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?



Filed under Newspapers, School

5 responses to “*$#%!

  1. 2blu2btru

    For the most part, I agree with the old school guard: people use profanity when they don’t know other words to say how they feel, don’t know what they feel, or want to pretend they know how someone else feels. If it’s authentic to the story and isn’t overkill, it can add to the realism, sure. Piri Thomas uses racial epithets in his memoir, things people called him and called other people, things he said himself growing up in New York. But I wouldn’t want to read a bunch of profanity in a book just because it’s a popular trend, as I don’t read about Vampires just because they are popular (they don’t appeal to me, except in Bram Stocker, at a stretch).

    I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, who can be potty mouthed with the best of them, but it’s not arbitrary or for shock value; it’s simply how those characters communicate. For many people, it’s more for shock value and laziness that they use profanity in their works, and I don’t want to read (or pay for) a lazily written piece of manure.

    • I like your point about authors using profanity because they don’t know how else to express their ideas. And I agree that I hate profanity for “shock value.” I felt like Super Sad True Love Story, an otherwise wonderful dystopic novel by Gary Shtyengart fell victim to that.

      I still struggle with the “authentically how characters communicate” bit, which I think has more to do with my idea of what literature is/should do than the profanity. Should literature literally show humanity as we are? As we were? As we should be? Could be?

      • I agree that some writers use a lot of cursing for the same reason a lot of movies have too many special effects and explosions — lack of ideas and imagination.

        OTOH, some writers are masters of the four-letter words and use them right, as I was reminded when reading this review a little while ago: klausming.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/clerks-1994.

  2. I was just reading that NYT article also. And I remember all the furor in the 1960s about the Rolling Stones and so on (Ulysses was a bit before my time).

    As far as my writing goes, I write characters as I think they would speak (including that, as with most of us, many characters speak differently around their friends than around their parents or at their jobs).

    I have one character who, through three novels and eleven short stories, has never dropped the f-bomb. At the end of the third novel she does say “shit,” and attentive readers will realize how upset she must be. Her most powerful oath under ordinary circumstances is “Poo!”

    Her twelve-year-old adopted daughter, however, swears like a sailor (as we used to say). Which reflects her upbringing, and her adopted parents’ tolerance of her language is an important indicator of how they intend to raise her.

    That being said, I really do enjoy watching movies from the 1950s and earlier, and seeing how the sexual references (and the sex) and the gay characters were slipped in, often very creatively. The same for some of the song lyrics from that period (Cole Porter was a master, of course).

    But all of that subtlety was generated by a society where actually saying what you were doing and who you were doing it with could get you shunned or fired or, in Porter’s case for example, thrown in jail. So, I think that overall we’ve gained more than we’ve lost.

    (I could also talk about writing sex scenes, but I don’t want to end up with a comment that’s longer than your post. 🙂 )

  3. I think this is an interesting post, since in Europe, “explicit lyrics” are not censored on the radio or on TV.
    Also, I have to admit that I am quite astonished how important it is for Americans not to use “bad” language (especially with a sexual connection).
    Somehow, the Europeans are a bit more relaxed about this. 😉

    Nevertheless, I also dislike it if some character in a novel uses swearwords throughout the whole book. If every third word is the famous four letter f-word, I’ll probably drop the whole thing, for the same reasons mentioned above: An obvious lack of expression-variety from the author’s side …

    (I hope my English is not too bad)

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