Friday, August 5, 2011

Argyle on Profanity

Michelle Davidson Argyle (Cinders) blogs at The Innocent Flower about how the advance copies of her new novel Monarch contain two strong profanities -- and why the final edition of the book won't. Excerpts:
I'm not going to write out the "f" word in my blog post, but I sure did write it out in my novel, Monarch. Twice. Oh my gosh, twice. At the time I wrote the book, I thought that word was necessary to cram into the mouth of my characters. The word was used in dialogue in two very appropriate places, I thought. In fact, even to this day, I don't mind the word where I put it, but I did end up taking it out in both places. Here's the story why, if you're interested.

First of all, let me lay it straight that I don't say the "f" word if I can ever help it. It's not something I like the taste of in my mouth, and although I don't believe for one second that words are inherently evil, I do think that they can have a strong impact. ...

[W]hen I wrote Monarch, I took my characters seriously and let them talk how they would really talk. Sure, they're somewhat of an extension of me, but they aren't all me, and they certainly have their own lives and personalities and free wills in my novel. So I wanted to keep it real, and that's how the ARCs ... were printed -- with that word in place.

Then I got an email from a sweet friend of mine who had started reading her copy of Monarch. I won't say what she said or anything, but her email got me thinking more about the language in my novel and what I really wanted to do. Honestly, I hadn't give the matter very much thought, even during edits. I should have.
Read the whole thing. Argyle's not the only author to reconsider the language in her stories. In a 1959 reading of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt, Flannery O'Connor redacts a then-common racial epithet and excises an entire section where a character callously details the poverty of an African American boy with vivid slang. I find the exclusion interesting. Most writers justify the inclusion of objectionable language on grounds of verisimilitude, on the idea that the story wouldn't seem true-to-life without it. Yet if anyone could've made such an appeal it would've been O'Connor, and still she saw fit to remove the offending language.

Of course, the verisimilitude argument has merit. People do use profanity in real life, and excising it entirely from every tale would be damaging. But Argyle and O'Connor have a point, too: Language can normalize and even encourage certain modes of thought, and authors ought to choose every word carefully.

(Picture: CC 2010 by stockicide)


Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

Thanks for the article. It is rather thought-provoking.

My own world tends to be rather foul-mouthed, and most of my thoughts have been on one side--protesting artificial restrictions placed upon thought and expression. It's interesting to see it from the other side--to see a thoughtful decision to avoid offending an audience.

O'Connor is another interesting example. My gut reaction is to guess that she removed the language because she realized that the speech was evil and offensive in a way that didn't suit the story. That is, it wasn't just the racist language, but what the language did within the context of the story that made her excise it. Certainly I couldn't see her being the type to object to Huck Finn, a book whose racially offensive language and themes are inherent parts of the story of racial reconciliation.

Most of all, though, I think the story illustrates the importance of TWO contexts when writing--the characters' cultural context, and the author's. I think respect should be shown to artists who seek (for a good cause) to offend and horrify their audiences. I've ranted against certain odd corners of the book-producing world for overly avoiding the types of stories that challenge their native culture. But I think Argyle's article shows the flip side--sometimes including cursing could ruin the effect the story is supposed to have on its audience.

In both cases, I think it's never a bad idea for authors to be self-conscious about just what meanings their language could have for their given audiences--and how they view the responsibilities of storytellers towards the societies that raised them.

Loren Eaton said...

I think both of us are familiar with those overly sanitized "odd corners," and neither of us like them very much.

The O'Connor example is really interesting. Trying to speculate on her exact reasons for removing it is, well, just speculation. But given that she wrote another story that makes extensive use of racial slang ("The Artificial Nigger"), I found those redactions during her public reading to be telling. Also, I don't think she ever publically repudiated any of that content in her tales. Maybe she was just embarrassed to say it out loud. That seems a likely explanation, and one I personally understand. I mean, I'm nervous publishing the title of that story above to my blog!

More than just ruining the effect of a story, profanity and obscenity can produce negative effects in readers. Even if a writer doesn't believe that language has a moral dimension to it (I most certainly think it does), he should consider whether or not he feels comfortable with his works encouraging others to think and speak in certain ways. True, authors ought to have freedom to write what they want, but I also believe that behaviorist psychology is right in at least one point: The more we are around something, the more we believe it to be real and acceptable. That goes for profanity, too.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Thanks for highlighting my article, Loren!

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks for writing it, Michelle!