Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Learning to curse

with 2 comments

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.

—Caliban, in The Tempest

We interrupt our run of quotes from famous bearded writers to consider the unexpectedly thorny problem of cursing in fiction. Years ago, this wasn’t an issue: you simply didn’t use profanity at all. These days, though, with the demise of the Hays Code, the Comics Code, and the Comstock Act, writers can say whatever they want, which is an unambiguous good. It’s absolutely necessary for authors to have as broad and expressive a vocabulary as possible, which includes occasional recourse to some of the most powerful words in any given language. We’ve thankfully moved past the stage when Norman Mailer was forced to use the word “fug” in The Naked and the Dead—which prompted Tallulah Bankhead’s quip, upon meeting Mailer for the first time: “So you’re the young man who can’t spell.”

Yet with great power comes great responsibility, as one famous product of the Comics Code would have us believe, and the fact remains that most writers in any medium have no idea how to curse. Sometimes, of course, you’re naturally constrained: if you’re writing for television, say, or for Analog, which strives to be suitable for bright teenagers, you tailor your vocabulary accordingly. Without those constraints, though, writers often fall into one of two extremes. A lot of screenwriters throw profanity around like punctuation, trying to equal the effect that Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese turned to record-setting poetry in Goodfellas and Casino, but which more often results in unspeakable dialogue. And a surprising number of suspense novelists run in the opposite direction, with books filled with detectives and soldiers who sound like Gwyneth Paltrow covering Cee-Lo Green. As Anthony Lane notes in his review of Clive Cussler’s Inca Gold:

The plot is some farrago about buried treasure in the Andes, and the characters, though intended to be as tough as old boots, are not quite tough enough to curse properly. “Those fornicating baboons” is about as close as they get. The fruitful comparison here is with Judith Krantz, who I thought would be partial to soft-core euphemisms like “manhood” and “moistness” but never hesitates to call a fuck a fuck.

For the most part, my own writing is comparatively straitlaced, although you’d never guess this from looking at my custom dictionary in Word. Because Word doesn’t include profanity in its standard word list, and creates a new entry whenever I add an unfamiliar term to spellcheck, what you see in my custom dictionary, along with the usual proper names and technical terms, is an almost nonstop litany of filth, created over the course of ten years and 700,000 words of fiction. The result looks like something out of The Aristocrats, and it gives you a very skewed impression of my body of work, which is generally pretty clean—aside, of course, from an almost comically pervasive degree of violence, which goes with the territory, but is another issue entirely.

And my reticence about swearing has less to do with any real scruples than with doubts about my ability to use so fine an instrument. Our greatest artists of profanity, like Mamet, have raised the bar for everyone, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top a scene like Alec Baldwin’s electric seven minutes in Glengarry Glen Ross, or any of R. Lee Ermey’s scenes in Full Metal Jacket. (Although it’s worth noting that my favorite Mamet movie is rated G.) The upshot is that profanity is a subset of dialogue, and dialogue, profane or otherwise, is one of the hardest things for any writer to master. It needs to track on the page and read well out loud, while also being true to character, and bringing out the big guns of extreme profanity before you’ve mastered the basics will only draw attention to other shortcomings in style. As with nearly all else in writing, then, write naturally and unobtrusively, with an eye to character and clarity, and the rest will take care of itself. I swear.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2011 at 10:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. Let’s not forget the greatest scene of ethnomathematical detective work in the history of TV. The Victorianized version is shabby, though. Perhaps the point is that it’s best left to the screen and not the page.

    And the CBLDF now owns the CCA logo, funnily enough.


    October 3, 2011 at 11:51 am

  2. Agreed. I can’t top that.


    October 3, 2011 at 11:56 am

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