Friday, August 9, 2013
Just Because You Can
Mark Twain had a soft spot in his heart for a man who could swear well, particularly appreciating the men who worked the riverboats on the Mississippi and the miners in the American West. He wrote about them on a number of occasions, but there was one thing he never did.
He never quoted them directly.
Back in his day, he couldn’t have. The American literary prejudice against cuss words, not to mention the nature of obscenity laws and the prevailing prudery of society ensured that he couldn’t. For most of its existence, America was a country where Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses couldn’t be legally sold. I don’t agree with those who believe it was better that way; all I can think of is the large number of unwritten books that must have stirred in the minds of great authors who felt they dared not tackle a subject because, given what they would be allowed to publish, they couldn’t do it justice.
Dirty Harry’s Riposte
In the space of ten years, roughly comprising the 1960s, the taboos on sex and violence collapsed completely, and books, plays and movies were able to depict those aspects of human behavior.
Some good things came out of it. To stick roughly to that period, we can be appreciative for the new license that allowed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dirty Harry, and Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice. From the language standpoint, Dirty Harry, with a fine screenplay by John Peter Milius, was groundbreaking. No one who ever saw it will forget Clint Eastwood’s riposte to the persistent mugger he cold-cocked as he was on his way to deliver ransom money.
Some bad things came out of it as well. One of the problems with artistic license is that it is too often used by people who shouldn’t. In books written over the past 40 or so years, I have come across plenty of explicit sex scenes that made me cringe or laugh. One book was so awful in that way that I gave Linda a dramatic reading, and after she finished laughing, she said of the author, “The poor man. I feel so sorry for his wife.”
The same is true of unimaginative use of bad language. After reading one dispiriting modern mystery, back in the 1990s, where every fourth word began with the letter “F,” I took a vow.
Keeping It Clean
When I began to write my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I made a conscious decision to steer clear of foul language and keep the sex scenes restrained and discreet. In the first instance, it was a matter of rebelling against what I was seeing as an over-use of profanity by people who didn’t know how. In the second instance, it was a matter of knowing my limitations as a writer, plus not wanting some reader laughing and saying, “I feel so sorry for his poor wife.”
That decision made a certain organic sense as well. I was trying to write in the vein of the classic mystery novel, and those were written in the days before profanity and explicit sex were permitted. I was being true to the genre, if you will. And I did include one utterance of profanity in the book, but did so feeling that it was right under the specific circumstance.
I’ll leave that to the reader to judge, but the point here is that I had the freedom to do it the way I wanted — clean or dirty. Sixty years ago, I wouldn’t have had the choice and probably would have missed it.