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:
‘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.’
‘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