The Sacred and Profane in Fantasy Writing: Who Gives a F___?
As I started writing this my five-year-old niece was settling down to a sleepover with my youngest daughter, and my second daughter had just reminded me that we would have to watch our language around the impressionable little one.
Those who have worked with me will know that I have a slight tendency to cuss. I have had the occasional intemperate workplace rant (safely behind closed doors) that would have made Basil Fawlty in full flow look like the Dalai Lama. In my writing too, my characters have been known to fleck their invective with more four letter words than spit.
But cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that right? Or wrong?
Back in 1965 the critic Ken Tynan made the most celebrated – if not quite the first – use of the f-word on television in a discussion about plays and censorship when he said, “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word f___ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.” The four censure motions in the House of Commons and a formal apology from the BBC suggest either a shortage of rational people or an unfortunate prematurity to Tynan’s outburst.
Certainly my teenage years a whole decade later passed decently shielded from any televised – or indeed literary – profanity. The QI page on swearing http://qi.com/infocloud/swearing notes that “Right up until the 1960s, swear words in writing were very rare. That doesn’t mean no one used them – only that they tended to be avoided in print.”
In my copy of The Letters of Private Wheeler (who might have marched with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe in the Napoleonic wars) we see contractions like, “D__n, it Bill…” or “… they are fond of p____g on people…” While a contemporary in the navy records a coarse verse, “you may be damned you old blind b____.” It is a fine tradition of discreet underlining to avoid giving offence preserved by Mr Tulip in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth who Trent Canon tells me is “____ing hilarious.” (It is a device you will have noticed I have taken recourse to as well for f___’s sake.)
But before fantasy epics got their claws into me, my genre of choice was naval novels of Nelson’s time. Having been drawn in by the haute cuisine of C. S. Forester’s Hornblower, I sated my hunger on the fast food of Alexander Kent’s Bolitho series (which in its modest standards inspired my first steps in writing).
Then I turned to Patrick O’Brien’s masterful Master and Commander and suddenly discovered that people in books swore just as roundly as children in school playgrounds. One line in particular stood out where the hero Jack Aubrey was at a glittering social gathering. In a mistimed declamation he filled one of those accidental lulls in the conversation with a pithy description of how his sailors had displayed their readiness for a spot of shore leave in the local red light district. “They were standing there with their p___s a yard long.”
It was something of a surprise for me to see characters from a setting two centuries in the past using terms I was convinced my generation not just owned, but had in fact invented. In my ignorance that apparent intrusion of foul language felt more anachronistic than profane.
I have seen complaints of a similar ilk in reviews bemoaning the use of “modern” swear words in particular fantasy books, the readers labouring under the same misapprehensions about medieval/historic life from which many fantasy milieus are derived. The origins of the most familiar English swear words are more diverse than the umbrella term of “Anglo-Saxon language” implies, and there are several excellent articles to show how English has pillaged and bastardised other tongues for curses just as much as for our more respectable vocabulary.
However, it is clear that many swear words are old to the point of ancient in origin and would not be out of place, no matter how jarring to the readers ear, in the War of the Roses or any other historic inspiration to a fantasy epic. Camorr may feel in some ways like Renaissance Venice, but the line “Nice bird, asshole” is just as much at ease in that setting as Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora is.
Nonetheless, just because it is realistic, readers may ask should we do it? Steven Moffat said of swearing:
“Writing for adults often means just increasing the swearing – but find an alternative to swearing and you’ve probably got a better line.”
When an author sprinkles their dialogue with swear words, it might seem like a way to slap some cheap flesh on the bones of character – to make a villain seem dangerous or edgy, a protagonist angry, a bit-player frightened. Certainly, profanity – like any other word a writer uses – should be measured and weighed to ensure it is the best word for that moment. However, the context may lead a reader to expect a degree of cussedness – a platoon of hard bitten mercenaries are unlikely to be as decorous as Mary Poppins say. Would Lieutenant Mulldoos in Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounders’ Arc be a credible trooper without a generous seasoning of four-letter expletives?
But at the same time should we accept a restricted range of curses to a few familiar references. A truly incorrigible swearer has a lexicon of fulmination at their disposal. I heard of a pair of police officers being stunned by one woman’s ability to swear for five minutes solid without repeating herself. Variety and inventiveness are impressive in almost any context. Mazarkis Williams once reminded me that curses form part of an author’s worldbuilding – they can add layers of social meaning and history.
Salyards cuts down on the f-bomb count (see later table) in his Bloodsounder trilogy, largely by liberal use of the adjective “plaguing” – reflecting the great natural disaster that still casts a shadow over his peoples’ lives and bleeds into their coarse speech. The heroic Gaul – Asterix was forever crying “by Toutatis” while Roman legionnaires whimpered “by Jupiter” in curses that added colour and context as much as showing emotion.
Some authors have elaborated on Goscinny & Urdezo’s (very) young adult approach by coupling a fictional god’s name with some unflattering anatomical descriptions as in “by deity’s shrivelled x”, or “… hairy y.” This follows a fine tradition of profanity drawing on faith. Even phrases that seem quaint and tame to modern ears involved dallying with blasphemy to their original users. “Zounds” is an allusion to “God’s wounds” suffered on the cross. “Gadzooks” is an attempt to render “God’s Hooks” (a reference to the nails on the cross) more palatable to the contemporary seventeenth century ear. I am not so sure what other aspects of Gad/God are being referenced in the oaths Gadsbobs, Gadsnigs, Gadsbudlikins, Gadsokers, Gadsprecious, and Gadswookers. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gad1.htm The subtle vowel change to turn God into Gad has, of course, its modern reflection in father Ted’s recourse to feck in moments of stress.
So, in swearing authors face a multiplicity of choices – opportunities to shock, to be gritty, or grim (or grimy), to deepen the layers of their worlds. Though those who write in a purely secular setting may find they have cut off a rich vein of potential curses.
How Many F___’s Were Given?
To probe this theme in more depth I conducted a terribly scientific survey using the search feature on my Kindle. I opened 63 published books from 33 different authors covering the broad range of speculative/horror/sci-fi fiction. These were all books that I had finished, or in a few cases made substantial inroads into. By searching for the f-word I was able to total up the use of the f-bomb in all its many variants in each book.
Obviously some books were longer (whole omnibus versions of trilogies) while others were mere novellas and even one isolated short-story so the comparisons are not exactly fair but they are still illuminating.
You could also argue that one Kindle user’s taste makes for an unrepresentative sample. I can only say that I have never been swayed for or against a book by its f-bomb content. Indeed my relative obliviousness to the word meant that the figures that emerged were as much a surprise to me, as I discovered which authors had never used the f-bomb, and which had scattered the expletives like confetti. However, the sample is inevitably limited to what I had available on my Kindle.
I divided my 63 books into self-published and traditionally published categories, and then into female authored and male authored.
At first glance the data appears to suggest that a) female authors use the f-bomb less than male authors and b) traditionally published authors use it less than self-published authors. (The other observation is – why have I got so few female self-published fantasy authors’ works on my kindle? Recommendations please.)
However, some books skew the statistics quite heavily with Lucas Thorn’s foul mouthed elf Nysta throwing in over 5 times as many f-bombs in 2 books as the other self-published male authors managed in 16 books. So the hypothesis that self-published authors in general swear more than traditionally published is far from proven.
On the other hand, the apparent gender difference appears to be more statistically robust. It might be argued that the presence of those aiming for a young adult audience distorts my figures with Kirstin Cashore weighing in with an entire f-bomb free trilogy (Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue). However, on the male side we have @lordgrimdark himself Joe Abercrombie taking a breather from the world of the Blade Itself and managing an expletive free sheet with Half a King and Half a War – all part of his own determined excursion into the YA territory.
Mercedes M. Yardley explores very dark themes in her writing. The short story “Little Dead Red” within the Grimm Mistresses anthology is a tale so chilling I still haven’t had the courage to contemplate re-reading it. Yet Yardley’s dalliances in the deepest chasms of the human psyche are entirely f-bomb free. The standard bearing for female f-bombs (on my Kindle at least) is left to Teresa Frohock, Elizabeth Bear and Claire North. Given that Los Nefilim is a trilogy of short novellas, Frohock probably delivers the most bang for your buck (or do I mean fang for your f____?) with a total of 43 f-bombs across the trilogy.
Which also raises another observation – the apparent upward drift in f-bomb count over the course of a series. In Frohock’s case the sequence goes 7-10-26, Salyard’s Bloodsounder’s Arc goes 2-13-26, and Polansky’s Lowtown series slightly bucks the trend with 57-84-68, while my own Bloodline trilogy goes 4-17-44. The differences, where they occur, are too large to be explained away just by the tendency for later books to get longer. Do authors become more inured to slinging expletives? Does the editors’ ability to reign in any potty-mouthed tendencies fade as time passes? Do the characters – on their best behaviour like first-time dinner guests in the first book – relax into their true colours as time and plot moves on?
And the winner is? Well, in my limited sample it would appear that – among traditionally published books on my Kindle – Joe Abercrombie takes the gold with 303 f-bombs in the First Law, but then that is a trilogy and so is averaging just over a 100 per volume. Compared to that, second placed Scott Lynch with 189 f-bombs in The Lies of Locke Lamora makes an impressive first book debut. I learned today that he and Elizabeth Bear are engaged and – besides offering my congratulations – I might observe that my limited evidence suggests they are well matched in their willingness to fling around the literary expletives.
But then Lucas Thorn’s knife wielding curse slinging Nysta manages more than twice Lynch’s total in Revenge of the Elf and is a clear overall winner. In so doing, he also spares my own blushes in keeping Master of the Planes from topping the self-published swear list.
However, I had already mentioned Salyard’s imaginative use of the term “plaguing” as a piece of worldbuilding. Given the contexts where it appears, this is an apparent surrogate for “f___ing.” Just as the f-bomb count rises while Captain Braylar Killcoin leads his Syldoon through their darkest hours, so too the plaguing count climbs like a mountain goat leaping between books in the trilogy. The f-bomb totals go 2-13-26, but the plaguing incidences rise 4-62-385. Yes, that is three hundred and eighty five uses of plaguing in Chains of the Heretic. If those were added to the 26 f-bombs they seem to stand proxy for, then Salyards certainly would claim the crown for the most expletive laden tome in my electronic possession. Much as Nysta is a ferocious elf with a tongue as sharp as her many knives, it is somehow fitting that even she cannot out-swear a company of Syldoon soldiers led in language – if not in military strategy – by that incomparable horsec____ Lieutenant Mulldoos (who incidentally had some trouble speaking for about half the final book!).
But at the end of all this number crunching we must ask – so what? As I said I was surprised at some of the numbers that tumbled out of my analysis which shows that I didn’t really “notice” either the presence or the absence of swearing in my original reading. It may bother others more than it bothers me, but the f-bomb is just another word. The test of authorship is not whether to use it, but how to use it, for each word must fight to justify its place on the final printed page. In my case at least it appears that – whether they chose to lose it or use it – all the authors lobbed their f-bombs at just about the right intensity for their work.
And in the final consideration of the issue of swearing in fantasy I can only ask who gives a f___? And answer, “Not me!”
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Oh, you wanted to see the tables and stats! But do remember this sample is just fantasy/sf/speculative fiction on my Kindle.