Wednesday, 22 February 2012

WTF? Why is there so much f*&$ing cursing in Peeler?

What do you say when you smash your thumb with a hammer?  No, really...  Apparently 99% of all English speakers drop an 'f bomb'.  The other 1% are lying. 

I'm one of the 99%.  There is just something about the word 'fuck' (there, I've said it) that seems to simultaneously reduce pain and quash rage while allowing one to announce to the world that, 'Yes, here I am, doing DIY, mutilating myself in the process, and do I get any bleedin' thanks for it!?'

I even curse when I'm not hitting myself with heavy objects.  I swear when I'm sad.  I swear when I'm feeling reflective, or mildly amused or enraged or really, really happy.  And I've taught my kids to swear.  I've never sat them down and said,  'Now, kids, today we're starting with 'damn' and we'll see how we get on with it for a few days before tackling 'shit'...' and I'm not particularly proud of it, but there it is.  I knew I was a good teacher when my eldest daughter, aged 3 at the time, came barreling out of the house, curls bouncing, innocence embodied, as I was packing my mother's suitcase into the car for her flight home,  screaming, 'Oh fuck!  Don't go! I forgot to give Grandma a goodbye kiss!'  Needless to say, my mother was less than impressed (though she was touched by the urgency that only a 3 year old can bring to sweet parting) and swore (natch) to jack-in the cursing, swearing and muttering of oaths for good.  I lasted about a week.

All of the above is a fairly round about way of drawing your attention to this posting via Melissa Hill on the Irish Crime Fiction Facebook page: .

This, in turn, led me to the originating post, here:  They are both well observed and of interest to readers and writers alike.

Both of them got me thinking about the use of foul language in crime fiction and how I use it in my own writing.  My agent, Jonathan Williams, a fine editor as well as agent, has told me more than once that there is too much of it in the early drafts of my work.  He doesn't object, I must stress, to the foulness of it, but much more to how repetitious it appears on the page.  In each of the four novels of mine he has represented, two historical, two contemporary, he has made this point and in each one, I have gone back and judiciously cut hundreds of swear words, virtually all of it from dialogue.

Which brings me to how and why I use cursing in my writing and the simple answer is this:  I use it in dialogue because it is how the characters I am writing about speak.  That's it.  How and why.  Writing dialogue is a mysterious (cheesy word choice, mysterious, I know, but allow it for now, please...) process.  I find it to be automatic, a subconscious listening to the characters; almost as if I'm transcribing words as they are spoken, an eavesdropping of a kind.  I'll write more about dialogue in some future post because it is something profound, (and profoundly difficult to describe) wonderful, and yes, mysterious, but for our purposes here, I'll say simply that when I'm writing, and listening to my characters speak, and I hear them curse, then by fuck, that's what I write because that's what they said.  First draft writing is like this or it should be, fingers flying, a document detailing voices and movements impelled by the subconscious mind and moderated by the conscious one.
And today at Aspects of the Novel (For Dummies)
This rapid flow required by the first draft, of course, leads to far too much swearing in the early manuscripts, because the men (generally, it's the men) I write about, the criminals and cops and soldiers and old men in bars, all swear too much.  I swear too much and you probably do too.  But I generally listen to my agent and go a-slashing with the red pen because he is correct also in saying that written speech--fictional dialogue--is very different to actual recorded speech.  Again, a topic for another day, but fictional dialogue is a very structured and stylised affair.  Just as we don't include in fictional dialogue every 'ummmm...' and 'well...' and 'hmmmm...' that mark much of what constitutes how we really speak, nor should we include every 'fuck' or 'shite' or 'jaysus'.  It may be how we really speak, how the characters would really speak if they were standing in corporeal form here next to us and bending our collective ear, but it is not how they would or should speak on the page.  Too much naturalistic swearing, basically, and it drains dialogue of meaning and power.  Too little (or none), for certain, and it can drain the dialogue of realism and, again, power, calling into question that sacred contract between reader and writer which hinges on the balance of veracity against suspension of disbelief.  (Another topic for a another day, that balance, and one for a more learned mind than my own.  Maybe E.M. Forster will grapple with it on his blog, Aspects of the Novel For Dummies)  But again, too much or too little cursing, in my opinion, is ultimately a question of effective or ineffective writing.

The hills of West Cork from
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
To pick one example from Peeler, my protagonist, Acting Sergeant Sean O'Keefe finds himself in a cave/IRA hideout in the mountains of West Cork where he has been allowed to question two nefariously violent, but ultimately pathetic, criminal brothers who are suspects in the brutal murder case he is investigating.  Presiding over this are several hardened IRA gunmen and young IRA Volunteer, Liam Farrell, who is investigating the same brutal murder from the republican side.  Without giving too much away, when the questioning is finished, Farrell is tasked with dispensing summary justice upon the Skelly brothers.  The brothers, therefore are asked if they have any last words.

In early drafts of this scene, the younger brother begs and pleads for mercy, cursing a blue streak in a sad panic to prolong his life.  The IRA gunmen curse in a brutish, gallows-tainted way and the elder Skelly brother curses at them all in an act of defiance.  I liked this scene a great deal, I might add, not withstanding the above blog on failing better, and because I did, perhaps, I was blinded to quite how much like white noise were all the 'fucks' and 'shites' and 'bastards' littering the dialogue.  Jonathan read the scene and asked, 'Would the whole of it not have more power if you cut most of the rest of the cursing and left only this...?'  He was entirely correct and I now like this scene even more. (If I do say so myself) In the published novel it reads as follows and I feel the curse uttered is much more powerful for its relative solitude:

     The older Skelly brother looked over at them. ‘I’m no rat.’ But he said it without conviction, as if he had learned some time in his life that this was what – as an Irishman or a lifelong criminal or both – he was supposed to say.      Halloran was right. Farrell knew he was wasting his breath trying to spare the Skellys. He had a job to do. He stepped behind the two brothers and raised the Mauser. His hand was shaking. He had never pictured it quite like this, killing for his country. Putting bullets in the brains of two unarmed men had never featured in any of the heroic scenes he had screened in his imagination.      His index finger brushed the trigger guard and as if aware, the younger Skelly brother found his voice.      ‘I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t. I’m no rat. I swear it. Please.’ His words were choked with sobs. ‘I done nothing.’      Halloran said, ‘You hurt that woman. You done that, you. Who told you do that, Mutton?’      The older Skelly was unmoved. He hacked and spat again, saying nothing and Farrell was seized by sudden terror. Jesus. I can’t do this. This is not what…not how…      He turned, handed the gun to Halloran and ducked out of the cave.      Eamonn Halloran shook his head, partly in disgust, partly in sympathy. Out of his depth, Farrell was. Should have stayed in university. No business in the fray, poor bastard. He checked the load in the Mauser and raised it.      ‘Any prayers, lads, before we get down to it?’      The elder Skelly brother cleared his throat and said, ‘Fuck all o’ ye cunts.’      The younger brother wept.      Climbing out of the ravine, O’Keefe and his escort of gunmen heard the shots. Faint pops in the night. Almost as if they hadn’t happened.

Just now, copying and pasting in that scene, I've remembered a reading I did a while back when, tired of reading the opening scene of Peeler, I switched to this scene above.  When signing books afterwards, I overheard one woman (mid-60's, I'd guess, and very kindly bought Peeler, despite her objections to my reading) say to her friend (similar age) something to the effect that she'd liked the reading but that it could have done without all the blue language.  Her friend replied, and I remember this quite clearly:  'But that's how those men spoke back then.  That's how my father talked, sure, when he thought we couldn't hear him!'                  

Two things strike me now:  1) I'm not the first father to inadvertently teach his daughter to curse, thank God, and 2) this woman's words strike at the core of what I've been so long here in getting at.  The characters in my fiction swear and curse, 'f and blind', because that's how those men spoke back then and without the (judiciously edited) swearing, Peeler would be a lesser book.

How these men speak...
So that's that then.  I had planned on musing somewhat on cursing in the historical fictional context (I've been asked was 'fuck' used as a curse in 1920 and yes, it was) and perhaps on the origins of cursing itself, a subject on which I've been known to hold forth in the pub.  (Shakespeare himself, was a whore for the cursing, so he was, though in Elizabethan England, 'fuck' was a perfectly acceptable if not commonly used verb while swearing oaths on Christ's body was murderously offensive, hence, 'zounds', seen often in the plays which is a contraction of what was commonly screamed by late 16th century Londoners when they smashed their thumbs with hammers, namely 'God's wounds!')  But instead, I'll leave you with this link, to one of the most remarkable--I say remarkable only because half of me thinks it's brilliant and the other half of me thinks it's somewhat stagey--scenes from The Wire, a  fictional crime series of utter genius which perhaps ought to have the last word on swearing.  Screenwriting is, of course, as different an art from novel writing as television is but it sums up the point of this posting quite nicely.