Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 14th, 2013

The stilted and the profane

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Wolfe swears

I think swearing, though it sounds cool, is overrated. Usually, when you make the clean version, you have to think, and most of the time that one’s better.
Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, quoted in The New Yorker

At some point in my recent life, I basically stopped swearing. Part of this may have to do with being married to a woman whom I don’t think I’ve heard swear once in more than seven years, and having an impressionable baby around the house may also be a factor. I was never a particularly profane person, but in the past, I saw no problem with saving a salty word or two for special occasions—usually when my MacBook froze up in the middle of some crucial operation, which seems to happen more and more often these days. (My laptop is currently held together with duct tape and prayer, but that’s another story.) As time has gone on, though, I’ve found myself avoiding some of the most forceful words in the Anglo-Saxon language, either through lame euphemism or paraphrase or what I’d like to think is my Zen temperament. In reality, though, I think these words about as often as ever; I’m just finding other ways of expressing them. Maybe it’s a good thing. Or maybe it doesn’t make much of a difference one way or the other. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it feels like a permanent change.

And it’s also creeping into my fiction. Since my first novel was published, I’ve become almost as verbally straitlaced as the New York Times. A quick search in Microsoft Word reveals that The Icon Thief contains twenty-two instances of the most powerful of all one-syllable expletives and its variants; City of Exiles contains only fourteen; and Eternal Empire contains a grand total of one, which I added in the rewrite to punctuate a particularly emotional moment. This is partially because the last two novels have increasingly come to focus on a Mormon character who doesn’t exactly talk like a sailor, but the number of mobsters, prison inmates, and other verbally colorful types has remained constant, so there’s a larger trend at work here. And my short fiction has always been entirely free of profanity, mostly because the editorial policy at Analog is that every story should be accessible to a bright twelve year old—a stance with which I heartily concur. Again, I don’t think this inherently good or bad, and I doubt it affects how my novels read. There was never a lot of profanity here in the first place; it’s just gotten even more restrained.

Maddy swears

But even if the effects are largely invisible, I can’t help but think it represents both a growth and a regression. Let’s address the latter first. Tone in fiction is generally a question of register: some writers operate within a very narrow slice of their native language, while others jump from one verbal stratum to another within the course of a single story, and others vary it from one project to the next. When you’re just starting out, every sentence you write is an incursion into unexplored territory, but as time goes on, it’s easy for a writer to find his or her own level and stay there. My own style, at least in fiction, has always been clean, transparent, and reasonably polished, which at its best begins to approach something like elegance, and at its worst just seems flat. I’m not a writer of extremes: I like to find a middle ground of clear expression and stay there, no matter how intense or outlandish the content. That applies as much to dialogue as anything else—my characters all tend to speak in clean sentences—and although it works well enough for the kind of fiction I’m writing, I sometimes worry that it limits the kinds of stories I can tell or moods I can evoke. And being too cautious when it comes to bad language is the most obvious place where this tendency expresses itself.

There’s a brighter side, though, and it’s the one I’d prefer to believe. As I’ve written elsewhere, the use of profanity can be a crutch, especially in dialogue, and its overuse can be grating. I definitely fell into that trap as a younger writer, and now, as in most things, my approach is to err on the side of being too conservative: for better or worse, I’d rather write a flat, purely functional sentence than one that stands out for trying and failing to achieve a memorable line. In practice, however, it forces me to create other kinds of texture, at least to my own eyes. As Dr. Luke points out, writing the clean version, both in terms of profanity and in the more general sense, compels you to be a little more inventive. You look for other ways of generating emotional emphasis, of expressing force, or of convincingly depicting the inner lives of earthy men and women. Whether or not the result works is another question, and it’s possible that I’m just avoiding the issue: I’d love to have the poetically profane style of a Mamet or Iannucci. And if the story demands it, I’d like to think I’d rise to the occasion. After all, if the New York Times can do it, why can’t I?

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2013 at 8:25 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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