It's been entertaining watching and listening to reviewers talk about Being Flynn, the movie being made from Nick Flynn's novel, which bears the expletive-laden title Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. You can hear annoyance in the reporter's voices, the fact that they're adults that have to tiptoe around Nick Flynn's title, "Ha ha, we can't say the actual title on the air, but we'll call it "Another B. S. Night in Bleep City," snicker, snicker.
As a writer, though, it does beg some questions: Is that discomfort worth it? Could I lose readers? And,since I'm not a six-figure-book-deal-level writer, do I risk losing an editor's attention with a couple of needless swear words?
For a number of years, I shared a writing group with the author Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck had brought in pages from his then in-progress novel Pygmy and read one of his classic, gut-wrenching, morally deprived scenes. (If memory serves correctly, this one involved the main character drugging the entire family of the household where he was staying as an exchange student and inserting a dildo into the mother's vagina while she slumped over her Thanksgiving meal at the dining room table.)
I can't remember exactly how it came up, but in the middle of the discussion Chuck mentioned that he doesn't like to use profanity in his writing. It took me a while to fully register that comment. Chuck is considered one of the most stomach-turning, perverse, and, yes, profane writers of his generation. Wasn't his writing chock-full of expletives? Didn't Choke start with something like the line, "What happens here is first going to piss you off?" And didn't it get worse from there? Wasn't there something about fucking corn dogs?
Well, yes there was. But saying he didn't like to use profanity in his writing, didn't mean he didn't use it everywhere.
Another writer who you wouldn't suspect was a prude is Tom Robbins, but Tom takes a similar stance on profanity. The philosophical, talking can of beans in Skinny Legs and All rants, "Slang possesses an economy, an immediacy that's attractive, all right, but it devalues experience by standardizing and fuzzing it. It hangs between humanity and the real world like a... a veil. Slang just makes people more stupid, that's all, and stupidity eventually makes them crazy."
There seems to be a common thread between what Chuck and Tom are suggesting, andit isn't that they don't like using profanity because they don't like being profane. What bothers them about expletives isn't that they're sacrilegious or bad for children's eyes, but that they tend to be imprecise.
Of course, not everybody in the publishing world is thinking in an artistic way. My publisher shared with me the story of an upcoming title of theirs, Dora by Lidia Yuknavitch, a comic novel about a 16-year-old bisexual girl undergoing therapy by a Freudian. Naturally, the main character swears like a sailor every time she opens her mouth. A big publishing house balked at the amount of foul language in the book, and the writer chose to go with a smaller press, one that would honor the authenticity of her character, who she felt absolutely had to be a potty mouth.
So maybe the take away is this: know your characters, know your audience, and, if you're fortunate enough to have one, know your editor. If your characters aren't the type to drop the f bomb every three sentences, don't needlessly drop them. If your audience is conservative or mainstream, be careful. Maybe you need an expletive or two to illustrate a "bad" character, but the language of the narrator herself should remain relatively clean. And if your editor tells you to lighten up on the swearing? Well, either comply or get yourself a new editor.
But,hey, if your characters are mobsters, your audience foul-mouthed drunks, and your editor works at Playboy? Have a goddamn field day.
As for my take? I happen to have an entire page in my novel A Very Minor Prophet devoted to the word "FUCK!," which is in all-caps, bold, ends with an exclamation point, and is written in the font Comic Sans. The word is the climax of the entire novel — it was the perfect, most precise, and most absolutely necessary word for the occasion in which it was spoken. I wish I could have left it out to make the book more mainstream, but as a writer with a vision, there was simply no other way.
Meanwhile, my in-progress novel features a money-obsessed accountant with a secret passion for shipbuilding. He doesn't swear at all.
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James Bernard Frost is the author of the novels World Leader Pretend and A Very Minor Prophet, and the award-winning travel guide The Artichoke Trail. He lives in Oregon with the author Kerry Cohen, their four children, the rain, the freaks, and the trees. His bike is currently in disrepair.
Books mentioned in this post
James Bernard Frost is the author of A Very Minor Prophet