Monday, April 28, 2014

I Like Stories With Bad Words

"Two other problems he had: He would crow the morning in the middle of the night. His clock was off, and that sent his animals into a scurvy confusion. The hundred Hens would flock outside, prepared to work, and find that only the moon was there to shine on them. Back inside they would flock again, mumbling, clucking, shoving, and bitching a nasty bitch."

That is just good writing. And that is Walter Wangerin Jr., in his fantastic novel, The Book of the Dun Cow.

Page 25.

Remember, Debbie said "gratuitous." In the last post, she said, "Gratuitous sex, violence and foul language cheapen storytelling and don't have a place in Christian fiction."

Look up "gratuitous," and you will find that it means, "not necessary or appropriate, not called for by the circumstances." So I would add that gratuitous swooning, panicking or ruminating, gratuitous regretting or sorrowing, and gratuitous falling on your knees in remorse and surrender are all out as well. In all fiction, Christian or otherwise, nothing should ever be unnecessary, nothing should ever be gratuitous.

But sometimes it is not gratuitous, in fact it is the most necessary thing of all to say that the hens were not complaining or griping, they were not grouchy or testy, but that they were in fact "bitching a nasty bitch."

A line like that will, however, keep you out of the CBA.

But it didn't keep Wangerin from writing a Christ-saturated story. And I've never seen him use another such word in anything else he has written. I'd guess that it's not his habit, any more than it is mine, to offend others with his language. He might wonder from time to time why it is so offensive to compare a person to a protective mother dog. I do, don't you?

Or why you can say poo, and you can almost say cr*p, but you can never say s***.

I completely understand, however, why a word that technically means to make love almost always sounds more like rape when it is said in anger.

That was part of what made it hard for me to read "Let the Great World Spin," by Colum McCann. The first part, about the main character, Corrigan was luminous, but the rest of the book was angry and hellish and sad, and when you get toward the end, when Tillie Henderson jokes that she is a f***-up, and then admits that she is a f***-up, and then weeps that she is a f***-up, you forget about her words and hear her meaning, and it hits you hard in the middle.

 And you realize that a life like Corrigan's is the only ray of light she has.

And that's not gratuitous at all.


Andrew said...

I completely agree. There are circumstances in which the only appropriate comment is...well, one of THOSE words.

Both in literature, and in life.

Combat, for instance, is the ultimate profanity, and to pretend that those immersed in its depths will refrain from scatalogical references in their speech is both inaccurate, and something of an insult to those who have been there.

I'll play by the rules that are in place, but it will limit what I choose to portray.

Megan Sayer said...

I agree. Absolutely. Well said, and bravo for saying it.
Aussies swear like breathing - educated people and uneducated, Christians too, when they're angry (not all, and not all the time, but swearing is so much a part of Aussie culture it almost goes unnoticed). I think about this a lot in my writing, particularly as I don't write for a specifically Christian audience. Gratuitous is the word I need to keep in mind, therefore, when it comes to language.
One of my favourite books is Nick Hornby's "About A Boy", and there's a fabulous scene where Marcus (age 11) is telling the self-centred Will (age 36) about his mum's suicide attempt and how he felt about it. Will responds with an expletive, and then berates himself mentally for not being able to think of anything even slightly more appropriate to say. Marcus, on the other hand, holds that expletive to his chest like a talisman, because for him that simple word helped him justify his feelings, made him realise he wasn't just being a dumb kid about it, that what had happened was serious. If there was ever a Literary Award for the Best Use of Non-Gratuitous Swearing In A Novel that (alongside Tillie Henderson) would be one of the big contenders.

Kathleen Popa said...

Andrew, I tend to agree. I've seen substitute words used in literature in places where the real word would have been so much less distracting, because the reader would not have had to stop to translate to what she absolutely knew the character had really said.

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I have heard so many great things about Nick Hornby. Will have to read him.

Interesting about Aussie culture. I wonder if the use of forbidden words could not be classified as an etiquette issue and not a moral one? So often, the words we choose to forbid seem arbitrary. I try to fit it into, say, The Sermon On the Mount, and make sense of it. If lust is compared to adultery (i.e. you want to commit adultery, and perhaps are only stopped by fear of retribution), and if calling someone a nasty name is like murder, is the problem that you have said a bad word, or is the problem that you hate? Why is it okay to say "You mean nothing to me," but not okay to say "You are ****ing wonderful?"

Megan Sayer said...

Katy that is so insightful - although I had to think twice when I thought you said you tried to insert swear words in the sermon on the mount to see how it sounded :)
I very much agree with your last statement - why is it okay to say a nasty thing and not okay to swear. Reminded me of a time on a bus a few years ago, with two guys siting behind me. They were dressed in a manner that, were I to run into them on a dark street late at night, may make me walk in the other direction, and one was consoling the other about an obviously recent break-up. The language was enough to make even me blush, but the sentiment was pure love - and more Christlike than the attitude of some people I'd been in church with for years.
Makes you think, huh.