Crime Beat: Foul language in SA crime fiction, is it f#@%ing necessary?
Swearing goes hand-in-hand with expressing extreme emotions, treading on the outer edge of social propriety, and is often associated with unsavory relationships – the very stuff of crime writing. Yet these novels occupy places in society where swearing is totally unacceptable: quiet libraries, swanky bookstores and granny’s armchair. How do authors manage the balancing act?
In a recent guest blog on Crime Factory,Thomas Pluck wondered, “is strong language an essential component to hardboiled crime fiction, or was the sexual tension of noir amplified because at the time, the writers had to rely on double entendre?” He asserted that nowadays certain publishing platforms require crime writing to be PG13 and many readers abandon books because of the swearing (you can find the full article here.)This interrogation of foul language got me thinking about our local crime fiction and how our authors handle it.
Hawa Golakai, author of The Lazarus Effect, reckons that “it’s almost impossible to completely exclude foul language” from crime writing because the genre, “being the first and best at wading through the muck of the human soul, set the stage for taking swearing from titillating to acceptable.”
“It can’t be avoided, I swear,” jokes Peter Church, author of Bitter Pill . He emphasizes that swearing is not just acceptable, but a commonplace part of communicating: “the F-word is mainstream in movies and music today, as common as an exclamation mark. The captain of the cricket teams shouts it when a catch goes down and the roving mike on a rugby field has dispelled the myth of clean living and Christian values in that game.”
Andrew Brown’s experiences of being a police reservist, which he details in Street Blues have served him well in the foul-mouth department. He reckons that “no detective is able to work and keep a clean mouth, and the diatribes that flow from the mouths of suspects must be heard to be believed”. And, oh boy, has he heard things! Once, he “witnessed fully fledged conversations between cop and suspect in which the only non-swear words were ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘mother’”.
Jassy Mackenzie, author of the Jade de Jong series, tries to not use swearing in her books at all – but not because an attempt at squeaky clean propriety – she says “I can swear like a trooper in real life and I think it’s because of this that I set myself the challenge of writing dialogue without swearing in my books!”.
Sue Rabie tends to keep things quite clean. She ties a little swearing into the characterisation of her ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’: “only my antagonists use foul language. When absolutely pressed the protagonist will use ‘damn’ or ‘blast’, which is as close to swearing as my Mother will allow. ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ is sometimes used, but not together, and only when someone is breathing a prey of deliverance under their breath, however, these often get changed in the end drafts as my family priest feels it is cutting too close to blasphemy, so yes, I do feel constricted or forced to veer away from this.”
Some authors feel swearing is an important device to be used with discretion. “My feeling is to keep the word for the moments when it can make a point,” believes Mike Nicol, author of the Revenge Trilogy. He goes on to explain why swearing is integral to his style of writing, “all said, swearing is very important in my scheme of things precisely because the characters are an edge. They’re generally reacting to something –a threat – that will alter their world”. Joanne Hichens, author of Divine Justice, also sees swearing as a tool to in her writing. She says that “sometimes the F-word is just the thing to create a certain rhythm in a sentence and to give it the kind of contemporary weight needed.” She goes on to explain that, “direct language is an essential in hard-boiled crime fiction, certainly if there’s a streak of Noir going on. Dark. Pared down. Essential. Elemental”. Hichens finds that swearing helps her evoke an undercurrent of sex in her writing. She believes that “there’s a strategic place for base words in my writing, which is subliminally sexual. My characters will ‘make love’ at times, sure, but most often they will fuck. Cunt and cock in loving frenzy. I call it like it is. If this means I’ll stay fringe, then sobeit. I’m no Pollyanna crime-writer, ‘cause crime is so not squeaky clean.”
For many authors, it’s a question of verisimilitude and character believability. Deon Meyer believes that “strong language lies in the mouth of the character” He goes on to give two examples: “Benny Griessel (Devil’s Peak, Thirteen Hours) lets rip, and I allow it, because that’s the way he is. But Lemmer (Blood safari, Trackers) does not use profanity at all.” Rob Marsh sees it as a question of what’s realistic: “I have no problem if a fictional character swears as long as it’s within an appropriate context. Sometimes my characters swear, but only if it’s a natural thing to do. I don’t do swearing for effect, so to speak. The fact is most of us swear, so it would be somewhat unnatural to have a character in a book who doesn’t.” Hawa Golakai also subscribes to this idea but expresses it in her unique style, which has endeared her writing to many readers. She reckons that “contemporary life can’t be done justice on the page without expletives, not if believability is to be maintained. If people cuss in real life, they sure as Shirley are gonna cuss in the book.” Margie Orford, author of the Clare Hart series, sees foul language as an instrument to used with caution; always with an eye on plausibility. She says “if it is sprinkled over the top like noir castor sugar it will sound false. If, on the other hand, the character speaks in character then some will swear […]Swear words are highly coded though, as is slang, and one false note can erase your reader’s belief in the authenticity.”
This sense of being in touch with a reader and maintaining a sense of authenticity seems to be a touchstone for most authors. Andrew Brown highlights this balancing act, “readers certainly don’t want too much, and if you included as much swearing as occurs in the course of the average police investigation, no one would read your books. You need to find a balance that makes it palatable but believable. And outside of crime thrillers, swearing is probably unnecessary save for particular occasions, usually humour.” That said there seems to be little pressure on writers to include swearing to fulfill expectation and few constrictions placed on authors to keep things clean. Stan Trollip of writing duo Michael Stanley, authors of the Detective Kubu series says that they “don’t feel constrained by our publisher or our audience, although the latter would probably be a little put off by excessive and/or unnecessary profanity. Certainly we’ve had no pushback on the little swearing there is in our books.”
Margie Orford reckons that “bad language, body markings have become so widely used as to be meaningless in that it does not imply anything. Middle class housewives parking their 4x4s at an up-market shopping mall would make most sailors blush. It is much more shocking when people DON’T swear.” It seems that in a world where certain taboos are flaunted too often to carry real weight any longer, creating riveting reading without swearing is a much greater challenge and, often, a more admired way of writing. Mike Nicol says that “while crime fiction might have a tendency towards the use of swear words, you don’t have to go that way, and certainly I don’t feel it is a genre dictate. I always found it remarkable that the TV series Spooks used very little bad language despite the jeopardy under which the characters operated.”