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grasshopper

Use of Extreme Language in Modern Literature

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There have been a few comments lately about both the use and overuse of extreme swearing in books, something I have been wondering about for some time. Certainly it seems to occur frequently and often unnecessarily. I am pretty certain most of us here would wish it was not so, whilst recognising that on occasions it may be appropriate.  This differs from the use of graphic sexual description because we can generally recognise those books where it is most likely to occur and avoid them if it is not to our taste, but swearing often crops up in unexpected contexts.

 

The immediate reason for beginning  this thread is because it is used twice in the first few sentences of The Martian, by Andy Weir, which is under discussion and provoked criticism. Under the particular circumstances and even with a decent and reasonable character using it, I felt it appropriate. But this is an exception.   There have been other instances and comment and I read a crime story recently where it seemed to be overused, but then I wondered and rather suspect that in a police environment it is probably pretty common and is this just reflecting how such language is no longer shocking or even viewed as unusual at all?

 

When first came to this fair land the use of "bloody" as a common and frequent adjective shocked me rigid, but I had to get used to it and a great deal more.  Whilst I do not condone and actively cringe at the use of extreme words over time I have come to recognise that in many countries and environments such as business, journalism, parliament( although not when Hansard is being recorded) and entertainment it is used freely and with little thought by people at all levels. So, do we have to accept that and expect that books will follow suit?  

 

With these kinds of examples how can we expect new generations to even realise it is wrong or objectionable, either in speech or in writing?   The use of social media has definitely allowed the scales to fall from my eyes with reference to the really extreme and gross language and venom that some sections of the population feel free to express to the world in general, although fortunately while mostly still considered unacceptable there, is this an indication of where we are heading in literature? 

 

I would appreciate the views and thoughts of others here on BGO.

 

 

 

 

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"even with a decent and reasonable character using it,

 

With these kinds of examples how can we expect new generations to even realise it is wrong or objectionable, either in speech or in writing?  "

 

 

 

I fear we may clash here GH! I have no objection to swearing, consider myself a decent character and yet, I swear like a paratrooper on weekend leave. Frankie Boyle says that swearing in Glasgow is just like punctuation and he's right. I don't think it is wrong or objectionable and therefore have no concerns about it in literature.

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I am also Glaswegian and I object to swearing in public and in literature. Frankie Boyle is no example, IMHO, to use as justification for anything and just because swearing is frequent and common here does not make it acceptable. I hear it all the time, so much so that it lost it's shock value a long time ago (somewhere during my childhood) but I'd still prefer not to hear it and I don't want to read it.

 

That said I have been known to utter the odd swear word myself. Never in public, though.

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"even with a decent and reasonable character using it,

 

With these kinds of examples how can we expect new generations to even realise it is wrong or objectionable, either in speech or in writing?  "

 

I fear we may clash here GH! I have no objection to swearing, consider myself a decent character and yet, I swear like a paratrooper on weekend leave. Frankie Boyle says that swearing in Glasgow is just like punctuation and he's right. I don't think it is wrong or objectionable and therefore have no concerns about it in literature.

 

I'm sure you're a decent character Hazel and no, we won't clash, unless you tell me you f***, c*** and mother******* around your sons at the weekends and I doubt you do. I probably didn't express myself sufficiently well, I  mean very extreme swearing and language used continually through a book when the character or situation doesn't necessarily make its use believable.

 

Yes, swearing in lots of places including Australia is also used like punctuation, thoughts of very early Billy Connolly (Glaswegian?) and live Eddie Murphy spring to mind as well. Because of this it is becoming common place and the reason I am asking, should  we just accept it in books, as being how things are now? 

 

Strangely enough, I have just mentioned elsewhere that I am reading The Crow Road and some is used on occasion there and I just accept it as being what fits the particular conversation.    I will never enjoy it when used or overused, but can ignore it,  although it has been hard to change,and Hazel  you are at least two full  generations past mine. Just sorry that youngsters are so readily exposed to it.  

 

I readily confess that I am by no means faultless and on my own, behind the wheel, the air occasionally gets pretty blue. But there is a wide range between damn and  f*** :rant: Wow, this is my first starry post and hopefully the last.

 

 

ETA Luna, thank you for your reply, it appeared while I was writing this. I shall have to look Frankie Boyle up, but I appreciate your views, this is what I really am looking to hear from a wide range of readers, what others think.

Edited by grasshopper

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I'm another swearer - and have no problem with reading expletives as long as they fit. Occasionally you find a writer who uses them when they don't sound right or convincing - presumably in a misguided attempt at verisimilitude - and I don't like that. But these books probably have more fundamental problems. For example, in the execrable Dominion that I have just finished, a man came out of a brothel and said to himself: "what a lovely bit of c***". It's an offensive phrase, but my main problem is believing that anyone would be talking to themselves at all on coming out of a brothel. 

 

If these words become more mainstream then, per se, they will lose their shock value. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, neutralising shock words could be seen as positive in that they would no longer offend people; but then again, it is quite useful to have offensive words in one's arsenal.

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I daresay that it still far from socially acceptable in every context. Remember the unease that Chancellor Merkel stirred particularly in the US when she used the word "shitstorm" in public? (Though she could not help it: We simply have no other word for that phenomenon!)  But doesn't such literature inadvertently contribute to make swearing acceptable? I agree that sometimes such words may be used for dramatic effect in the plot*. But they very rarely serve such purposes.

 

* There was one publisher of Pulp SF who always edited such words out and replaced them with placeholders like "He said something which could not be printed". Until one author sneaked a word past the editor: He described something like the Wannsee conference in a dictatorship on the future Earth, and suddenly, one of the members who is underover participating cannot stand it any more, jumps up and bellows at all the high-ranked politicians around the table, "You bloody assholes!" - End of chapter. Even the editor had to agree that this was so effective that he could not amend it without ruining the scene.

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Remember the unease that Chancellor Merkel stirred particularly in the US when she used the word "shitstorm" in public? (Though she could not help it: We simply have no other word for that phenomenon!)  

 

The reason she upset people was because she is a Tory. Nobody likes a Tory.

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I'm another one who is untroubled by swearing in literature, and whom is also known to swear in public although not in front of his children if he can possibly help it (I confess I have done so though).

 

The effectiveness of swearing can be blunted by overuse, so any writer who chooses to use it should, I think, be careful not to overdo it if the intention is to convey that a character is very frustrated, exasperated, upset, angry, whatever reason they want their character to swear.

 

I also accept Hazel's argument that there are certain milieu where swearing has become part of the rhythms of speech, as it is on sink estates in the UK (for our American cousins, think of the poorest, most rundown housing project you can: that's a sink estate). I can't imagine Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, for example, which is a great novel, without a steady stream of f or c words, it just wouldn't ring true.

 

Basically, as with a lot of things in life, it is all about context and moderation. If you are offended by swearing and pick up a novel featuring Edinburgh junkies or hard bitten, tough cops, then you really only have yourself to blame.   

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I had a smile when reading this thread.  I have a couple of words in my arsenal which frequently pop up as I'm a bit short tempered (and sometimes a lot short tempered) and each New Year I make a resolution to leave these words out of my vocabulary but like all resolutions they usually fail.  However, I refrain from swearing in public  :angeldevi and my couple of favourite words never leave my house.  Having said that I don't like reading books which are peppered throughout with vulgarity and bad language but sometimes a really good plot overrides the dislike.  Mostly it's police procedurals where it pops up frequently and military fiction but I notice it less in the British books.  I really dislike vulgarity especially men using it to describe women, I find that way more offensive than the conversational swearing. And to show how hypocritical I can be I hate it when the swearing is used by female characters. :rolleyes:

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I can put up with a small amount of swearing in films especially where it is more or less expected eg an action film but really I would prefer it if they didn't. In books I really can't stand it at all and sometimes has put me off the book completely. That's where it is such a pleasure to read people like Len Deighton - he writes beautifully without swear words even though the subject matter might well warrant it. C.J. Sansom (Shardlake etc) is someone who doesn't over use swear words but uses them occasionally for effect (eg it is quite comical where Barack refers to everyone as an a-hole and finally Shardlake says to him that he is the biggest a-hole around hyere!)) but I still find it grates and rarely adds anything to the story. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night" is one book where every character apart from the boy himself swears constantly. I can see why the author has done it, but for me it ruined the book. It also makes it difficult to use as a school text for which purpose it is otherwise eminently suited.

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Just like to add to my previous post, I find vulgar descriptions of female anatomy and violent rape much more offensive than swearing.  

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I didn't feel comfortable with China Miéville's dialogue swearing in The City and the City but I read it anyway. I also read Perdido Street Station with the same type of swearing but because I expected it it was fine. I have more books by Miéville that I am happy to read - his prose is amazing!

 

However, I came across a cook book by India Knight and upon flicking through it came across the f-word and that is wholly unacceptable. So I suppose that it does depend on context and whether or not I'm expecting it but I'd still rather not read it. As for extremely bad language, I don't think I'd find that acceptable in a book.

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I haven't ever really been aware of swearing in books except where it would be expected, such as the example of Trainspotting. I agree that overuse of any language device is annoying where it serves no purpose, whether it is swearing, flowery metaphor or whatever, but I haven't encountered this and wonder why an editor would let it go.

 

The only time it truly bothers me is in school. We have a zero tolerance policy for anything but the mildest expletives, so we can't really expect the children to read aloud or quote from texts which have very colourful language: I have vetoed a few modern dramas on that basis. On the other hand, Of Mice and Men uses its fair share of the milder end, and they cope with that. Mostly. I once had a very able class and many of the girls were uncomfortable with the language when reading aloud. We arrived at a compromise: they would stop and I would say the bad word. So I spent several periods intermittently saying "b..." and the rest. :-)

It is also a problem with the Burns poem "Welcome to a Bastart Wean". The nice kids will ask "When do we have to hand in the homework on ... on ... the baby poem?"

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I once had a very able class and many of the girls were uncomfortable with the language when reading aloud. We arrived at a compromise: they would stop and I would say the bad word. So I spent several periods intermittently saying "b..." and the rest. :-)

It is also a problem with the Burns poem "Welcome to a Bastart Wean". The nice kids will ask "When do we have to hand in the homework on ... on ... the baby poem?"

 

I don't have a firm view on all this, which is why I haven't weighed in, but these two anecdotes made me laugh, particularly "the baby poem."

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Thank you for so many quick replies and diverse comments. Some raised good questions, like MHG and Romanike -

 

 

If these words become more mainstream then, per se, they will lose their shock value. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, neutralising shock words could be seen as positive in that they would no longer offend people; but then again, it is quite useful to have offensive words in one's arsenal.

 If they lose their shock value what on earth will they use as shock value instead?  Mind boggling.

 

But doesn't such literature inadvertently contribute to make swearing acceptable?

 

It could indeed lessen its impact and reinforce acceptability.

 

I really dislike vulgarity especially men using it to describe women, I find that way more offensive than the conversational swearing. And to show how hypocritical I can be I hate it when the swearing is used by female characters. :rolleyes:

 

I completely agree, momac, re vulgar and sex related derogatory descriptions of other people,by either sex, and this is a place where social media is making it horribly apparent how ghastly people can be. Fortunately most of us would not be exposed to it, but it sometimes comes to light when trolling and bullying becomes extreme and is publicised, and there are groups that deliberately indulge in extremes on picked targets with whose views they disagree. Most often active feminists or female political activists.

 

 

 I once had a very able class and many of the girls were uncomfortable with the language when reading aloud. We arrived at a compromise: they would stop and I would say the bad word. So I spent several periods intermittently saying "b..." and the rest. :-)

It is also a problem with the Burns poem "Welcome to a Bastart Wean". The nice kids will ask "When do we have to hand in the homework on ... on ... the baby poem?"

 

 

 

MM, it must be getting difficult for many teachers and I smiled at your school examples and think you are a star teacher to suggest that compromise. I could imagine your voice piping up every so often with that word and it truly made me laugh.  What a good way to get around the problem

Edited by grasshopper

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MM, it must be getting difficult for many teachers and I smiled at your school examples and think you are a star teacher to suggest that compromise.

I don't know if it is getting any worse, though: in fact, in my school it is probably getting better. Of Mice and Men is the sweariest book we do, and it was published in 1937! Sure, kids know how to swear, but they also know how not to, and in general have no problem in tuning it out, especially as we teachers take an approach somewhere between po-faced and horror when it happens (and swearing at a teacher results in exclusion).

I think that is right, because it results in an environment where the aggression that can go with swearing isn't the norm. But I haven't seen any rise in swearing in the 20+ years I have been teaching.

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 If they lose their shock value what on earth will they use as shock value instead?  Mind boggling.

 

Well, that is an ongoing process. Offensive or taboo words are becoming commonplace and are replaced by other words - that happens all the time. Words that are today perceived as friendly teasing have once been reason to challenge the speaker to a duel. Ask some youths what words they consider really offensive today!

 

From the author's point of view, I admit that I make use of swearing as I make use of gore, but I do so sparsely because I believe that it has more effect when it comes unexpectedly, and in such cases I try to be more creative than resorting to four-letter-words. Only once, I granted to one character an orgy of merda (which is Latin for merde which is French for ... you know), but since he had just survived stabbing and an amputation-happy surgeon and was far from recovery, he had a good reason to utilize such terminology.

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I think I notice the lack of swearing more than the swearing. TV shows and films that strive for realism but don't include any swearing are very odd to me indeed.

 

It's also worth remembering Ricky Gervais' words - just because you are offended, doesn't mean you are right.

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Just like to add to my previous post, I find vulgar descriptions of female anatomy and violent rape much more offensive than swearing.  

 

I agree, there are much more important things to get angry about than a bit of swearing.

 

The correlation between swearing and a common, unintelligent person really grates on me. Everyone owns language and no small group is the sole user.

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I think I notice the lack of swearing more than the swearing. TV shows and films that strive for realism but don't include any swearing are very odd to me indeed.

 

It's also worth remembering Ricky Gervais' words - just because you are offended, doesn't mean you are right.

 

I agree with you, Hazel. In TV shows, it sometimes seems strange that they don't use swear words when it  would be more natural (like in prison scenes, violent confrontations, or whatever). I've noticed more frequently that shows are having the characters say the words but bleeping them out. I've been hearing a lot more of "mother(bleep)" recently. Does it really matter if it's bleeped, though? Don't people hear it in their head anyway?

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I agree, there are much more important things to get angry about than a bit of swearing.

 

The correlation between swearing and a common, unintelligent person really grates on me. Everyone owns language and no small group is the sole user.

I'm definitely in the Hazel, Mr HG and Grammath group. Swearing/profanity is language used in playgrounds, The Bible, Shakespeare and in every known civilisation. Why should modern literature be different?

Usual caveats in literature about being required/relevant but hey if you read Military novels, Police novels, Irvine Welsh, Lawrence Amis or any modern author don't moan just read Mills and Boon or children books.

It's language and that never should be censored or Putin style filtered.

If you don't like don't read.

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If you don't like don't read.

 

How exactly do you avoid it?  As I said up thread, I wasn't expecting profanity in The City and the City until I found it, by which time I had not only bought the book but was a good way into it.  Books don't always state that there is going to be profanity/etc and tCatC is classed as Sci-Fi so not where one would expect profanity/bad language.

Edited by lunababymoonchild

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How exactly do you avoid it?  As I said up thread, I wasn't expecting profanity in The City and the City until I found it, by which time I had not only bought the book but was a good way into it.  Books don't always state that there is going to be profanity/etc and tCatC is classed as Sci-Fi so not where one would expect profanity/bad language.

Then we are going down the slippery Putin slope of sealed books with stickers saying contains strong language.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/07/language-swearing-clampdown-russia-books-putin

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Then we are going down the slippery Putin slope of sealed books with stickers saying contains strong language.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/07/language-swearing-clampdown-russia-books-putin

I don't know what the answer is Clavain but I think that I have every right to thumb through a cookery book and expect not to see profanity (India Knight's book mentioned above). I know that Irvine Welsh uses very strong language and I don't read that. If strong language was expected it would be easier for me to make the choice. I don't see why I should be condemned to Mills & Boon just because I don't like strong/extreme language.

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I don't honestly think you have a right to expect anything in a book. Yes, there really isn't a need for swearing in a cookery book but it's hardly a right to expect x y z from a genre. And you're not condemned Luna, it's a choice you make. Swearing is a integral part of life and it's going to be in any media that reflects that. Surely that's the only expectation.

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