Friday, October 12, 2012
F you, you effing F
Musings on the F-word in life and literature
Readers might recognize the title of this piece as a quote from John Goodman’s character in the first season of “Treme.”
The dreaded F-word shows up frequently on HBO shows and in most R-rated movies and contemporary literature. That and a few other curse words are practically de rigueur in books and movies for adults—and I don’t necessarily mean for adults only in the sense of violent or sexually graphic material, I mean any story that deals in a realistic manner with everyday people, whether they’re cops, drug dealers, gangsters or teachers or librarians.
Let’s quit pussy-footing. I use the words shit and fuck in normal conversation and I’ve used them (or my characters have) in all of my novels. And yet there are situations where I don’t feel comfortable either saying or hearing those words.
My sister told me she was afraid to read my first novel because of what she feared was in it (Graphic sex? Violence? Bad language? I don’t know). I don’t know if she ever read it or any of my books. I have an elderly relative who has been complimentary of all my novels but has complained about the language, and his complaints give me pause; they make me wonder whenever I use a curse word in my writing if it’s the best possible word for the situation. Could some other word work just as well?
The lesson I think most people of my generation learned long ago is that cursing is often a manifestation of lazy thought. A more thoughtful and creative person should be able to find more effective language. I grew up at a time when foul language was common among boys—was, in fact, a badge of honor, but never in mixed company. Boys didn’t curse in front of girls and girls didn’t curse at all. (But of course we all suspected that they did when we weren’t around). Anyway, it was a gentler time when ladies and gentlemen were expected to be more decorous than they are today. My mother never once used either of those two most offensive words. Neither did my first wife.
As for literature, you don’t find writers prior to the mid- 20th century casually dropping the F-bomb. But it did begin to gradually creep into literature as the century advanced. There’s a wonderful story I once read about Ernest Hemingway and his editor, Maxell Perkins. It seems Perkins, who couldn’t even utter the word himself, was upset about Hemingway’s use of the word fuck. He made a note to himself on his desk calendar to talk to him about it. When his secretary came in she was shocked to see on his calendar, as if it were an appointment: 12 p.m. fuck Hemingway.
That’s how I remember the story, which I read many years ago. I just went online and found a slightly different version. See http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/the-return-of-a-man-called-perkins-2043552.html.
Due to being raised as a proper Southern gentleman, I am painfully conscious of my language. There are certain words that I never use because they are demeaning or hurtful, and there are others that I use casually but only when I am speaking to people whom I know won’t be offended. When talking with people I don’t know very well I avoid those words until I hear them say them first. Then it’s Katie bar the door.
In my writing, I use the language my characters would naturally use. You can’t have a crotchety old fisherman in 2012 speaking like English gentry in the Victorian era. A writer has to keep his characters true to who they are. My books are set in contemporary times, and they are peopled by artists and writers and students and the working class. They all cuss. They’re people who, if they existed, would curse a hell of a lot more in real life than they do in fiction. It would be unrealistic if they didn’t. Still, I keep in mind while I’m writing that some readers may be offended by language, and I try to limit the use of curse words while, at the same time, keeping it real.
That brings me back to the title and the reference to “Treme.” There is a lot of cussing in “Treme.” Gabi bought me the first season DVD for a birthday present, I just re-watched the premiere episode. The F-word was used hundreds of times, because that’s the way people like Dave the DJ (Steve Zahn) and Creighton Bernette the angry English professor (John Goodman) talk. There was one scene where security guards were hauling Dave off and he shouted “Fuck you,” about 10 times in a 30-second scene. That’s realistic. But I must say that even though I think “Treme” is a great show they do over-do it with the language. You don’t need to say fuck 20 or 30 times to establish that Dave and Creighton are the kind of people who say that. You can sprinkle the word in here and there to establish gritty reality and then stretch your creative juices to find other words that may be just as effective. At least that’s kind of the guiding principle I use in my writing. And I go back and forth between softening it and making it real.
Finally, I must say that one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie was when Creighton said, “Fuck you, you fucking fucks” on a YouTube video and later marveled that it went viral and he became famous for using fuck as a verb and an adjective and a noun in a five-word sentence. Now that’s using the word effectively and creatively.