Thursday, May 8, 2014

Foul Language

The panel in which I participated at Bouchercon last year on noir and hard-boiled fiction was asked how important foul language is to those genres. I took it upon myself to answer, as Grind Joint is full of the kind of tasty morsels that give the FCC and the American Family Association the drizzles. I wanted to hear what everyone else had to say, so I kept my answer succinct:

“It’s a big fucking deal.”

It is, but not for the reasons some think. Foul language is no different from other language in the context of a story: it serves a purpose, or it shouldn’t be there. I don’t choose language to offend anyone, though I know some of what I write will do just that. To me, there is one reason to use foul language: to help to characterize. Much can be learned from how a character speaks, and who he speaks to in what manner. As almost everything I write is either close third-person or first-person POV, this rule also often applies to narration.

As eighty-year-old women are not inclined to say “fuck” (unless the person sitting next to her has shouted, “Bingo!”), long-haul truck drivers are not often heard to say “dad gum it” when the trailer rolls off the back of the tractor at 80 mph. Some might. If so, this is a perfect opportunity to show his even-temperedness, or Christianity, or failure to grasp the gravity of the situation. Whatever. It serves a purpose.

James M. Cain once said,

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hardboiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

Cain captured something I have thought without being able to enunciate for some time, though I make a minor modification I think he would forgive: I try to write as the character would speak, and the kinds of characters I write, generally speaking, are comfortable with foul language. The Russian gangster and black heroin dealer and small town cop use different levels of vulgarity with different frequencies, and under different circumstances. The cop’s elderly parents, not so much.

The goal—and the trick—is to answer the question, “What would this character say here?” Not “What would a character say if I wanted to get this on network television?” or “What would this character say if I want to be sure not to offend DixieLady25365?” Dialog should be truth, even when the character is lying. Expressing character through that person’s speech is as good an example of “show, don’t tell” as I can think of.

Readers are not blameless when offense is given. The easily offended owe it to themselves to perform some due diligence. Look at the title and subject matter; read the back cover. Read a few random spots and see for yourself. Authors and publishers have no more interest in unnecessarily offending anyone than the reader has in being offended. Readers who fail to do this relinquish the right to credibly dismiss a book with a one-star rating, and a review no more detailed than, “This is a good story, but the author is a disgusting potty mouth.”

My ultimate fantasy is to be at a signing or on a panel, and asked why I use so much foul language in my stories. I’d like to have the presence of mind and equanimity to cite all of the above, and to be sure the questioner understands my intent is not to be offensive, but to serve a greater purpose in the context of the story. I’d conclude by saying I’m sorry he or she was offended, and, in the future, if they have doubts about me, my advice is not to buy the fucking book.


Ben Sobieck said...

Why is it that a reader can assume the writer has a potty mouth if the book contains a lot of swearing, but not assume that the writer is a killer if the book contains a body count? Reading a little too closely into the details there, I think.

Mike Dennis said...

I can remember back to the early days of my musician career, circa 1973. I played BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, a song by the great Charlie Rich, which brimmed with romance and love. A woman came up to me afterward to say she was offended by the song, you know, all that sex and stuff. She then said, "Why don't you play something we all like, such as MACK THE KNIFE?"

In other words, don't play a beautiful modern love song, play a song from 1920s Germany that glorifies the bloody exploits of a murderer/rapist.

Dana King said...

Thanks for making that point. I hadn't thought of it, and couldn't make it even if I had, because, frankly, I am a potty mouth.

Dana King said...

That's one of my buttons. My mother is 87 years old and is willing to read about rapes, dismemberments, and slow murder, but she really doesn't like to read anyone saying "fuck." I thought she might disown me when she started reading my stuff, but I appear to have a special dispensation.