To fuck or not to fuck?

Warning: if you find offensive language offensive, please don’t read this post. Not even the title.

Hey, guys, I think I’ve found an aspect of writing that we haven’t already fished to extinction on Strictly Writing. That’s fucking difficult these days; we’ve trawled the whole of it, from dreaming up ideas to polishing your commas. In case it isn’t fucking obvious enough, I’m talking about swearing. Do you mouth it off in your fiction? Only in dialogue or in the narrative too?

For my part, I keep it to the dialogue. Unless my narrative voice were some young rebel or obvious member of the cussing classes, I would clean up the prose. In fact, looking back at my work, there’s almost no profanity to be found. One of my poems, Bloody Marvellous, is a stark exception. It’s odd really as I’m an inveterate foul mouth in speech, even when I’m alone. This morning I dropped a knife plastered with butter on the kitchen floor and automatically let out a quick fuck. Alone in the car yesterday someone pulled across in front of me and I said, ‘Thank you, wanker.’ I didn’t wind down the window and shout, I didn’t leap out and open his door at the lights, I just recited the little prayer at normal volume for my ears only. It’s what we do, isn’t it?

Long before he became a televisual big-shot I went to see Mark Thomas doing stand-up at The Viaduct, down near Ealing Hospital. I still remember his exegesis on the merits of swearing: ‘It is fucking big and it is fucking clever.’ He also pointed out, irrefutably, that some things are impossible to say without swearing: Richard fucking Branson, for example.

There’s definitely an aspect of diminishing returns when it comes down to four letters. If you fucking swear all the fucking time it loses some of its fucking fire-power. Perhaps that’s because the words are all clichés in their own right. And too much licentiousness looks as if you are trying to be cool, or clever, like using long words.

In my first novel, I am not John Nocent, I held off for impact. None of the characters use bad language at any point in the story until John’s house is surrounded by an angry mob who have built a pyre in the street and are now advancing on his front door. In that situation a little profanity seems apt. He could hardly say, ‘Would you all mind just popping along home now?’ I hoped John’s, ‘Fuck off!’ would ring out into the night street.

Even if I don't swear in stories, it’s been bloody pleasant to give myself free rein across the bastard keyboard for this sodding Strictly post. Perhaps I’ll look for a chance to let rip in fiction too. If I do, there’s one word that I might not be able to use. I won’t even utter it in this hallowed place. I’m afraid to do so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that. After all, we’re writers. We don’t believe in censorship, especially not a censorship of vocabulary. The word in question is nothing special. It’s even used in its Spanish form by certain (well-behaved and respectable) Latin American girls to say hello to their mates. It’s just that, in English, it’s the most potent word I know, and whilst it is more popularly employed by males to insult other males, there is something about it that offends against the female.

The last time I remember hearing the word was from the lips of the actor Neil Pearson of Drop the Dead Donkey fame. We were in the bar at the Old Vic Theatre. The curtain had just fallen on the opening night's performance of the appropriately named play, Cloaca, in which he starred. I had taken the opportunity to give the Director, Kevin Spacey, and some of the cast a little gentle feedback. Neil didn’t agree with me and called me the word we are now too polite to mention. It spiced up the evening wonderfully, his delivery of the word being much more memorable than anything that had happened on the stage. It was his best line of the night. Later I felt vindicated when the play was roundly panned by the critics. The dead duck was duly dropped. Kevin Spacey, I have to say was polite and charming, throughout.

There we have it. Proof that even those educated at the same school as Ian McEwan readily hurl at their customers the foulest language they can scrape up. Does that mean I need to include more of it in my fiction? After all, I enjoy it when I read it.

Now I really want to type that word, so I had better stop.

Don't want to be a xxxx.

I typed it and then my little finger leapt diagonally right to the backspace key to remove the smirch from the screen.

So, am I taking bollocks? Please, give me your views on all things vulgar. I await them with lungs on pause. And when you do comment, make sure that your words are suitably couched in obscenity: non expletives will be deleted.


DT said...

That is the question. Language needs to reflect real life but also be relevant to the piece. In my writing, I reserve the swearing mainly for dialogue in moments of emotional intensity between the guys. This is less about sexism and more about the two main characters. (I couldn't squeeze any fucks into my fantasy novel though.) In real life, I can be a real Sweary Mary at times so I think it's important to create and write authentically on the page. Or rather, the bastard page. I was disappointed that you didn't mention other words - that would have been the bollocks.

Gillian McDade said...

Excellent post, Rod! And funny too :) Likewise my strong language is reserved for dialogue where appropriate, and in the case of my second novel, it gets going right from the word go.

A good example of the appropriate use of swearing is the work of Roddy Doyle. Also, I remember looking at the poems of Philip Larkin for GCSE and some parents were outraged at the expletives, so much so that there was almost a revolt! If you're unfamiliar with his work, read High Windows.

Emma Darwin said...

Great post. Yes, I agree that when it comes to swearing, less is more (a bit like adjectives of quality, really. And adverbs ditto.). And that, on the whole, it only works in dialogue, or in directly quoted thought. Which means it can crop up in free indirect style... It does spread.

But I do have trouble avoiding the word you're avoiding, not as a swear, but as a word, because to me it's no worse than the other anglo-saxon words for other parts of the anatomy. Readers trip up on it, in a way that I don't. Never have solved that one.

BTW, given the title of the post, I'd love to see what the stats show, and what searches found it (You should have seen my stats after I titled a post 'Brainy and Sexy'...)

Old Kitty said...


I always endeavour never to write load of cock n bull but always end up with what is frankly pretty shite, hence me wallowing in a pile of poo that passes for pissy fiction.


Take care
p.s. Thank you for allowing me a small space to vent.

Brian Keaney said...

Very funny post, Roderic. As a writer for teenagers this is even more of an issue for me, especially as I swear all the time in real life.

But the thing is oral language is not the same as written language even written dialogue. Once you write something down it can be read, reread, considered, even studied. So swearing can seem less spontaneous and acquire greater significance than you really desired.

Also swearing does date. 'Ruddy hell!' for example, commonly considered mild swearing when I was a child, is scarcely ever heard these days. And even 'fuck' is not what it used to be.

For these reasons, I tend to say clear of it.

Karen said...

I do have one f-word in my novel, and it was said in extremis.

It's funny (and a real double-standard) because I do curse under my breath to myself quite a lot, but generally I find swearing offensive. I hate the sound of it, find it ugly and aggressive, but maybe that says more about me!

I've tried to embrace the Gordon Ramsay's of the world, but end up thinking "honestly, there's just no NEED. It ISN'T big or clever, for f***'s sake, it just means you can't communicate effectively in any other way, or you're just trying to shock."

Obviously if it's in-keeping with a character's nature in a novel that's fine, but I don't like them strewn around gratuitously :o)

(Ooh, I've turned into my grandma!)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Love the poem, Rod!
This makes me ponder the whole thing about 'breaking out' - writing beyond the accepted norms. Not that swearing does, these days, particularly. But for me your post is a reminder that sometime we need to break out and shock - ourselves.

Kat said...

I'm not a person who swears much in everyday life - unless I stubb my toe and it really hurts, then I might let rip with the word fuck a few times.

I have 'fuck' in my novel once I think, and a few bloodys - all in the dialogue - but that's about it.

I did write a short story, which was published in Twisted Tongue, and that had lot of swear words; but it was about a homeless schizophrenic, and that was how he spoke.

As for the c*** word - I absolutely hate it. I personally find it a really vulgar word!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I'm not the swearing sort in everyday life, but my main character is fond of the f-word. I think swearing--specifically, what words characters use in front of which people in which situations--can show a few things about characters.

Gina Rossi said...

Why does the F word fly out of my mouth all by itself when my mother-in-law is around? Usually, I don't swear.
Picture this: The other day in Oxford, I saw a female student wobbling along on her bike over the hallowed cobbles, under the dreaming spires etc. A male student crossed the road and she almost ran him over.
"I say! Do watch out!" he called.
"You watch out, yer f***ing toff!" she yelled.
It was perfect.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind it in principle but think there is too much of it in fiction. It's lazy and a cheap way to sound like you're a 'strong' writer. As a reader only, as I've never published anything except on the net, I feel it can get to you and turn you off literature and reading, particularly since the worst swearers sell the most; look at Welsh and Marian Keyes; she uses 'fuckhead' and other such words in her latest Anybody Out There and it's a real turn-off for me, particularly since she seems a well educated and well-brought-up girl. Contemporary literature panders too much to vulgarity; few writers from the 70s on are worth reading on account of the dope culture and vulgarity. eq

Kath McGurl said...

There's a culture element to this too - if you are writing a story set in downtown Dublin you'd have to include a lot of swearing, because that's how people talk there (my husband and in-laws are Irish so I'm well aware of their speech patterns). You can downgrade fuck to feck, which is useful if the mother-in-law is around. Likewise shit to shite. But you do need to use these words.

My favourite line from The Commitments, oft repeated in our household is: 'Fuck off, you fat fucker.' Brilliant! Straight out of the Oscar Wilde school of Wit and Repartee.

Gina Rossi said...

My husband shouts 'F***wit' at politicians on TV. Lovely word.

Ann said...

I usually don't swear. When I do it is because I have been pushed so far, nothing else is appropriate.

Dialogue is where I use it in my writing.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Love the post, Rod, and the poem too!

I make up for not being allowed to swear in my stories by effin' and blindin' a great deal in the privacy of my own home.

Love the line from "The Commitments" too, Womagwriter!

Helen Black said...

To me, the character dictates whether or not to use swear words. Frankly, there would be some situations when it would be ridiculous not to use swear words.
In the current WIP, I'm dealing with gang culture and if I want there to be any authenticity I cannot back away from saying things which I wouldn't.

And actually, it's not the swearing that makes me cringe, it's the racial or homophobic terms that test me.

Caroline Green said...

I'd love to give my views on this but am laughing so much I can hardly see the bastard keyboard!

Rosyb said...

I'm a fan of swearing. At least, it was something I thought long and hard about for my characters - and I had different ways of swearing for each character. I think i have two that swear a lot and the rest don't particularly. I like a bit of creativity in swearing too. The c word (now, you see, to say the c word rather than just to write it here is more offensive to me than just writing it, but I'll be good) is a fine swearword as far as I'm concerned. I hate the way people act like it is so shocking for the ladies...I also think that words like "prick" are very underused. (See why can I write prick but not cun...Shhhhhhhh!) Swearing is just wonderful-sounding stuff sometimes and people should use it more creatively and have fun with it. If it doesn't have the right sound, it can't work as a swearword anyway. That's why we use them for emphasis.

I do find novels pretending to be hard and raw and full of swearing annoying sometimes. But I wouldn't find them annoying if they were like Roddy Doyle - so I think it's posturing thing rather than the swearing - that you can sense the phoniness...

People can also be perfectly disgusting without swearing. In some ways swearing has become divorced from meaning and is all about "vulgarity" as a person instead. I'm all for a bit of that too. :)

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks for all the great comments.

Unknown said...

Fuck ;)

Carmel Waldron said...

Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell, Thomas Hardy - all great novelists and hardly a four letter word between them. Probably because they wouldn't have been printed otherwise! Hardy couldn't get a poem about abortion printed even when it was only obliquely suggested. However, they managed pretty well without. I think one of the points about swearing is that unless it is very appropriately used, it jerks the reader out of the story, which is never a good thing to do. Interesting post, though.

Sarah said...

Depends on the context and the character and the voice of the story...

Anonymous said...

An amusing blog Rod, and I also keep swearing for dialogue in writing. In real life I rarely swear, and don't like hearing people speak when most of their sentences are made up of swearing. This probably makes me a swearing snob, as I do enjoy the odd well timed word which feels like a guilty pleasure. Infact, more than a snob I'm a complete hypocrite, as those frequent swearers I often mentally refer to as gobshites.

Roderic Vincent said...

In that case you can refer to me as a blogshite.

Jacqueline Christodoulou-Ward said...

Great post. Strangely enough, now I think about it, I only swear a lot at home in front of my partner, and vice versa!
In my writing, if I feel like the character would swear, and not just in dialogue, then they will. I don't suppose that's the only thing stopping me getting published :-)

Sheila Norton said...

You're right, Rod - this is a subject that hasn't been discussed much on blogs at all (since I started reading and writing them, anyway), and it's very fucking interesting!
OK, I'll be honest. I was a short story writer first (for the likes of The People's Friend etc - and by the way I still write for them and have no problem keeping my language fit for a vicar's tea party when necessary). But when I wrote my first novel it was so liberating to be able to use the language my characters would REALLY use, I was pretty liberal with the swearing. The book was fairly humorous and the language just seemed to 'go' with it ... it wasn't done to shock. I did wonder what my poor old mum would think (she was then in her 80s), but bless her - she defended me against all criticisms by any of her geriatric mates, and told them stoutly that if she had the problems my heroine had, she'd certainly say more than 'bloody hell' herself!
I agree with you about the 'c' word, and wonder why it is that we're all still offended by that one. But ... we should remember that until 1960, when Penguin were found not guilty under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing the full unexpurgated edition of 'Lady Chatterly's Lover', it was impossible for an author to use any so-called 'unprintable' word. Not very long ago really (and yes, I do remember it!).

Roderic Vincent said...

Interesting points, Olivia. I like the sound of your mum.

I'm now reading Lionel Shriver's latest, and she swears a lot in the narrative as well as the dialogue. Albeit, a (fairly loose) form of free-indirect narrative, but it reads oddly, the fucking alonside the rest of her polished and pristine English. We're reading it aloud.