Friday, August 14, 2009

"I know at least, oh, about 127 words... and I still prefer..."

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.

Do I?

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.


Jay Stringer said...

I love swearing. I like my language to be simple and direct, the best and quickest way to make a point.

And more often than not, swearing is the best way.

And it sounds great too. There's a poetry to swearing. And a humour, too. There are few words that sound funnier than bollocks. Except maybe globule.

Kieran Shea said...

Back when I was single, I use to be drawn to women who could swear effectively, figuring they could hold their own ground if things got salty. Not total sailor mouths, mind you (Hello, Sayreville!), but ladies who knew how to put weight into their profanity and didn’t go all to pieces when things got tough and a few f-bombs fit the bill. Some people just can’t pull it off. And like seasoning and tattoos, sometimes people just go overboard and end up cheapening the impact. What makes me itchy is when you’re reading a piece of fiction and the character starts swearing out of the blue with some weird little saying that is so out of character, so out of place it smacks of a conscientious choice by the author. Russel is right, of course. There are everyday rhythms to language....

Dana King said...

It irritates me no end when someone--usually a woman--doesn't mind half a dozen corpses created through gruesome and painfil means, but objects because someone dropped an F bomb. Drives me up the wall.

As you said, language must be appropriate. Criminals aren't usually from the best upbringings. Those who are may curse more to fit in. The use of language is a great way to distinguish characters without beating people over the head about it. You don't have to tell the reader Priscilla Olivethorpe was prim and proper; her word choice and grammar will show it. Same thing with Mike "The Blade" Kutzyernutzoff; he can swaer like a sailor with Tourette's.

And yes, it is fun. I used to work with a soft-spoken gentleman you could barely hear across the desk. Kind of guy who wouldn't say s*** if he had a mouthful. get the two of us in the warehouse together and our conversations would make Al Swearengen blush.

John McFetridge said...

Lately I've been thinking that one of the toughest things about crime fiction is getting it to the right market.

There's a huge built-in audience of "mystery fans" that publishers seem to think will also appreciate "crime fiction," and while there's some overlap, the two genres are in many ways distinct.

Here's what I mean. I really like the novels of Louise Penny. She's kind fo a modern day Agatha Christie, her books take place in a pleasant village away from the big city. But everyone in this village is capable of murder. Cold-blooded murder for personal gain. That's a pretty bold statement about humanity. It has to be that way, though, so that there are plenty of suspects for the brilliant detective to eliminate.

I also like Elmore Leonard novels. These are books in which only criminals think about murdering someone and even then it's usually only a last resort. We usually see the process that leads to it and it's never a whodunnit - because hardly anyone would ever think to do it. It's a big deal to kill someone in an Elmore Leonard novel.

Now, oddly enough, there's no swearing in the village where everyone is capable or murder and a fair amount of swearing on the mean streets of Detroit where murder is something only career criminals consider as a way of solving their problems.

Does that seem strange to anyone else?

RDJ said...

I just wrote a post on this same subject and came, unsurprisingly, to the same conclusion.

If you write about characters who would swear, their use of "golly gosh" will pull a reader out of the story as fast as a "fuck" in Christian fiction.

It's all about appropriateness, and sometimes a good swear is the most appropriate thing of all. (One of my favorite bits of dialogue from my debut novel is four words long, and the only word not officially a swear word is "God," though in context it certainly is.)

Declan Burke said...

Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. And Russel, man ... I stopped reading halfway through because you starred all the swearwords. Fuck's up with that, fuckface?

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

John McF,
I'm with you. That's a major reason I can't stand cozies. Takes me right out of the story.

Russel said...

And fuck it all to fuck if there aren't two dangling sentences there towards the end. Clearly I was so incensed I ran out of my 127 words.. And only my motherlovin' agent noticed (but he would). I'll fix it!

(ps, I'm with Jay bollocks makes me laugh every time)

(and ps, yes, Declan, I figured I wouldn't give people a brain hemorage by starring out the language - I think it comes from having recently read Bateman's I PREDICT A RIOT).

Russel said...

"There's a huge built-in audience of "mystery fans" that publishers seem to think will also appreciate "crime fiction," and while there's some overlap, the two genres are in many ways distinct."

John, I am so on board with this thought (may have to do a post about it later) because mysteries are a law unto themselves. Its why, in the states, I fought to have "a novel"gtagged onto The Good Son instead of "a mystery" because, its not a mystery. Its a crime novel.

And, yeah, I think it upsets me more when murder becomes a plot point for the clever detective to solve than when folks use bad language.


Absolutely, too much can spoil things. I think I'm pretty moderate; hardly an Irvine Welsh level swearbot, but I try to use in context and rhythm. Every sweary word in my novels has been literally sweated over (hence why all those ink blotches on the pages).


Actually its Priscilla Olivethorpe swears like a sailor with tourettes in my novels...

And, yes, its always the quiet ones who can swear the most inventively...


Indeed, its all about believing these characters would use these words. And when pressed those who not like the words tend to admit that, yes, these characters would use them.


I'm thinking I should really publish my next book under the pseudonym "fuckface".

Russel said...

Oh, as a PS of interest:

Christa Faust said...

Funny, I'm just finishing up a novel in which one character won't swear in front of women, because he was brought up to believe it's disrespectful. Writing his dialog been an interesting challenge for me, since I've never been one to shy away from the old f-word. Of course, other characters swear all the time, because they were brought up differently.

I guess that's my point here. In short, I think the choice to swear or not to swear should dictated by each individual character, not by some kind of overall moral censorship instigated by the author (or worse, the reader.)