Saturday, December 15, 2012

Language in Books

I was at a book club the other night.

Sometime during that event, somebody said they had an interest in reading Bridget Jones' Diary. I've read it, and since this was a church-affiliated book club, I warned the woman that this particular book does make prolific use of the swears. She immediately shrank back in her seat and said, "Oh. Never mind."

I don't mind that. I don't judge her. I don't think she's being puritanical. I actually think Bridget Jones is overboard on the swearing, and that's why I warned this woman.

The book we were discussing that night was Matched by Allie Condie.

(some of you might see where this is going, but bear with me)

If you are unfamiliar with the plot/theme of Matched, here it is: At some point in the future, Society decides our lives are too cluttered, so they destroy all but 100 poems, 100 stories, 100 songs, 100 pieces of art. All personal artifacts are destroyed, and the people live in super bland peace.

The people of this Society are not taught to write, and all communication (including the 100 poems, stories, and songs) is electronic. Electronic communication only.

One of the book club questions was around this electronic communication, and why the Society deemed that necessary. We had a lovely discussion about how electronic communication can be monitored and controlled. I also brought up the point that relying solely on controlled electronic transmission of written works, the government could easily have manipulated or censored the work.

(Side note: This book series actually made me vehemently anti-e-reader. I will always, always be a hardback kind of girl.)

This isn't crazy, it's been happening since the beginning of forever. Churches have re-translated the Bible to make it easier to understand or to mold the teachings to their particular view of the Gospel. Books have multiple versions when they are translated. Abridgements and "edited" versions of books are available for people to read when they don't want to read the whole, big, heavy, difficult book.

People often actually prefer these books. Or they rely on movie versions. "Oh, I know what Jane Austen is about. I've seen the Kiera Knightley movie."

This came back around to the swearing. One woman said she couldn't understand why swearing was ever in a book. "It demonstrates lazy language." was her argument, and she wished there were more edited versions of books available. Yet she was staunchly against what the Society in Matched had done.

I argued that sometimes authors are going for realism. Soldiers under fire in Iraq are not going to say, "Gee, that bomb came really close. I've got some dog gone shrapnel in my head and it hurts like the dickens." Stressful situations bring out the worst in us. Some people are uneducated and use foul language in place of more proper words. Some people think it's funny. And some people just don't care.

I fully agree with part of what this woman said: Prolific swearing is a symptom of lazy language. There's probably a better way to say what you're saying.

I also do not enjoy swearing just for swearing's sake. I prefer cleaner content in books, and I've put books down when the curse words seem to be literally inserted just to prove that the author knows how to use them (he usually does not in those cases). I also give detailed parental advisories in my reviews, including remarks about language.

There are very creative ways to get around this, of course, and I'm always profoundly pleased when I see authors go to these lengths. It maintains reality (the character curses) while not offending my delicate sensibilities (I don't actually have to read the swear words).

But my question is this: Is the desire for squeaky-clean literature any different from what the Society in Condie's novels is doing? Does putting our fingers in our ears and saying "Lalalalala, I can't hear you!" really eliminate the ugliness from our society? Is there no value in realism? Or should we be constantly seeking out the greater good? And does the category (middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult, non-fiction) matter?

What think ye?


  1. Melbourne on my MindDecember 15, 2012 at 6:44 PM

    Honestly, I think a lot of it boils down to the society in which the book was written. Books written in the UK or Australia are more likely to use prolific swearing because that's the type of society we are. Movies don't get censored when they're shown on network TV. Movies that are rated R because of coarse language in the US are frequently rated M here. Our Prime Ministers (or at least Australia's, at any rate) have been known to drop the occasional F-bomb in Parliament. And don't even get me started on our footballers!

    Perhaps I'm desensitised to it, because I swear like a sailor. I'm sure my parents are THRILLED about all the money they spent sending me to private school. But when you hear your colleagues, your lecturers and your boss swearing on a regular basis, it's hard not to be!

    So I would argue that Bridget Jones isn't going overboard on swearing. It's just a product of its society. To have a book set in an Australian or British context that's NOT full of swearing would seem completely false to an audience who are used to that society. You know?

  2. Sorry. Overboard for my preferences, I should have been more specific.

    And this is basically my argument, too. A book reflects the reality of the characters inside it. I, as a suburban Mormon housewife, may not hear a swear word spoken aloud for weeks at a time. But there are plenty of people who do, and to pretend that my paradigm is the only paradigm is foolish.

  3. Growing up, we were always allowed to swear, provided it was in proper context. For example, it was totally ok to say "D -it!" if I slammed my finger in the door. It was not ok to say " I don't f-ing want to do my homework." Both of my parents swore, and we were not prevented from watching or reading anything with the exception of Silence of the Lambs - and I remember that only because it was odd. My family firmly believed in giving us access to any material that interested us. Basically, if we wanted to read, they were for it.

    I also grew up in a very liberal home. Each morning I was given my bowl of cereal and a page out of the newspaper - which I was expected to read and then critically analyze in discussion. I was always taught that anything we're getting from "approved" sources was likely skewed in some way, so I would be completely opposed to an edited/abridged anything, because I believe there's too much opportunity to 'edit' pieces that the editor doesn't like or want you to read.

    However, I do enjoy when authors find creative ways to handle profanity and challenging subjects - as long as it's not toned down to the point that difficult subject matters are glossed over. The only example I can come up with offhand is Kiersten White's cussing mermaid.

  4. I guess I'm desensitized too. It doesn't bother me in books. It doesn't bother me in movies. Would I want my hypothetical children exposed to it? Of course not. But it really takes a LOT for me to consider it to be gratuitous.

    Sex, on the other hand, often bothers me a lot more. I think it's because that usually IS just there for the sake of it being there, more so than the swearing is. At least in the books I read (mysteries and thrillers), it's often such a minor part of the story that to take it out wouldn't impact the story . . . and yeah you could argue that it adds realism too, just like the cursing does, but it's much easier to allude to the fact that your character had a one night stand without actually showing it to me, whereas it's harder to censor a character's dialogue when the way they speak and react is such a huge part of who they are (although, as you say, it can be done).

    Bringing this back to your question, there's nothing wrong with preferring the books you read to be a certain way, to lack certain things or include certain values. Because all those things exist in the world too. It isn't JUST the ugliness. But, the books that are out there, you have to accept them, or not, for what they are. (This coming from the girl who recently read a Stephen King novel and thought, "This would have been fantastic if it weren't for the gratuitous violence." Let that one sink in.)

    Although we do have explicit songs edited for radio, and movies edited for TV, so why do I have such a knee-jerk reaction against the woman from your club who wants edited books? I guess it's because with books, the language -- whatever language the author chose to use -- is ALL there is.

  5. It's something I've given thought to because I do not swear in real life and was raised with more of a conservative mind frame, thanks to religious parents. However, blogging and writing changed that lot for me, especially the more humorous things I write. I use curse words there and I often, actually, have to go back and change a few out because on second read it usually seems gratuitous. I think that it can be lazy, but as you said, those words are still words and sometimes they are the ones that fit.

    As far as books, I immediately thing to what is probably one of my favorite curse words in a book: Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter. It was amazing.

    I think there is no hard and fast rule. It must fit the situation. It must be natural for the character and the setting.

    Case by case, I think. :)