What the f**k is all this swearing about?

During the 1994 Booker Prize Rabbi Julie Neuberger called James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late a ‘disgrace’. Simon Jenkins branded Kelman ‘an illiterate savage’. Even Welsh’s Trainspotting was considered too offensive by many. The main reason? Bad language. Despite the fact that swearing is more out of the closet it is clear many still give a f**k about swearing – for it or against it.
And Kelman is definitely for it. So why has he asterisked all the swear words in his latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy?
To make a point, yes, but one he could easily have made by keeping the words intact.
I should show my hand before we continue. I f***ing love swearing. As a child my dearest mother would shout from the kitchen into the living room ‘you kids in there, stop that f***ing swearing!’ But I don’t believe it had much to do with growing up in Manchester. Remember the ‘Fucking Fulfords’? Lords of the manor all and yet every other word was an expletive. I remember that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm whereby an entire restaurant became a mass swearathon – the Brooklyn big-mouthed wife of Larry David’s manager/agent shouts out ‘car-wash c**t!’ Car wash! I mean, what right did she have to shout out ‘car wash’ in what was supposed to be an American cult comedy?

There is of course the old, tired argument, like that used by Jenkins, that swearing is only used by those who don’t know longer words. It is ironic, then, that it was theatre luvvie Kenneth Tynan who was the first to swear on television – no doubt BBC switchboards were jammed by the minority of telephone-owners at the time.

Swearing in literature can serve as much needed stopping points in which a whole host of emotion can be conveyed in just one short hit – rage, anger, confusion, sadness, shock, joy! I love words, all words – my debut novel, A Clockwork Apple, is heavy on the use of weird and wonderfully archaic words like widdershins, vilipend and phrontistery – yet is also peppered with c u next Tuesdays and other choice put downs. They are not only part of the main character’s armour but also serve as incredibly effective punctuation. A good f**k is far more graceful than an exclamation mark. ‘Shit’ can serve as a question mark, as in ‘shit?’ or ‘really?’. Bastard can be used in a variety of ways, in the traditional sense it can be written as a hiss, laced with an undercurrent of venom. Or in a high pitched tone to convey shock, usually best when italicised. There are far more – twat being particularly effective.

One of the reasons why many object to the use, especially of the latter, and of c u next Tuesday, is because, for many, they are synonymous with female genitalia – which I find bizarre as I, and many others never use these words with that meaning. Besides, if that is what makes these particular words taboo then I believe it should make women determined to use them to hell and back, just like gay men reclaimed ‘queer’, once used as an attempt to shame them.

That’s why I’m disappointed that Kelman has chosen to asterisk the frequent swear words of Kieron, the teenage protagonist of Kieron Smith, Boy. I don’t doubt the point he may be making but that it has lost some of its integrity by doing so. What is left is a twee dotting of stars throughout the pages – and stars are so fashionable at the moment, aren’t they?

Part of the reason I loved Welsh’s Trainspotting was because of the liberal use of expletives. It was true to the Leith dialect and lives of the characters. It wasn’t for effect. If readers wanted to travel through that landscape they had to work hard at overcoming their own delicacies and getting to know it on its own terms.

And all in the humble swear word.

More of it, I say. In fact, it’s just one of the things I said to teenagers in a recent talk and workshop I gave on creative writing. Using Kelman as an example I told them he shouldn’t have replaced Kieron’s swearing with wee stars but just come right out with it. Then he could have told anyone who complained to shut the f**k up. If one is going to be true to a certain mode of expression then censorship can have no place whatsoever, no matter what reader is offended.

Popular Posts