Profanity in Literature - Do You Really Need It?
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Profanity in Literature - Do You Really Need It?

A brief history of profanity in literature and my views on it

I am no prude. As a passionate writer, an avid reader, someone who has travelled and who has some life experience, I have seen and heard some things. So that is why I am excited about the novel that I have co-authored with my great friend Lionel Roy ( I know, I know you wanna see it and not just hear about it....patience...we (and some other talented writers) are working hard on it). It is funny, romantic but gritty and unafraid to tackle some painful, some difficult and yes some controversial issues. And therein lies my problem - the use of profanity.

Being a Christian, spraying the f-word around in every other sentence is something I do not like- at all. I loathe it.  When I am reading especially chick lit (love it) and crime (James Patterson is amazing), the f-word (or f-bomb which someone recently called it) appears but in the context of the story is justified because it is used in moderation. So how do I deal with this problem? Well let us start on less shaky ground and talk about profanity in general.

Now swearing is not a modern phenomenon, it has been around for centuries but written profanity actually began around the 16th century and Shakespeare (yes the great man himself) was partial to using blue language (but of course I will not go into it here, your homework is to find some examples). Most of what was considered the worst profanity in Shakespearean time were those associated with Christianity. The two worst offenders were zounds and sblood. Now they do not sound like much but in reality, in that era, they were extremely offensive. The word zounds was short for G*d's wounds. This was because the they were in reference to the injuries that Christ suffered when He was crucified and the crucifixion was the crux of the Christian faith. The same applies to sblood. So now you know...There are others but I think you get the point.

So profanity has been used to shock, to mock and to entertain. The modern argument and one put forward very recently is that profanity is a key element, nay, essential part of modern literature. A story is not real without it. I disagreed most vehemently saying that some awesome works of fiction have been published and are successful without the need to resort to it. C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling are two such examples. The argument focused in on the f-word (or the f-bomb as I have so recently heard it described.) I detest the word with a passion (I mean I physically flinch everytime I hear the word) but I know that there are those for whom it forms a part of their everyday language and alienating them would be literary (and financial) suicide so what is to be done? We are leaving it in the hands of our friends and fellow writers and readers...have a look, have a read, get a feel for the story and the key scenes in particular, let us know whether profanity is needed or of it works well as it is. Before we let you have it with both barrels, here is are some general points to consider when deciding to use profanity on literature:

1. Think about the characters...if the character needs to be dropping the f-bombs and the worst one c-word (sounds like runt) *shudders* think about the situations that they do it in. Do they do in everyday parlance or only when they are stressed?

2. Think about your audience...if your fiction is geared towards a certain demographic for whom profanity is offensive, then rethink. If your fiction is for small children, then definitely do not go there

3. Think about your editors...yep their vote counts too. If you spend all your time removing the profanity and they say that the story works better with it., that is a lot of time wasted

4. Think about what you are trying to you REALLY need profanity to say it?

My view is a great story is a great story with or without profanity but I realise that society is made up of people with different social, linguistic, religious and literary hang-ups than me, all I can do is write what I love...and what I love does not include profanity. So there I've said it, nailed my literary colours to the mast, come off the fence and made my stand. I pray that all you writers out there are not afraid to do the same, no matter what you believe...

Keep watching this space...

© Angelique Fyre October 2009

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Comments (6)

I don't think profanity is essential to a good story, and many times it detracts from the story as far as I am concerned.

Thank you Clairsie...I always aprreciate your feedback because it is helpful and hilarious! Martha, I agree totally, but I have heard the argument that profanity adds realism...what a load of *&$%£)(! Just kidding! I don't think it does at all...

Angelique, great and intriguing article. When I think about language in literature I have to think in terms of screenwriting to express my opinion. To me it really depends on the character you are creating and the situation whith which they are faced. For instance have you ever watched Scarface, Goodfellas or the Sopranos on t.v.? They simply are not the same as they are on the silver screen. Likewise though, made for t.v. shows like the Cosbys and pretty much anything on TV Land offer some very enjoyable and wholesome shows without the use of profanity. However, I can't really think of a prime time show on television that doesn't utilize some measure of profanity in fact I would say that most push the limits of what they are allowed to do. Now the question: Is the reason for this to promote a higher sense of realism or to add a percieved heightening of entertainment value? I will say that most of the authors I read do use some measure of profanity. Ludlum, Spillane, Clancy, King. I will also say that I remember an old football coach... and when he would be angry with someone his face would glow a bright red and when you just knew he was going to use some choice words not meant for the ears of the faint at heart... you could see the great personal restraint within when he would point his finger and say "Why don't you go gargle peanut butter!"

Hey Paul. Thanks for the comments, its always great to get an alternate point of view and yours is one of those that I highly respect and like. So thanks and very valid points made....

Magaly Guerrero

What an interesting article. I have been working on a short story, for school, and although I'm no prude either, I'm having issues with the profanity part. I'm writing a magical realist piece, and there is a part of the story where an entire village is covered in feces. I've tried using the word feces in the story, but somehow it doesn't sound right. I tried using the word sh**, but that made me cringe.

I don't curse much, which some might find strange because I was an Active Duty Marine for 10 years! But I always feel that it something awful comes out of my mouth, my grandma who was a very prude non-Christian woman, will jump behind me and smack me on the back of the head.

I think that'll use the word "crap", it seems dirty enough to convey what I want, without making me grimace.

Thanks very much for sharing such a wonderful article!

I too am no prude, but have often shuddered at an excess of words rhyming with duck - where they had no use, and were not used to indicate anger, sadness or anything.