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.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.
"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?"
(Picture: CC 2008 by macwagen)