Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Bonfire of the Profanities

Foul language in literature is always a contentious issue; some people are easily offended while others are not.  As a reader and a writer, the issue of profanity, for me, comes down to whether it is justifiable.  As I am writing this I can hear my next door neighbour dropping the F-Bomb on his six-year-old stepdaughter in a two-way shouting match.  Unfortunately for him, it characterises him in a less than favourable way, and I’m sure you’ve already got a family portrait forming in your heads.  However, if I were trying to paint this particular portrait I could probably give you the same impression of this family without dropping this particular bomb, but am I self-censoring out of fear?  Am I shying away from the truth of these characters?

My dad used to be a serial cusser (I say ‘used to’ because he’s no longer with us, God bless him).  He could throw four fucks into a sentence about cheese and you wouldn’t even know it.  Never has a swear word been uttered so innocently by so lovely a man.  Now, if I were narrating a scene with my dad talking, the ‘truth’ would be to leave those cusses in, wouldn’t it?  I would say no.  My dad’s cussing did not characterise him, and I think I could omit those ‘fucks’ and leave my dad’s character whole and intact.  The above incident may be a different matter, and it would depend on what I wanted you to feel about him, the social environment or whatever.

The reason I started thinking about this subject is because of a section of dialogue I just wrote.  It’s from my work-in-progress, Through the Eyes of Douglas:

Douglas took a step towards her.  ‘Go get him,’ he said.  ‘I’ve met a hundred of him.  They’re ten a penny in prison…’  He watched her face knot.  ‘Ah, that’s where he is, isn’t he?  Prison?’
     ‘You don’t fucking know me.’
     ‘If you’re anything like your son, I know you pretty well.  A spiteful, loveless bitch who only knows how to hate and to hurt, but that’s not your fault.  Your parents were probably cunts, in fact, you probably come from a long line of cunts.’
     ‘You little—’
     ‘But the thing about the cunt gene is, there is no cunt gene, it’s a learned skill like manners.’

On its own and out of context, this piece of dialogue and my use of the ‘C’ word might be considered offensive and unnecessarily vulgar, but I know it’s the ‘truth’ of this particular scene, and hopefully if you ever get to read it within the context of the story you’ll agree.  If you don’t, I’m sorry, but only because you’ve been offended and not because I was offensive. 

John Guest ~ 1935 - 1994

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

I have a confession to make: I have never read Lord of the Rings.  The whole sword and sorcery thing has never appealed to me, and it’s not because I don’t like dragons, elves or sword fights, it’s because of the old ‘Forsooth, sir, you dishonour my family name and I shall have satisfaction…’ blah, blah, yawn.  Warfare bores me too, as does the politics that goes with it.  Now I know these are whopping generalizations of a genre I have little experience with, but what little I have experienced hasn’t done a lot to change my opinion of it.  I even gave up on the TV dramatisation of A Game of Thrones for these same reasons, when everyone else kept telling me how great it was.

But I do feel a little cheated that I’m missing out on some potentially good stories due to my hair-trigger gag reflex when it comes to stilted noble-speak and tired fantasy tropes, so I’ve always got a shifty eye on the new releases in the hopes that something different will present itself and allow me to tag along on a tale without leaving puddles of puke all over the cobbled streets of some faraway land.  Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure was one such tale, and a pleasant surprise to this disgruntled and jaded fantasy reader. 

As world-building goes, Low Town escapes endless description, making its discovery organic and the pace livelier for it.  The Warden is dark and complex and his dips into noble-speak are blessedly minimal and mostly tongue-in-cheek.  As a lawman turned drug dealer he can walk in all circles of Low Town’s society and as such his chameleon-like speech patterns mirror that of his immediate company.  It’s a nice touch that for the most part works well, although at times there’s a clang of contemporary dialogue that just doesn’t fit at all.  ‘Tossing’ a room, for instance, is straight out of CSI.  Thankfully these slips are rare. 

But at the heart of Polansky’s tale lies a nourish murder mystery that could only ever take place in a town as dark as Low Town, and could only ever be solved by a character as dark as the Warden, and whether or not you puritanical fantasy fans take to Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure, I certainly did, and I may just try another. 

Any recommendations?