Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In Defense of Fucking

Kathryn Schulz, in New York Magazine:
For as long as some people have fretted about expletives in literature, others have seen fit to laugh at them. Here is Cole Porter, mock-lamenting the profanity of writers back in 1934: “Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words writing prose / Anything goes!” That was sometime after James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and sometime before Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Erica Jong. Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit.”
This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.
But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it. In The Mother Tongue,Bill Bryson argues that okay is “the quintessential Americanism” and “the most grammatically versatile of words.” Okay. But surely it has a rival—or a compatriot—in fuck. Wherever it originated (the jury is out), the F-word has flourished in our adolescent American soil. And pace Bryson, its grammatical versatility cannot be topped: You can use it as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or interjection, not to mention in any mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage.
I know of no better rebuttal to the “bad words are bad writing” equation than film critic Anthony Lane’s brutal 2005 takedown of Star Wars in The New Yorker. Listen to Yoda for a moment: “Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. The shadow of greed that is.” Now listen to Lane demolish—with awesome precision, as one demolishes a single building in a city block—that mangled syntax and ersatz wisdom: “Break me a fucking give.”
Bad? Boring? Please. Pulitzer him a fucking give. Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one. In The Debt to ­Pleasure, John Lanchester provides an astute breakdown of three words that, at first, might seem interchangeable. “Compare,” he writes, “the implication of mismanagement, of organization going wrong, in the Gallic debacle with the candidly chaotic, intimate quality of the Italian fiasco, or the blokishly masculine and pragmatic (and I would suggest implicitly reversible and therefore, in its deep assumptions, optimistic) American fuck-up.”
The rest. And,

(h/t lauralauralaura)

3 comments:

  1. I live in a country where the words that are considered as fowl or rude radically change depending on the region you live in. if you happen to live in the north of Portugal, "bad words" are used by 5yr old toddlers like "thanks" or "daddy", they are considered part of the vocabulary. If you go to the centre or south of the country people would be shocked with fowl-speaking-kids. Sometimes the "bad words" are the most suitable and there is nothing wrong about it. Full-stop.

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  2. Couldn't agree more.

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