Wednesday, May 23, 2012

THE PROFOUND IN THE PROFANE

This is the third in a 12-part series by Fort Worth based fiction novelist Jeff Bacot on challenging conventional literary rules in fiction writing. Jeff Bacot is a freelance writer of fiction and blogger of unconventional thought. He has written two novels and 17 short stories. He is an active member of The Greater Fort Worth Writers. He graduated from SMU with a BA, BBA and MA.

This may be the topic you have an opinion on, so enter your comments at the end of the post.


The Profound In the Profane

 

(What The %&#@ Are You Saying?)


I swear a lot. Maybe because, as a writer, I spend most of my time alone so my social sensitivities are gone, maybe because I never abandoned adolescent rebellion, maybe because all I wear when I write are boxers, a t-shirt and flip-flops and thus feel liberated from common convention, or maybe it’s just the voices inside my head again. Who knows?

I swear often. In my previous life as a banker, I was told by my admin, on my way out to lunch one morning, that I had “flown the ‘F’ drone”, seventeen times. She counted. Really, is that all? Nobody must have done anything bad that morning. Or maybe somebody must have done something really bad, really good. I can’t remember. Anyway, I did it; but I didn’t write the ‘F’ bomb seventeen times, I spoke it.

Writing is a means to communicate without being present. It is a method to convey thoughts and emotions to an audience. Profane words are taboo because they are visceral, pungent, and powerful. They question the most basic essences of our humanity that we are the most self-conscious about: religion, gender, profession, sexuality, race, and even base bodily functions.

Cursing in literature is often thought of as tough, cool and macho. I guess we all feel that when we first drop a foul line in our youth. But really, is it? I liken it to that cable TV commercial we’ve all seen, where the guy gets mad trying to call his cable company and ends up with an eye patch in a ditch. So, my description of that same situation, as it applies to cursing in writing, would go something like this: We use swear words to blow off steam. When we use swear words to blow off steam, people think we’re tough. When people think we’re tough, they want to know how tough. When people want to know how tough, we end up in a roadside ditch with our laptop and manuscript, muddy and crying to mama. Don’t end up in a roadside ditch, muddy and crying to mama. Be judicious with swearing.

So, to my point: there is a curse in cursing in verse. In my writing, I don’t swear much unless it’s necessary, it’s authentic and it enhances the character, scene or situation. I find it lazy, cheap and contrived. These words are designed for extremes, not norms. So, the overuse of them in the ordinary telling of a story, where you are just trying to push details forward, is just sloppy, tired and convenient. Save swearing for the extremes. They help grab attention and inject meaning where it is needed most.

The nuts and bolts of the subject are quite simple. People like me that curse too much, are perfectly fine with reading fiction without swearing. I actually prefer a little bit of swearing in what I read, but I rarely notice when there is none. I can’t remember ever making the observation in books I’ve read, “boy I really wish she had said to that jerk, ‘go find a nice bathroom stall to go fuck yourself in’. “ People who curse a little, are probably okay with some cursing, but not too much. But this segment of people are also okay with no cursing at all. People that never curse at all are almost always going to be turned off by it. So, the simple math is this: 100% of all three subsets of people are fine with no cursing. However, roughly only about 50% are going to keep reading if there is excessive profanity. So, you limit your number of readers by the inclusion of too much swearing, or even any. It’s really just a matter of math, probability and economics.

When, where and how is it okay to make use of profanity in writing? The best guidance for the use of profanity can be summed up with a set of questions:

1. DOES IT WORK FOR THE READER?

My fiction genre is considered general fiction and is intended for a male audience; intelligent, educated, but not sophisticated. The fact is, as research has confirmed, many women are very interested in this genre. Much of my work is a surgical dissection into the male brain (It’s a remarkably simple place.). Intuition told me these demographics would tolerate occasional intense use of swearwords, but would shutter at their constant use. The fact is men swear. Women know that. Tolerance of bleep-ables is entirely genre specific.

2. IS IT APPROPRIATE FOR THE SETTING AND DOES IT MAKE SENSE FOR THE CHARACTER?

I’m reminded of Jay, the scruffy, long-haired character from several of Kevin Clark’s films (Dogma): without profanity, he couldn’t work, he wouldn’t work. It’s what makes him Jay and is his defining characteristic. That said, if profanity offends a person, they probably won’t enjoy watching Jay on screen or in a book, or like the character much. So, while Kevin Clark uses Jay’s profanity to great effect in his films, he’s also reducing the audience for those films. Which is a good tradeoff, if you ask me: you can’t please everyone all the time, ever. If it offends no one, we are not doing our jobs. But debasing characters doesn’t require verbal raunch. Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter doesn’t say, “I ate his liver with some f*****g beans.” If Lecter talked like that, we would see him as crude or inarticulate. Though Harris puts venom in the mouths of other characters, the f-word he gives Lecter is “fava.” We’re forced to accept Lecter as a man of refinement and sophistication, making his formality all the more unnerving and chilling.

3. DOES IT CONVEY THE MESSAGE I’M TRYING TO GET ACROSS?

Curse words can be very powerful tools of emotion and characterization, if used right. I’m sure we can all think of people who use the word f**king as a meaningless adjective. I hear them walking down the street, or passing a construction site. (“Dude, pass me the f**king hammer”). The word has lost its meaning, but don’t tell me that this line doesn’t conjure up a personality for you. Frankly, the characterization of the construction worker wouldn’t be the same without that meaningless adjective. It is a powerful tool for characterization.

4. AM I USING THIS PROFANE BECAUSE NO OTHER WILL SUFFICE?

In my novel, On The Hole, set to go to press in June 2012, I had to use a fair amount of swearing. The story is primarily set on a golf course, inhabited almost entirely by drunk men with their buddies having a good time on a sunny afternoon. If you have ever played golf in such a setting, you know exactly the proliferation of creative cursing that goes on. It’s an epidemic. In this particular scene there was no way around using this word, because it is authentic to this world, and no other word could be as meaningful.

“Jay shuddered and turned his head. If there is one universally understood sound on a golf course, it is the one made by almost every golfer after a bad shot. Jay always enjoyed the predictable frustrated cry that announced an improper swing, an unintended ball destination, or just maddening frustration with the game. “F***CK!” Nick screamed.”

‘S**t’ would suffice I suppose. But that s**t’ just ain’t right. Right? You get the point.

5. AM I WILLING TO RISK ISOLATING MY AUDIENCE OR DILUTING MY OWN INTEGRITY?

The beliefs and values of any writer will obviously affect the use of cursing. Sometimes the risk of losing one segment of an audience can be worth telling the story truthfully and with integrity. So, there is nothing wrong with using George Carlin’s notorious “seven words you can’t say”. I use them all the time, when they fit the character, scene or the situation.

Two Words Of Caution

As I advocate the freedom to use inappropriate, slang or swear words in your prose, I say it with one stern caution. Let’s just call it a “caveat swearer”. You already know these two words, so I will spare you the repetition. You should always leave them out of all writing unless you are prepared for the consequences. They are the two most offensive words in the Queen’s English, and always engender anger/resentment/spite. What are they? Well, let’s just say: you can’t hunt for a bigger trigger to failure, in the use of these two words. Catch my drift?

Alas, when measured against the five questions above, profanity does carry risks, uncertainties and questions. But if the writer is honest in answering them, profanity can be liberating, energizing, hell, it can be fun. It can enhance the story. End result, the line between a profound piece of fiction and a profane piece of crap, might best be determined by a Supreme Court ruling on how you judge whether something is “pornographic.” In the words of Justice Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”

 So, WTF, feel free to express yourself with some nastiness. Hell yeah! Damn straight! Just make it count.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know this post is about using profanity in fiction, however, I had to say something about using profanity in the workplace.Better watch that swearing at work. Although it can be second nature, forgetting a deadline (f#$*!),not getting a day off you asked for (that %&$#&!) or even jokingly making a comment at a meeting (what a s*%&). While there are situations where it may tolerated or excused, workplace etiquette says the safe way is to find other words to express your feelings-whether you're angry or happy.

Barbara Howard said...

Very entertaining presentation of a touchy subject. Cursing is a double edged sword for writers. Good work, Jeff. Love it.

Ruby Johnson said...

Dennis Hensley,PhD an author of close to 5o books, gives one piece of advice that still sticks with me. Put a character who would normally curse into a setting where he can't. An example would be the movie WITNESS in which a Philadephia cop is hiding out with the Amish. Instant internal conflict for a man who comes from a profession where profanity is said to be a second language.
Good post.

Matthew Bryant said...

Fucking brilliant post, mate! By that I of course mean... I should probably do a wee bit of cleaning up when I polish the ol' ms... if ya get my meaning.

But I digress... I actually learned a cool bit of advice over the weekend stating that, if you're creating a new society, swearing will often be based around the culture's religion and politics.

For us Science Fiction and Fantasy nuts, this gives us a wonderful opportunity to play with word creation.

Oh yeah.. and 'Flying the 'F' drone' is gay, retarded, and any other politically incorrect derogatory terms you can fling its way like so much monkey-mooky-stinks.

SusieSheehey said...

Fan-freakin'-tastic, Jeff! Yes, I know, I didn't go for the gold like others, but that's my personality. Double edged swords in writing can oftentimes be the most fun. You hit the nail on the head with the effing hammer!

Jennifer Spicer Bennett said...

Great article Jeff! Think I might steal your advice next semester in writing workshop :) Thanks for sharing!

George said...

No place to drop my credit card on the next nine installments, but I want to buy in. Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Bacot said...

Thanks for all the comments, my friends. This was a fun blog to write, and I'm glad it generated some interest. More to come. F___ A__!!

Fiona said...

A very entertaining blog, Jeff!

I like the way you break this down to a mathematical formula to bear in mind when writing. I agree it’s probably fair to say 100% of people will be OK with no swearing and won’t miss it. This made me think about Mad Men which I have been watching avidly from the beginning this past month (currently midway through season 3). It’s an AMC show so there is no profanity. If the same show had been an HBO production I am sure there would be and that would probably be more authentic. However, I am not missing the profanity and thinking, oh well he would have sworn just then. There’s enough heavy drinking, smoking, sex and bad behaviour to successfully create a sense of loucheness without it.

With On The Hole, I don’t see how it could function without the inclusion of profanity. Well, if you removed it you would be down to a slim volume....;) Seriously though, at its core it is an extended conversation between the two guys and swearing is integral to the way they relate to each other. Sometimes the swearing is used to express anger and frustration and sometimes it is used in a more casual way and both are completely in character. As you say, it is also an accurate depiction of the language used on the golf course. I am so glad you have resisted all editorial attempts to bowdlerise it! Most of the 50% who don’t like swearing are probably not going to like this novel anyway, regardless of the swearing, so I don’t think you are risking losing a potential audience by its inclusion. If you were writing a light romance your calculation would be different.

kimberlypackard said...

Eff Yeah, Jeff!

I agree, sometimes the profanity is the best fit. But it also has to fit a character. If you have a really hookie character, then "gosh golly" is probably the best fit. But if the character is a modern woman in a modern setting, then "shit" is probably the word.

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