Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 6: Profanity

Profanity

“There is a time for everything,  and a season for every activity under the heavens:..”  Ecclesiastes 3:1 (New International Version)

So when is the right time for profanity in literature?  I have my beliefs, but I thought it would be interesting in finding some quotations from more respected writers (and entertainers) other than myself, so I went quote-shopping through BrainyQuotes.com and Goodreads.com.

“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”   –Mark Twain

“I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.”  –Ernest Hemingway

“There was certainly less profanity in the Godfather than in the Sopranos. There was a kind of respect. It’s not that I totally agreed with it, but it was a great piece of art.”  –Danny Aiello

“profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.”  ― Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

“Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.” ― Johnny Carson

“What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.” ― Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences

All make excellent points.

My personal belief is best summarized by Ecclesiastes 3:1 above, with the following addenda:

  1. A  word is either the expression of an idea or of an emotion and should be used accordingly.  Profanity is therefore the expression of profane ideas or of intense emotions and should be used accordingly.
  2. Profanity is by nature shocking to most of the general public.  If used too frequently, it loses its effect and becomes tiresome.  I have known people who have used profanity to excess and although they shock and offend on first meeting, they quickly become tiresome and annoying and their limited vocabulary quickly shows their narrow intellect (with few exceptions–I have heard some respected authors have had colorful vocabularies).    Thus profanity is useful as a literary device only if it is used to show a person of that low character or to indicate irony.   An example of the latter would be a person who is superficially of low character, but on closer examination is more profound and intelligent than expected–there are a few people like that.   If profanity is to retain its shock value within a story, its use must be limited (the more limited the better), otherwise the story becomes tiresome and annoying.
  3. Vonnegut makes an excellent point above.   The more profanity one uses in a story, the less readers one will have–for whatever reason.  This parallels Stephen Hawking’s experience as a writer.  In the introduction of A Brief History of Time, Hawking says that someone told him that for every number used in a book, he would lose one reader.  Therefore, in A Brief History of Time Hawking uses only one number in describing one of the most profound and complex scientific theories of history.   An example from cinema would be the single profanity used in Gone with the Wind.  That profanity was used at a critical moment and because it expressed so much at the right time, it was memorable and powerful.  That moment would have lost much of its impact, if the movie had been as laced with profanity as Pulp Fiction (admittedly, I am a big fan of Pulp Fiction).  For those reasons, I believe profanity in literature should be kept to an absolute minimum.  
  4. When used, profanity should have a definite purpose:  to say something about a character, their emotional state, their state of mind, or their environment (e.g. in my story “A Tale of Hell”, the main character has problems with intense anger and actually ends up in hell.  Profanity is part of his character on earth and part of his surroundings in hell, where, understandably, it would be constant and ubiquitous.  
  5. Profanity has only been commonly accepted in literature since the early Twentieth Century at best.  Probably the foremost example of this would be Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was first published in France in 1934, but which was banned in the U.S.   Its publication by Grove Press in 1961 led to a series of obscenity trials ending in the Supreme Court finally declaring it non-obscene in 1964.   Many, if not most, of the recognized masters of the horror genre wrote around or prior to 1934 and never used a single profanity, e.g. Lovecraft, Poe, Machen, Lord Dunsany, M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, et cetera.  Profanity is not necessary to achieve a horrifying effect.  In fact, it becomes more of an artistic challenge to write something horrifying without profanity.  Shock may be part of horror, but horror is much more than shock.

The upshot of all this for the contemporary writer is that, like everything else, profanity has its place, but its use must be balanced against what the author wishes to achieve while bearing in mind that its careless overuse can severely damage the reader’s experience and taint that reader’s perception of the author.

Thoughts?  Comments?

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