By Jay Stringer
This one's for Joe Strummer.
One of the very first pieces Russel wrote for the site was about swearing in crime fiction. I want to return and dig away at the topic, but it hasn’t come from any thoughts about craft.
This weekend saw an historic moment in the UK, with the campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to Christmas number one instead of the latest X Factor single. I blogged about it elsewhere, and I’m not going to go on a long rant about it. Suffice to say, it was a fun thing to watch and there was a lot of shouting on both sides.
It got me thinking about profanity (Not that I need much of an excuse, as you can tell from previous entries.) Now, for those who don’t know the song –and I’m sure there are about six of you out there- it builds in intensity until reaching a crescendo, as the phrase Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me is shouted repeatedly.
It’s loud, it’s immediate, and it’s a direct connection to an emotion. I think that whether you love or hate the song, or even the use of the word, you instantly get the message. Job done.
But the fact that the song contains such language, and such angry usage of it, seems to create more debate than the meaning of the song itself. Never mind that the lyrics references police officers who were members of the KKK, or that it uses that link to attack right wing corporate agendas. Never mind on the other hand that it’s still a song on a major label and way overplayed. It has a naughty word in it. A lot.
This seems to make it an easy target. ‘you only like it because there’s a swear word’ is something that was levelled at me many a time in my youth. ‘They just swear to get noticed’ is another. These things are used to weaken the message of the song, or this week, to weaken the message of the chart sales.
I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with defences for this. Some of them have been witty and insightful, and would come with footnotes. Others were short, sharp and snarky. But I’ve come to the realisation that they were all pointless. Why defend something that I don’t think needs defending? And what exactly is wrong with swearing for effect? Anything I say or write, I hope, is for effect.
I had a conversation with some family members recently who were appalled at my potty mouth. They argued that it was a sign of weakness -that I didn’t need to swear when I could make the same point with other words. And they were right; I could have made the same point with other words. But it would have taken longer.
I think a well-placed swear word (or sometimes 14 well-placed swear words) shows far more intelligence than most grammatically correct and verbose speeches. Being able to swear effectively should be akin to reaching the level of Zen master of language, and is not a sign a sign of weakness.
If some crazy war of the words broke out, and I was needed to enlist in an army and fight of the alien invaders through the use of big and weighty wordage, I could hold my own. I’m not the cleverest man on earth. I’m not even the cleverest man in the room (that room currently being empty aside from myself…damn….I had to explain the joke). But I am reasonably well read, I can come across as semi-literate in conversation and I have a few thick books on my shelf.
I guess for many people, intelligence is marked by showing how many words you can fit into a sentence and how long those words are. That’s fine; they’re welcome to that view.
But I’m a storyteller and I need to be quick. My tastes in reading and writing are the same; I find skill in getting a point across in the purest form. And it’s often hard to find a purer way than to swear. Fuck it.
And wear does this whole idea of swearing being wrong or base come from? Is it, perhaps, a hold over from days when the ruling classes controlled the written word? When big words, long words and scary foreign words –spooky language, as George Carlin would say- was used to intimidate, control and marginalise everybody else? If you can’t use the right words, you can’t be in the club. Isn’t it time we moved past these ideas?
I do still believe there are times when the use of profanity in music, books and films is gratuitous. But I come at it from the opposite direction. If the point has already been made, there is no need to force an extra word in. If you’ve found a purer form of language, then roll with it. Don’t add in an extra word just to seem cool, and that includes swear words.
Get in, make your point, and get out.
And don’t fuck it up.