Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fear not profanity

This is the essay about "strong language" that I promised in the last post. I originally wrote it for the This I Believe program on NPR – which is why there is no actual profanity within.

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I believe that it’s long past time for people to get over their squeamishness over words. Especially the words I can’t write in this newspaper.

A writer should not be afraid to use all of the words in the vocabulary toolbox – and that includes profanity, when appropriate for the character, setting, genre, and market. Sometimes, words like “nonsense,” “jerk,” “harridan,” and “make whoopee” don’t pack the needed punch. Try using these instead of the profane words and listen to the difference.

One of the canards that I despise is “if a writer has enough imagination, he shouldn’t have to resort to profanity.” That is such a can of succotash on so many levels.

First, it’s the character who’s doing the swearing, not the writer. I rarely curse in my real life, but I happily let some of my characters let rip. Do you think that, say, Dean Koontz is a homicidal maniac?

People who say that profanity and imagination don’t mix are only putting a guilt trip on writers because of their own discomfort with certain words. It’s easier to point the finger at the writer – “How dare you use those words!” – instead of yourself: “I just don’t like seeing those words in print.” But when you conclude, “I don’t think anyone else should see those words in print, either,” you have crossed a line that makes me stand up to fight, because your rights end where my pages begin.

One of the most wildly imaginative writers I’ve ever read is Harlan Ellison. In both his fiction and non-fiction, he takes the reader to unearthly worlds of terror, absurdity, and delight, his words spinning dizzily in a fractal explosion. And he’s not afraid of the judicious use of profanity. On the flip side, you can go to any bookstore in the country and find prose as flat as a can of Pepsi left opened on the dock from sunup to sundown -- but it’s A-OK to some of you out there, because it’s free of that awful profanity.

For those who say that profanity is the proof of a dull mind, I give you Quentin Tarantino and his screenplay Pulp Fiction, in which the profanity adds flavor to the prose like Lawry’s seasoned salt does with white rice. For those who believe that cursing just sounds ugly, open your mind and taste the tart hard candies that shoot from Steve Buscemi’s mouth in Fargo.

“But what about the kids?” you ask. What about them? The material mentioned above isn’t meant for them. And if your kids are eight years old or over, it’s too late anyway. They’ve already learned all the profanity they need to know in the schoolyard. Or at home.

And these are only words. Words that float in the air and feel like nothing. They are not fists. Not guns. Not bombs. Do you really think that a rapped profanity drifting out of a driver’s car window is going to scar your children for life?

Grow up. Please.

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