Every writer must decide what kind of words are appropriate for his writing. This rule applies particularly to those words euphemistically described as “strong language”: common “cusswords” and the language of the gutter. As a former Infantry soldier and (worse yet) a graduate student, I guess I’ve heard them all. And I’ve pondered at length whether they have any place in either life or writing.
In deciding, I’ve considered the most common justifications for using these words in fiction and film. These “four-letter words” have burgeoned so much in today’s publications and films that often these words are the dialogue.
The usual justification is a claim of “realism”: First, it’s said that because people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us into closer to “real life” than other words—that there is less distance between the word and the thing it represents.
Neither claim can withstand examination.
The first confuses “realism” with literalism. Fiction is not real life. It is an artifice that creates the illusion of real life. So, if the writer must report people’s words literally, what excuses him from including all other elements of life literally? Must every fictional day begin with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow?
And what about actions often excluded from fiction–praying, for instance? Depending on which poll one reads, 50 to 80 percent of Americans pray every day. By the “realism” criterion, shouldn’t the correct percentage of fictional characters pray with appropriate frequency during the narrative?
My conclusion: if “realism” does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.
Nor can the claim that four-letter words are closer to “reality” withstand questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative. There may have been a time when attributing bisexual reproductive capabilities to inanimate objects was amusing. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd that it’s no longer humorous.
And on representing reality, let’s consider the so-called “f-word.” The probable pre-Anglo-Saxon from which it descends was a savage language spoken in savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may have accurately described physical relationships between men and women. But many cultural changes have altered that reality.
One such change was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love, popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. In the 1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified by marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser’s synthesis held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.
The point for “realistic” fiction is this: If the “f-word” today accurately describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience the past millennium.
So if the customary justifications cannot stand examination, the real reasons for using “strong language” must lie elsewhere. Some involve today’s cultural warfare, but another is more pertinent here. Writers know that conflict is basic to effective fiction. “Strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is always generated by a story’s basic narrative structure. In other words, “strong language” substitutes for genuine creativity.
Profligate use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter Morrie Ryskind put it, “The chic are always wrong.”
Donn Taylor holds a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and has taught literature and writing at two liberal arts colleges. He is the author of the suspense novel The Lazarus File and the mystery Rhapsody in Red, as well as a poetry book, Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. His suspense novel Deadly Additivewill be released soon by Pelican (Harbourlight). He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. He and his wife live near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics. In a prior incarnation he served in two wars with the U.S. Army.