The use of profanity in books has always been a controversial question. Readers range in attitudes from not being in the least bit concerned to finding it offensive and refusing to read books containing swear words. Mention the subject to any group of authors, and you’ll end up in a lively discussion as to the pros and cons of the use of swear words and their personal preferences.
Less is more
I have a laissez-faire attitude towards swearing. It doesn’t offend me and my only objection to it is that heavy use in a novel or movie causes it to lose its impact, and it becomes just another word. A swear word is an expletive expressing a range of emotions from frustration to despair, and if it’s used constantly, its power and associated emotions are blunted. Some people use swear words as everyday adjectives, which negates all meaning, as in ‘I went to the f…ing shop and ran into f…ing old George, who told me this f…ing hilarious joke!’
That’s why I’ve come to love the Irish words feck and fecking. Marian Keyes, in Making It Up As I Go Along, an anthology of articles on modern life and love, goes to great pains to point out that fecking is not a swear word – it’s commonly used by the Irish in everyday conversation. But what I like about it is that it sounds so much like a swear word that you can derive a satisfactory amount of cathartic release from using it when you’re in polite company (‘I went to the fecking shop and ran into fecking old George, who told me this fecking hilarious joke!’) in the knowledge you’re not offending anyone.
Fecking is what is known as a minced oath. This is not a meat dish the Irish serve up with their praties, but a euphemistic adaptation of a swear word to make it less offensive. Others include gosh, darn, dang, fudge and heck, which sound like a bunch of vicars at morning tea and in my opinion are not a patch on feck.
You can’t please everyone
Unfortunately, feck or fecking are not much use to you when you’re writing a book, unless your character happens to be Irish. As an author I take the stance that if swearing is necessary for the authenticity of the character, I include it, and as many of the characters in my books are either criminals or live on the edge of respectable society, some cursing is inevitable. The frequency is certainly not what I would consider excessive, but even so, I have had a couple of readers comment that they didn’t like the swearing in my novel How Not To Commit Murder.
My argument is this: imagine a hardened criminal who’s been in and out of jail all his life getting angry at you and telling you to ‘Go away.’ If he does, he’s displaying exceptional and uncharacteristic self-control – maybe he did a course in Etiquette 101 during his last stint in prison. In reality, he’s going to tell you to f… off and if you’re lucky, that will be the only expletive he uses.
Wall Street Blues
It’s also a fact that the frequent use of cursing in modern books and movies has desensitized the average person to its impact, particularly the f-bomb, as it’s called. It was used over 500 times in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. (Wikipedia says 569). So someone actually sat through the movie with the sole purpose of counting the number of f…words? If so, there’s a definite component of human error here, as another account put the number of f-bombs as a mere 506. Perhaps the person who made that claim had a coughing fit and missed the other 63?
According to Wikipedia there are two other movies with a greater number of f-bombs than The Wolf of Wall Street – Swearnet: The Movie and F… a documentary on the word. But Martin Scorsese, the director of The Wolf of Wall Street is keen to claim the title of King of Profanity, as another article claims that the movie has set a new Guinness World Record for the movie with the most swearing, with Scorsese breaking his own previous world record of 422 f-bombs in his 1995 gangster movie Casino.
Again Wikipedia disagrees, claiming that the movies Summer of Sam and Nil by Mouth contain more f-bombs than Casino. Surely someone’s created an app that counts the number of f-bombs in a movie that would resolve this important controversy for once and for all.
Jazzing it up
When it comes to the most profane book ever written, there’s even more contention. It seems that readers are not as devoted to counting the number of swear words in books as movie-goers are in movies. A number of readers have mentioned Miles, the autobiography of jazz musician Miles Davis, with one claiming there are 672 f-bombs in the book. Davis was obviously a man who liked to make a point – or maybe had a limited vocabulary. Other books mentioned were Irvine Welsh’s books Trainspotting and Filth and Henry Miller’s books Tropic of Cancer and Over the Rooftops of Paris.
There’s a fecking app for that?
And if you're offended by swearing in books, you could buy the Clean Reader app, which replaces swear words in e-books with sanitized versions, with settings ranging from clean to squeaky clean. This app was released in early 2015 to the strident objections of many authors. One called it ‘f…ing horrifying,’ while award-winning author Joanne Harris pronounced it as ‘infinitely more offensive than any of the words it blanks out.’
In an article in The Telegraph she goes on to say, ‘Anyone who works with words understands their power. Words, if used correctly, can achieve almost anything. To tamper with what is written – however much we may dislike certain words and phrases – is to embrace censorship.'
Other authors took a more light-hearted view, wondering if there would be anything left of Irvine Welsh’s novels once the Clean Reader app had swept its broom of purity through them. And it’s also worth reminding authors not to set their books in places like Tittybong, Penistone or Balls Cross, as those with the Clean Reader app won’t know where on earth the story takes place.
I’ll leave the last word to crime writer Ian Rankin, who said on Twitter, ‘People seem equivocal about the Clean Reader app, but I've just installed Dirty Reader and it has done wonders for the Miss Marple books.’
What’s your view on profanity in books, as a reader and/or writer? I’d love you to chime in with your opinions in the comments box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.