My husband was talking about this yesterday, and today I read about it in the Times! Basically, for the first time ever three songs on Billboard’s Top Ten list include a word you can’t use in the Times. The article points out that, while uncensored versions of songs used to be hard to find, the internet age has allowed ample access to original lyrics, making censorship “no longer a cultural firewall; it’s barely an inconvenience.”
But what’s its place in modern literature? As authors strive for realism, profanity and other previously taboo language is increasingly showing up in both popular literature and “Literature.” Hemingway used “shit” repeatedly. The Object of Beauty, Steve Martin’s latest novel, has several graphic sex scenes, described in what used to be called the language of the docks. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s homage to middle America strives to replicate the American experience, profanity and all. Atonement, McEwan’s novel of second chances is BUILT around a word that makes me blush (even though I loved Atonement). Burroughs? Sedaris? Both thrive on “saying the unsayable.”
But with profanity’s increasing popularity in popular prose (yay alliteration!), has it lost some of its power? “Damn” means nothing anymore, but it’s one of the (many, many) things that got Ulysses banned in America. When will “fuck,” a word it makes me nervous to type, feel the same? Is that the power of profanity–to shock us? Connect us to something more visceral? Or, as it becomes more prevalent in our society, is profanity “an increasingly valid form of expression?”
I’m not sure how I feel about profanity. I use it. A lot, sometimes. Probably more than I should. I grew up in Brooklyn–believe me, I’ve heard it my whole life. And I truly don’t mind reading it. Sometimes I barely notice. It’s really only when I have to talk to someone else about the book, or I find out that someone else has read the book, that I even begin to think about it. Are they judging me for reading a book “like that”? Ah, Catholic school guilt.
Is profanity necessary to achieve the realism that modern authors and audiences seem to crave? Is it taking the “art,” the entendres and metaphors out of literature? Does it make you squirm to read profanity in books? Or do you see it as part of an authentic reading experience?