Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Censoring Your Characters

I have received a review on Amazon for I Stopped Time which I am not sure I quite deserve: “What I like about her (Jane’s) books is that there is no bad or offensive language - something that you cannot say about a lot of books these days.”
This raises an uncomfortable question: should writers allow their characters to swear? My answer would quite simply be, yes - in fact they must, if their writing is to be honest and authentic. As a fellow writer recently blogged: “I work in a factory, and if I was going to depict life in the factory, I couldn't do it without throwing in some foul language. In all honesty, it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear how some of the guys talk sometimes - but my views of decency and propriety don't change the way the world actually is.”
To some, to permanency of the written word means that swearing in print has higher shock value than the spoken word. In 1951, J D Salinger was the first author to use the F-word in The Catcher in the Rye. Over sixty years later, it remains one of America’s most banned books.
We are more familiar with sound of the F-Word. In 1963, Kenneth Peacock Tynan, literary manager for the National Theatre Company briefly became the most notorious man in the country by becoming the first to use it on British television, a move later referred to as a ‘masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.’ Mary Whitehouse only added to the equation when she wrote to the Queen demanding he should be reprimanded by ‘having his bottom spanked.’ How times have changed, Gordon Ramsey (And you, a father of four). This anomaly appears to remain. The opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which consists almost entirely of the F-Word, manages to remain inoffensive, but it is necessary to be in the right frame of mind to stomach Vernon God Little.
And yet there are alternatives. Ronnie Barker sought authenticity for his 1973 prison-based comedy-drama, Porridge. By introducing the word, ‘Nark’, to the English language he avoided causing offence and gained an enviable family-based audience of 15 million.
I believe that over-use sorely diminishes the impact of good old Anglo Saxon language. I am currently reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the first swear word appears on page 148. It is so shocking in context, coming from Harold’s imagination as it does, and a damning self-assessment of his failings as a father, that it triggered a real emotional response in me. Joyce follows this up by introducing a truly good character called Martina whose language, in my mother’s often-used phrase, ‘leaves much to be desired’. But not knowing this to begin with, the reader may start to judge the character. Because there is kindness in Martina’s intentions, once we get to know her, just as it is in life, her choice of words ceases to be offensive.
Not all readers, it seems, can distinguish, between the views of the writer and the views of their characters. Stephen King offers this comfort: “Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic.”
And so I continue to allow my characters to swear, when the situation demands it. But not Sir James Hastings who will always, for me, remain an English gentleman. But nineteen-year old Jenny Jones? I allow her to swear once - to really grab his attention.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. Her first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’

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