Thursday, February 5, 2015

Profanity Needs to Pack a Punch (Blackbirds and Mad Ship)

Note: From just looking at the title, I'm sure you can make an educated guess about this post’s content.

I'm a lazy reader. I don't mean that I have a hard time picking books or that I never finish them. Far from it. The Middle Shelf mitigates both impulses. No, my problem is that my "currently reading" stack all too easily becomes a merry go round with multiple titles getting dizzy while they wait for me to pluck them off. Usually, this renders my reading a bit fragmentary. Disparate characters bump against one another. Plot developments get muddled. Symbols blend together. But sometimes that very juxtaposition can prove instructive. Recently, it made me consider the different ways in which two simultaneously read novels -- Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds and Robin Hobb's Mad Ship -- handle profanity.

Though I enjoyed Blackbirds, I make no bones about being irritated with its liberal attitude toward obscenity. It's funny the first few times that protagonist Miriam Black drops the f-bomb in the middle of a witty bit of dialogue. By the novel's mid-point, though, it's so old as to have gotten downright annoying. Contrast this with Mad Ship, a high fantasy about sea serpents, sentient trading vessels, deadly pirates, and internecine familial conflict. It's not without grit. A couple of scenes describing amputations pre-anesthesia made my stomach flip. But it is almost completely without profanity -- at least up until the following scene.

(Some background, if I may. This scene features three members of the Vestrit family. Matriarch Ronica is desperate trying to stave off the souring of her family's fortunes brought on by the untimely death of her husband. Her youngest daughter, Althea, believes the family ship should've gone to her instead of her brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law's daughter, teenaged Malta, loves nothing more than manipulating Althea and being a general nuisance.)

Malta let Althea get almost to the door before she asked curiously, "Are you going to go see that bead-maker again?" She made a pretense of rubbing her eyes as she set aside her own pen.

"I might," Althea said evenly. Malta heard the restrained annoyance in her voice.

Ronica made a small sound as if decided whether to speak. Aunt Althea turned back to her wearily. "What?"

Ronica gave a small shrug, her hands still busy with the flowers. "Nothing. I just with you would not spend so much time with her, so openly. She is not Bingtown, you know. And some say she is no better than the New Traders."

"She is my friend," Althea said flatly. [...] "Mother." Althea's patience sounded strained. "There is a great deal more to that story than you have heard. If you wish, I'll tell you all I know. But later. When only adults are around."

Malta knew that little sling was intended for her. She rose to it like a shark to chum. "The bead-maker has an odd reputation about town. Oh, everyone says she is a wonderful artist. However, as we all know, artists can be strange. She lives with a woman who dresses and acts like a man. Did you know that?"

"Jek is from the Six Duchies or one of those barbarian lands. That is just how women behave up there. Grow up, Malta, and stop listening to dirty little whispers," Althea suggested brusquely.

Malta drew herself up to her full height. "Usually, I ignore such gossip. Until I hear our own family name dragged into it. I know it is scarcely ladylike to discuss such things, but I feel you should know that some people say that you visit the bead-maker for the same reason. To sleep with her."

During the ensuing shocked silence, Malta added a spoonful of honey to her tea. As she stirred it, the sound of the spoon against the cup seemed almost merry.

"If you mean fuck, say fuck," Althea suggested. She enunciated the crudity deliberately. Her voice was cold with fury. "If you are going to be coarse, why be circumspect with the language?"
Boom. Hobb lets that word fall like a bomb into a book that hadn't featured any language stronger than the very occasional "damn." The effect is palpable. You can almost hear the shards of faux civility come tinkling down. And that's how it should be. Profanity exists to shock, to transgress, to violate. Scattering it everywhere in your story does exactly the opposite (not to mention the negative social effect of deadening readers to it). Obscenity impacts best when used sparingly.

(Picture: CC 2008 by macwagen)


scott g.f.bailey said...

It depends on what the "impact" is that you want, I think. There are some people whose speech is full of profanity, and writers use that as characterization, as one of many speech patterns in use in real life today. I have a colleague at the university who, when he's away from the office, uses profanity casually and constantly. To mirror that in a novel would not be an effect, but an objective observation.

YA Sleuth said...

I couldn't agree more, Loren. It's a pet peeve of mine when a book is full of expletives. Dialogue on the page is different from the conversations you hear (I should confess I've been known to use some salty language :-)

Perfect example of using f-bombs to maximum effect. I might use this in writer workshops, since I get this question a lot from fellow writers...

scott g.f.bailey said...

" Dialogue on the page is different from the conversations you hear"

But why? Why create a false world within fiction? Why is profanity an "effect" any more than the description of a room or saying that there are clouds in the sky?

Loren Eaton said...


Oh my, I can see this might lead to a lengthy exchange. Let me delineate my thought process first and then we can see if I’m too far off-base:

1) Every narrative is shaped with the end of producing an effect (i.e. a desired intellectual or emotional response in readers. Even tales such as Ulysses, which seems so committed to verisimilitude that it includes every single bodily fluid, are more than mere tape recordings of daily life.

2) Profanity exists to transgress social norms. Otherwise, why the *$@! would we use it? (Clarification on this point below.)

2a) Wendig’s Blackbirds seeks to transgress social norms by including tons of profanity, but it gets stale very quickly due to repetition.

2b) Hobb’s Mad Ship seeks to transgress social norms by including a single strong obscenity carefully inserted in a scene, and it has a powerful impact.

3) Generally, Hobb’s approach creates a stronger emotional and/or intellectual response in readers than Wendig’s approach. This is because constant usage of profanity familiarizes readers to it, causing it to seem less transgressive -- which is its very point.

Post Script: You bring up the point of verisimilitude, and you’re right. For some subcultures, constant use of profanity is part of creating a true-to-life portrait. However, that’s rare; in fact, the idea of social norms almost guarantees it will remain so culture-wide.

Post-Post Script: There’s another reason for heavy use of profanity, namely an extreme stylistic effect. You can see this in The Wire’s famous "f---" scene (content warning). Again, this is rare because few people have the skill with which to pull it off.


Loren Eaton said...


You should really check out Hobb. She does a great job of dealing with some really gritty subject matter without getting prurient. Assassin's Apprentice is a good place to start.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I guess I disagree with your first two points, and also with your post script. There are large segments of American society for which profanity is a social norm, not something done to transgress, just as in certain segments of American society, aggressive behavior (primarily among males) and the (otherwise unnatural) exaggeration of stereotypical "masculine" trains is a social norm rather than a transgression. Consider hypermasculinity and profanity as norms in, say, NFL locker rooms. Or criminal gangs (especially Eastern European criminal gangs). My colleague is a well-educated professional man who talks like a sailor outside the office. His whole large family is this way. We can pretend if we like that profanity is a rarity rather than the general case, but I think we're just being delicate when we do that, and lying to ourselves about real life.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Another way of saying this is that profanity is not a special form of speech, nor a rare form of speech. It is just another form of speech. It is treated in American media as something abnormal, surrounded by cliche ideas and situated within tv shows and films as a shock element. I argue that this is not the case in real life for many, many people.

Loren Eaton said...

I wouldn't say anyone's "lying" about it. The farmhands I grew up with used it to intensify language. It wasn't rare, but it did broach standards of acceptability. That was what gave it its punch.

More Thoughts
-Writers shouldn't pretend that using extensive profanity in fiction never represents reality.
-Similarly, writers shouldn't pretend that using extensive profanity in fiction always represents reality.
-Finally, writers shouldn't conclude that using extensive profanity in fiction is necessarily an effective way to communicate characters and themes to readers.

Okay, now I need to go work on an MBA paper. Which almost makes me want to use profanity.

Loren Eaton said...

Darn it, we cross-posted.

I'm providing the following example entirely without snark or rancor. Really and truly. I don't get off on being sarcastic.

Next time you're at the bank, look your teller in the eye and say, "How the f--- are you, you g--d--- c---sucker?"

Don't you think this would have an element of shock for the person to whom you are speaking? I do, even in subcultures where profanity use is more common. I doubt it would be viewed as just another value-neutral form of speech.

(BTW, please don't do it. I like you and don't want you to get punched.)

Loren Eaton said...

Okay, I really need to go write my paper.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I will argue that many of your claims are merely cultural bias, and that to generalize from them is dangerous. I think that often, language is a cultural marker and is decidedly not used in opposition to the cultural biases you and I, for instance, generally share. What is the use of profanity in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? I would claim that it's not to shock readers like you, but instead to create a cultural texture, to establish patterns rather than to violate them. I would maybe make that same argument about the profanity in Henry Miller's books. I would not make that argument generally about the profanity in William S. Burroughs, who did intend to shock nice middle-class white people. What I'm saying, which you already just said, is that profanity has neither a single use nor a single effect, especially as an element within narrative.

Mostly, I've been reading Tolstoy's essays on Shakespeare, which are so objectionable that I felt the need to argue with someone, and Tolstoy is dead and I respect your intellect so I picked on you!

Loren Eaton said...


You may always pick on me, sir. I consider it a compliment.

I can understand the argument that what I'm saying is cultural bias. Of course, I could also see someone saying that any truth claim is cultural bias. But that's getting pretty far afield from the relatively narrow aesthetic assertion of the original post, so I won't go there.