Thursday, October 4, 2012

Guest post by Terry's client Donn Taylor - profanity in writing

Every writer must decide whether he needs to use words that are euphemistically described as "strong language"—"cusswords" and gutter language. These "four-letter words" so dominate fictional and video conversations today that these words often are the dialogue.

I guess I've heard them all. And I've put a good bit of thought into their place, if any, in my writing. So I've come to reject the most common justifications of using these words in fiction, drama, and film.

The usual justification is a claim of "realism." First, it’s claimed that because people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us closer to “real life” than other words.

Neither claim can withstand examination.

The first confuses "realism" with literalism. Fiction is not real life: it’s an artifice creating the illusion of real life. So if the writer must report people's words literally, what excuses him from including all other elements of life? Must every fictional day begin with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow?

Thus, if "realism" does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.

Nor can the claim that four-letter words are closer to "reality" withstand questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative. Perhaps is once was amusing to attribute bisexual reproductive capability to inanimate objects. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd that it's no longer humorous.

And on representing reality, let's consider the so-called "f-word." The early English (probably Anglo-Saxon) from which it descends was a savage language appropriate to those savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may have accurately described physical relationships between men and women. But many cultural changes have altered that reality.

One change was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love, popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. And in the 1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified by marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser's synthesis held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.

The point for "realistic" fiction is this: if the "f-word" today accurately describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience the past millennium.

So if customary justifications cannot withstand examination, the real reasons for using "strong language" must lie elsewhere. Conflict is basic to all good fiction. “Strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s narrative structure. In other words, "strong language" substitutes for genuine creativity.

Profligate use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter Morrie Ryskind put it, "The chic are always wrong."

© 2000, 2008, 2012, Donn Taylor
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature (especially Renaissance) at two liberal arts colleges. His novels The Lazarus File andRhapsody in Red have received excellent reviews, and he has also authored Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences such as Glorieta and Blue Ridge. He and his wife live near Houston, Texas, where he continues to write fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.


Adam Blumer said...

Thanks you for standing up for the voice of reason and biblical common sense. We are "Christian" authors, after all.

Terry Burns said...

I make no bones about it, I don't represent anything with profanity or inappropriate material in it. You know, it's a funny thing but if I actually say something about that when I reject something people want to argue about it nearly every time. Other reasons for not taking something they seem to accept easily if not always gracefully, but profanity, they feel compelled to explain to me how wrong I am. They feel I do not understand that it is necessary for realism, or to reach a certain audience the way a more mature rating on a movie will pull such an audience in. They explain even for a Christian writer to reach out to someone who really needs to hear the message they have to say they need to write in language they will relate to. Baloney. As a writer I had people cussing in many of my books, bad men do that, but I have never used a single profane word. It is the action and the emotions that are important, not the language. A good writer can do it easily. And they should.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Thank you Donn and Terry. You are the voice of wisdom.

Do those misguided writers think Jesus used the gutter words of his day to win the lost? Or did he offer them a difference?

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I am so THANKFUL that Hartline has addressed this issue. And what a well-reasoned post, Donn. Love your argument that it's not all about "realism" b/c then we'd have to show the tooth-brushing, putting-on-socks, etc.

I'm in total agreement with you. The majority of CBA readers I know would discontinue reading a book if they found profanity in it. However, from comments on most CBA blogs, you'd think it's a minority that dislikes profanity.

For me personally, I've decided not to get involved in the argument anymore, which seems like "endless geneologies" on many blogs at this point. For me, using profanity in your Christian novel goes against clear verses to let your language be pure, etc. But many others justify it by saying it falls into the area of Christian liberty.

I think, if some agencies such as Hartline continue to hold the line, and some publishers continue to back them up and refuse to publish profanity, at least the CBA readership will know which publishers to turn to for the books they want to read. And they will stop buying from pubs who include it.

Thanks for this very relevant post!

Davalyn Spencer said...

Excellent post.

Jennifer Major said...

This was EXCELLENT!!!!

Thank you for stating things so clearly.

And Mr Burns?

I do believe "Baloney" nearly did me in!

Terry Burns said...

I'm sorry, Jennifer, was baloney too strong a word for you? I'll try to watch my language next time.

Jennifer Major said...

No sir!! Not at all! It was charming and forceful at the same time. I actually laughed, because it totally got the force of emotion without resorting to profanity. Which of course, proves the point.

But that was very kind of you to offer to speak like a gentleman.