting to shock the reader is not uncommon and so using a word like 'cunt' can be said to be a part of this.

Is it the setting used in the novel? Some areas in London (and, indeed, the country) will see certain profanities employed over others. Again, Jason pointed out this fact and said that the word might therefore have been used to help cement and authenticate the particular location of Nevill's novel (in which case, he should be admired rather than castigated for using 'cunt'!)

I know that in my case familiarity does breed contempt. When I was youthful and much more innocent than now, the word 'fuck' in a book would send my jaw to my chin in shock, but these days I am so familiar with hearing it, seeing it written, speaking it myself that this word has lost any ability to concern me. However, to other people, this word is still way across that personal line that they have where they are no longer comfortable.

Just as another interesting point, I want to mention the fact that books are now pretty much the only form of media where there is no guidance on what age should be reading the books. The word 'cunt' in a TV show sends it way past the watershed time when it is expected that children will be up; in a film or a videogame it will guarantee an '18' rating. However, a child can walk into a bookstore or a library and take any book without their age being asked. Although it is not to do with swearing, I read Jean M Auel's books at a very young age - and the amount of explicit sex in them is just unreal considering that I was able to take them out of the library with no one questioning my age. At that point, you might say it is a parent's responsibility to monitor a child's reading - but that then depends on said parent reading everything their child shows an interest in to ensure they are comfortable with the subject matter.

I guess the only way I can conclude this rather free-form blog post is with the idea that we do have very personal opinions on this - what one person finds uncomfortable another person will be completely fine with.

I would be interested to hear the point of view of other people on this: profanity - yay or nay? Where do you draw your line?


  1. I think is acceptable to say that you didn't enjoy a part of a book because of the excessive use or use of swearing. I know that I've said that a book got a lower rating because I got annoyed with the over use of certain swear words.

    As to this book and its favorite swear word I would say that would drive me crazy. It is one of those words that I find completely unacceptable to hear from those around me - my fiance used it once and I requested that he never use it again. He could use pretty much any other swear word he wanted in my presence but I found that especially offensive. I wonder if, as a women, it bothers me more then it did him. Considering it typically used in a derogatory manner towards women. Hmm... can't explain it but that is just a word that pisses me off.

    So I guess, nay for excessive swearing (if every other sentence has a swear word in it, that is too much) and nay in that case of Apartment 16 favorite swear word. Otherwise, it doesn't matter too much to me.

  2. My understanding is that the 'c' word is a lot more unpopular in the States than it is in the UK, for what that's worth.

    I like some profanity in the books I read, where it adds flavor. A particularly violent or crass person is going to use certain language, and if that makes me uncomfortable, than the writer is delivering the context well.

    Vulgarity, in context, can really explore cultural divides between characters, education, career, upbringing - it can also potentially show if/when a character has reached a point in the tale where they expose this aspect.

    I'll pass on dialogues where assorted cuss words are dominant. At that point, the writer needs to explore their options for vulgarity through the use of clever metaphors and sacrilegious phrases (like the rest of the world).

    For myself, in my writing, I try to hold off on the exact cuss forms and use euphemisms - until that point where the moment is intense and the response matches the context of shock/surprise/disgust, whatever.

    That (naturally) becomes my par. I'm certainly not offended, I want to feel like the writer is talking to me, not the 13 year old version of me. I just want a little reasonable context.

  3. I think most will agree they don't like a scene that goes something like this...

    He scowled as she walked by when she made a menacing scowl. Then his friend scowled.

    Overuse just dumbs down a novel just like overusing profanity.

    It took my wife a while to get me to stop saying "like" every other word because it made me sound dumb. I think that's the same with using the F word in normal language and in books anymore. It tells me the person has nothing better to say in their vocabulary and its become a place-holder.

  4. Libwithattitude4 April 2010 at 18:24

    I must admit that I have become rather immune to profanity in books but I must wholeheartedly agree on the c word - don't even like people around me saying it let alone reading it!

  5. Great post as always Amanda!

    Following on from our conversation, my personal position regarding the acceptability of profane language is that it is dependent on the context and setting, and also the type of character being depicted.

    Each individual will have his or her own benchmark for what is acceptable regarding content, and that is entirely right. I do not accept however, that profane language automatically equates to a dumbing down or even necessarily an attempt to shock. There are many sections of society, where such language is in common use. An author may quite legitimately in my opinion choose to represent some of that language when seeking authenticity.

    As regards genre, I think that horror is a genre that seeks to explore the darker aspects of society. In so doing it is unsurprising that the type of character depicted may be of the coarser variety. I do not believe that the use of profanity to shock is an effective tool, nor do I believe that it is a characteristic of good horror fiction. Non-the-less as I've stated a form of fiction that peers into the dark underbelly of society, will often need to present things, that to some may be distasteful.

  6. Thank you for all the comments! It sounds as though my conclusion was absolutely right - everyone will reach a certain point where discomfort is inevitable.

    It also sounds as though the women amongst us really don't enjoy that particular word being used. I would be very interested to hear from those women who have no qualms at all about it.

    Jason - particular thanks to you for expounding on many of the very erudite points you made yesterday that I absolutely failed to remember when writing this post today!

  7. As always it depends on context. I have female friends who use the c word both as an expletive and as an insult for people they dislike. As a man I would be deeply uncomfortable about using it in a similar fashion. In life, between lovers, it can be almost tender. And I think in fiction it can be used that way, used as an insult and as an expletive *provided the scene demands it* and it's age group appropriate (to use a hideous phrase)

  8. Personally, I find profanity distasteful; I rarely swear in speech. (To give you an idea, I said "bloody" once in known memory, and generally limit myself to admittedly frequent "bugger" and "bollocks". The two words you mention have never featured.)

    That said, in my writing I use "bloody" quite a lot. And when I write dialogue in my fiction I have been known to use stronger terms as appropriate - for instance, in a military fiction piece I'm writing at the moment, I have a character shout "Get some fucking fire on that fucking position!" Because, well, that's how many if not most soldiers talk in combat, and realism trumps my own verbal squeamishness.

    As for swearing in general, I have no problem reading stuff with profanities as long as it's suitable in context and not excessive. The exception is the very same term you objected too; it can be effective (Frankie Boyle's use of it in humour, for instance) but on the whole I find it quite unpleasant. A curious development, of course, given that it - and indeed many of the classic four-letter words - was perfectly acceptable 500 years ago. After all, if memory serves the barely less euphemistically named Threadneedle Street was called "Gropecunt Lane" right up until the late 16th century.

    I seem to have digressed somewhat.

    Anyway, yeah. I dislike profanity (though not as much as I dislike the term "cussing", because it's usually not cursing) but I tend to value realistic and believable dialogue over propriety. But I do think writers can moderate the language a bit - it doesn't need to be too realistic. :-)

  9. I have no problem whatsoever with the use of profanity in genre fiction, or any fiction for that matter. There are certain words I would expect to hear more often depending on whether I'm reading horror or fantasy, but there is no word which would personally offend me. I expect to read language appropriate to the location of the story, occupation of the characters and particular situations arising within the novel. In real life we encounter people who swear constantly, people who swear only when stressed or drunk, people who swear so rarely they manage to shock themselves when it happens. To see this reflected in characters within a book is par for the course, essential even.

    Having said that, use of bad language can be taken too far. For instance, I recently did some "book doctoring" for an aspiring author. One of the characters was a dodgy police officer. The writer chose to pepper the character's dialogue with a stream of expletives which completely took away any sense of who this character was and how he might develop. A profanity-happy character commands more attention with carefully chosen expletives than when lazy writing is employed for shock value.

    This is certainly not the case with Apartment 16. The language used in this novel is fitting to its characters, certainly not overused, and is tame in comparison to some books I've read.

    Cunt was originally not used as an insult at all. It was just a word to denote female genitalia. That it has become an "insult" is neither here nor there; trends come and go in the world of's cunt is tomorrow's fuckhead. Who cares? It is still, essentially, just a word. I used to be offended by the word believing, as a woman, that it was offensive to all women to have the word used in such a derogatory manner. It no longer has the power to shock me and deep down I don't think it ever did. I was just conditioned to believe it was a bad word and should therefore express shock at its use.

    Language is there to be played with. No word should ever be too much. Even cunt. At this point, I shall nudge you in the direction of Lady Chatterley's Lover and say no more.


  10. I think if it is used effectively for humour it can be funny, one of my favourite jokes in ASOI&F that almost made me fall of my chair laughing was in relation to that word and Cersei Lannister, and without the aliteration the joke wouldn't have worked half as well. That being said, if I am reading a book and it has a lot of swearing for no other reason than just to be crude it puts me off, not because I am offended but because I think it is bad writing.

    I'm not sure where I stand on the whole "it is just a word thing" though, as I had to take logic of language, so all that stuff confuses me. One could argue that the way in which we are condition to think the word is offensive is in no way different to the way in which we are condition to think that the word table adequately describes the essential qualities of a table, and I am not touching that one with a barge pole.

  11. Again, many thanks. I'm humbled by the very eloquent replies I've had on this subject. I feel it could be quite controversial, especially if people end up feeling very strongly about the matter. However, because it is such a highly personal decision (where we stand on profanity) I think it is impossible to denigrate someone else for their views. I hate certain levels of profanity - clearly Sharon who commented above me is absolutely fine with it - and there is NO WAY that we will be able to change each other's mind on where we stand (in my opinion).

    It was particularly great to hear from a woman who does not mind profanity, in fact, because it really does demonstrate that profanity and its use transcends issues such as gender.

    One point I believe has cropped up a few times in comments is that people don't mind profanity in fiction - as long as it is appropriate to character and well-used in the prose. I'd be interested to hear views on which books have failed to achieve this?

  12. Swearing is an odd thing, certain words have more impact from certain people and if it ruined your enjoyment of the book then it's entirely valid for you to say so.

  13. But there is a fine line between taking personal umbrage at use of particular words and having an issue with overuse of bad language as a lazy writing tool, don't you think?

    If a reviewer has a personal issue with a certain word or phrase, then perhaps it is unnecessary to bring that up in a review. Perhaps not, I don't know.

    Reviews are, essentially, a very subjective thing to create. We're telling the world how a book made us feel and just as we are happy to confess it made us cry, laugh or cringe then we should maybe feel equally at ease talking about more personal "comfort zone" issues.

    As for books which have failed to achieve appropriate levels of profanity for their characters and setting, none spring to mind, though I am sure they are out there.