By Russel D McLean
In my best Channel 4 announcers voice, I’m going to tell you that there may be discussion of bad language and worse language here. But since its going to be prevalent, I’ll star it out for the weak of heart.
And to get you in the mood, Billy Connolly isn’t going to star out his swearing. And he encapsulates, far better than I, some very similar theories about bad language:
One of the things I never get is people who complain about bad language in crime novels. It is the one complaint I get about my books, these people going, “Oh, I liked the characters and I liked the action and all that, but did the drug dealers and murderers have to swear?” Oh, f*** off, he hinted.
I like my crime fiction at the street level. I don’t have time for people who artificially elevate their characters, try and make them smarter or more erudite than they would be (and the reverse is true, nothing more patronising than trying to make someone sound tougher than they are). I’m writing – a good deal of the time – about people who were not educated at the best schools or who didn’t from the best homes. My central character isn’t an alcoholic, but I guess he’s got a lot of pent up rage. And, yes, like me, this rage manifests itself in the occasional use of language that might make a sailor blush.
The argument against swearing (in adult novels – novels for adults, in case you didn’t hear me the first time) tends to come threefold:
1) There are better words.
No there aren’t. Swearing, as the esteemed Mr Billy Connolly says, is a language all of itself. There is no English equivalent for “F*** off. Because those two tiny wee words say it all. You are in no doubt of what is being communicated. And, yes, there really is a huge difference between, “leave me alone” and “f*** off” that comes down to intent. “Leave me alone” is weak and half-hearted. Its almost like, “I don’t care if you do or you don’t go away.” Where, “F*** off,” is forceful and definitive in the way it looks and the way it sounds. You are left in no doubt as to intention. It’s the difference between a half-hearted push to the chest and a smack in the pus*.
2) No one talks like that.
The other day, I crossed the road, had some guy behind me say, as I moved at an angle so I could get to my work quicker, “Walk in a straight line, ya c***.” Listening to people on the street, in everyday situations (why writers really should spend some time working in retail or in a job where they interact with the general public) some of them use these words as an endearment, as punctuation. So, sorry, but people do talk like that.
No. Not usually. But I do swear. When I get angry or annoyed to extreme degrees.
Or when I want to make a joke of it. Because, yes, swearing can be funny. Its not big and its not clever, but sometimes, employed in the right way, it can make milk shoot our yer nose.
3) It makes me uncomfortable.
Have you ever considered that that is the point? At a late point in the debut novel, two hard men refer to a dead woman as a “c***”. I debated over using the word there and at other points in the novel. But I kept it in because, well, it said everything about these characters and who they were and what their attitudes were. And yes, it makes the reader uncomfortable, but the word in comparison with these guy’s actions? It pales into insignificance. Oh, and yes, it crops up in the second novel, but not so often because the characters involved aren’t the same (in fact I believe the swear count is lower just because of the different types of people that McNee is investigating).
I have no problem with crime novels where there is no swearing of course. I do not believe Steve Hockensmith’s rip-roaringly funny Old Red/Big Red novels have much cussin’ in ‘em (at least, not Deadwood style) but in context, they don’t need the language. And if I was writing in a context where I didn’t think swearing was going to say a lot about the characters, I wouldn’t use it. Innapropriate or innefective swearing is as bad a crime as a avoiding it altogether. Swear words, like any other words, must be used at the correct time and to have the correct effect. Writers don't just pluck 'em out of thin air. They always have a justification for them. Even if its one you don't neccasarily agree with.
And it may interest fact fans to note that at least one regular and recurring character in the universe of J. McNee does not swear, or least no worse than a damn or a bloody.
When I think about it, too, if you looked at some movie scripts, dear God, they’d make me look temperate. Scarface? The Depaahted? But people don’t get their heads (quite so) twisted over these because a) its acceptable in movies, perhaps because when hearing an actor deliver a swear, its over quicker and sometimes you just don’t notice when you’re hearing rhythm and unable to go back over what you just observed and b) somehow they believe that books should aspire to some mythical “higher level” of art than movies, an argument I’ll get back into another time.
I’m constantly amazed by how words have the power to shock. In an age where corruption is a daily fact of life, where we voyeuristically watch observe eejits 24 hours a day on our TV screens, where our role models are vacuous, talentless, money-grabbing attention seekers who are on a path to self destruction and where programs like The Apprentice teach us that to succeed we have to make other people take the blame for our mistakes, we are still seriously shocked by four letter words? Like they’re the cause of all this corruption and decadence and idiocy? Ask me, its more likely the other way round.
And in case you think I have no morals, I don’t swear in front of children. Because I don’t think children need to know these words. That can wait till they get older and realise what disappointment and anger truly are. Because swearing is, I think, a metaphor for that kind of anger – the best signifier of pain and hopelessness and outright frustration with the universe.
Oh, you bet your f****n’ ass.
*Apologies to Dave White, who hates footnotes, but I think one is Scottish slang and might need explaining to some of our international audience. Rough translation is, a punch in the face.