Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My Swearing Doesn't Mean Any More to Me Than Your Sermons Do to You

Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole.
Archie: How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?
Otto: You're the vulgarian, you fuck!

The Stranger: There's just one thing, Dude.
The Dude: And what's that?
The Stranger: Do you have to use so many cuss words?
The Dude: What the fuck you talking about?
The Stranger: Okay, Dude. Have it your way.


Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit."

This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.

But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it.

...Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.

Difficult to justify in serious nonfiction? Well, yeah; if the purpose of the writing is more to impart information rather than tell a story or create an atmosphere, gratuitous profanity would seem like the author's voice getting in the way. Otherwise, what's all this disapproval of rhetorical laziness and wrath? Take that prim and proper "seven deadly sins" shit and upper-class sneering back to the Victorians.

Repetitive verbal tics are what annoy me the most. There are people who abuse expletives, but it annoys me in the same way as hearing someone constantly saying "ya know," "like," and "um" in conversation too. The art is in the creative mindfulness you put into it, not the materials you use.