Please note: This post does contain profanity, so if that’s not to you liking, don’t read on. Otherwise, enjoy the bleep out of this post!
Please welcome Sarah Z. Sleeper to Writer Unboxed today! Sarah is an ex-journalist with an MFA in creative writing. Gaijin is her first novel. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Poetry Annual and Painters & Poets, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-five-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation.
What the Bleep Did I Write?! Profanity in Literature
I wrote a short story that’s full of profanity. Well, not full of profanity really, but there are ten or so four-letter words in its twenty-two pages. I gave it to my ninety-year-old father-in-law to read and apparently this was the floodgate he was looking for. When I walked in the door from the gym, he asked, “How the fuck was your workout?” He had never sworn in front of me before, much less to me. I responded, “It was pretty fuckin’ good.” After that, it was on. He swore at me with unrestrained joy every chance he got. After he learned that “I” swear—because to him, my fictional narrator was “me,” at least in some way—he was comfortable swearing too. This made me laugh but it also got me thinking. When is the right time to use profanity in literature? When would it be wrong to do so? Are there rules? With references to Shakespeare, Norman Mailer and others, I will examine these questions.
Of course, most of what we write these days should contain a caveat—compared to the profane situations of the pandemic and racial injustice, profane words in works of literature may not seem worthy of concern. But, that’s not true. How we write things and the words we choose to use matter immensely. Words can create drama, accentuate or deemphasize ideas, and cause emotional reactions. Writers often tackle profane and sensitive subjects. So, while a second-grade teacher may not want her students to read about sexual abuse in Lolita, for example, writers can learn much by studying Nabokov’s use of language. And while a coalition of conservative librarians might want to censor Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son because the protagonist is called “Fuckhead,” writers might study the book for its compelling and powerful style. Profanity, just as much as other words, should be chosen carefully and with purpose.
Dictionaries define profanity as abusive, vulgar or irreverent language. But I have a more workable description that I compiled from a variety of sources: Profane words are taboo because they insult or challenge our religion, our sexuality, our race, or our bodily functions. At the risk of alienating some readers right now, I will assert that there are at least six universally recognized profane words, fart, piss, shit, fuck, cock and cunt. As you read those perhaps you cringe at one or more—I know I do. But I also write stories in which three of those words make regular appearances. I included them because they were accurate to the character who said them or thought them. The tennis player, Maxwell Mantek, in my story “Mantek Mans Up” thinks through a continuous loop of profanity, mainly directed at his opponents on the court. He exerts significant effort to not say the words out loud, and of course, he doesn’t always succeed at such self-censorship. I decided profanity was part of Maxwell’s thought process after considering what the inner life of a hyper-competitive, hyper-masculine athlete might look like. Of course, there’s much more to this character than the profanity in his brain, but the profanity is a crucial part of his character. I believe the story would be less powerful without it. And that leads me to a short list of questions writers can ask themselves when deciding: To swear or not to swear? That is the question. (I don’t have a definitive answer.)
Would this character swear? Why or why not?
In her June 2011 New York Magazine essay, “Ode to a Four-Letter Word, Kathryn Schulz makes a strong case for the word fuck. She writes, “Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or to shock. We use them because sometimes the four-letter word is the best one.” I would take that a step further. We use them because they are true to our characters. The characters we write, hopefully, speak in style and vernacular that fits. Schulz also points out that “fuck can be “a noun, verb, adverb, adjective or interjection, not to mention in any mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage.” So if a character has the propensity to swear, there are a multitude of ways to be creative about the way he does it.
What circumstances would cause the character to swear?
Consider Tim O’Brien’s, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and the character of Rat, a warrior in the direst of circumstances. He says, “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fucking letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.” Does this seem like something a soldier on a battlefield might say? I think so too.
What is the tone and voice of the piece? Nihilist? Impoverished? Snooty?
I have not done quite enough drugs to relate fully to Denis Johnson’s protagonist in Jesus’ Son, his book of linked short stories. The scenes and the characters are disturbing, sentimental, smart, sadistic, amoral, kind, cruel, immature—in other words, real, uncomfortably real. Johnson’s prose is minimalistic, especially in the first five or six stories. His protagonist—mainly because he’s blacked out or hallucinating most of the time—experiences a series of disjointed incidents. His actions are illogical, arbitrary and frightening. Yet, he has bursts of insight into himself and others, fleeting moments of empathy and understanding. Much of the prose is harsh and sparse, and Johnson’s decision to refer to his unnamed narrator as “Fuckhead” seemed utterly fitting for the circumstances.
Will the reader be offended? (Do you care?)
If you write children’s books, profanity probably will not be part of them because readers or parents of readers might take exception. Profanity could kill your book sales and alienate your potential audience. (With respect to the exception, Go the Fuck to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach, which is a “children’s book for adults” and a best seller.) In my novel, Gaijin, which is for adults, the word “fuck” appears. It’s part of a protest movement and written on a sign directed at the American military in Japan. “Fuck Off Americans” sounds quite harsh outside of the context of the story, but in fact it accurately represents the feelings of the sign maker. You might not like the word, but I don’t care because it’s true to the story.
Will someone—an editor, a library, a school—try to censor your book if it contains profanity? (Do you care?)
Years ago I wrote a piece on censorship and in doing so I interviewed the inimitable Judy Blume, who told me that her books were often censored by libraries and schools. Why? Not because of profane language, but because some readers consider discussion of bodily functions, such as menstruation and sex, to be profane in themselves. An author friend of mine who writes middle grade fiction told me that she was the target of a concerted censorship campaign started by readers who disliked her use of the word “damn.” It’s tempting for me to say I can’t believe people are so provincial, but I know that some are, including some avid readers. One such avid reader and friend (a second-grade teacher) who read my Mantek story told me that she “couldn’t believe” how much “I” swore. I gently reminded her that the character was not me and asked her to recall that in our decade of interactions “I” swear very little. It’s worth noting that The American Library Association often fights the battle in favor of no censorship.
Mary Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker, wrote on June 28, 2012, “It no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously, as in ‘I missed the fucking bus.’ I used to be a prude, but now I am a ruined woman. We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be ‘f’-word, f word, f-word, ‘F’ word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. Fuck euphemisms. Get on the goddam fucking bus.” I couldn’t agree more. And while you’re at it, write the fucking best word!
Here’s a final question to ask yourself when deciding to use blue language or not. Is profanity appropriate in dialogue, within the text, or both? In his 2010 essay, “Gratuitous Profanity in Literature,” posted on his website, writer Reynold Conger put the issue like this… “My opinion is that the only place where profanity should be allowed is in dialogue, and only used in dialogue when the profanity tells us something important about the character who is speaking. Certainly the thug who is snatching a purse is not in character if he says, ‘Please, ma’am, may I be allowed to carry off your purse?’ any more than his victim, the wife of a preacher, would be in character if she replied, ‘You fucking bastard. Keep your God damn mits off of my mother-fucking purse.’” I appreciate this example, but I’m not entirely in agreement with Conger that profanity should only be in dialogue. It’s a question that merits thought.
I’d like to leave you with a short, final anecdote. Norman Mailer wrote the 1947 novel The Naked and the Dead about his combat experiences in World War II. The dialogue contained profanity and his publisher, worried about censorship, changed the word “fuck” to “fug.” The novel was a best-seller that launched Mailer’s career. Shortly after the book was published Mailer met the sassy actress Tallulah Bankhead at a cocktail party. Miss Bankhead commented, “You’re the young author who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.”
An Incomplete List of Literary Swearers and Writers of Profane Subjects
- David Foster Wallace—“Fiction’s about what it is to be a human fucking being.”
From an interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
- Lorrie Moore—“And for a fleeting moment everything felt completely fucked up.”
From her story, “Thank You for Having Me,” from her collection, Bark.
- Erica Jong—”The zipless fuck is absolutely pure.”
From her novel, Fear of Flying.
- J.M. Coetzee—This Nobel Prize winner is known for tackling subjects that some see as profane— racism, rape, animal cruelty—more than for using profanity in his writing.
- Peter Carey—Profanity is somewhat watered down and consistent with the dialect he writes in, but still apparent in words such as “effing,” and “adjectival.”
From his novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.
- Ernest Hemingway—“F**k. You want to know why I fired my f**king rifle? I saw that f**king rabbit over there so I shot it.”
From For Whom the Bells Toll.
- John Steinbeck—He used the term flop in Of Mice and Men, which at the time meant sex with a prostitute. He’s quoted in a letter to his godmother, “To the men I write about, profanity is adornment and ornament and is never vulgar and I try to write it so.”
- Chaucer—“But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers….” An example of almost writing “ass,” but readers know what he means.
From “The Miller’s Tale,” Canterbury Tales.
- Shakespeare—In Much Ado about Nothing he makes reference to a “thing,” meaning a penis, and “nothing,” meaning a vagina. Natalie Angier of The New York Times also points out that he writes “zounds” and “sblood,” offensive contractions of “God’s wounds” and “God’s blood.” Shakespeare is also an amazing sexual punster.
- The Bible—Interestingly, the Bible contains words and phrases that can be equated to today’s profanity. In I Samuel 20:30, an angry King Saul called his son, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” which sounds an awful lot like son of a bitch. In Nehemiah 4:2 the question, “What are those feeble Jews doing?” seems like a racial slur to me.