SEX and VIOLENCE, I SWEAR!
by Leigh Lundin
Janet Hutchings, my favorite editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, posed a quandary on the Dell Magazines web site. She mentioned readers criticizing editors both for allowing and disallowing adult treatment of sex, violence, and foul language (which suggests she probably has the balance about right). She goes on to say, "We don’t want to automatically reject a good story by a good writer because it contains an essential but explicit sexual or violent image or language."
Janet is a proponent of deploying what it takes to get the job done and not much more, similar to theories of economical writing. We’re taught to be sparse and eliminate excessive words, but for some reason, when it comes to obscenities, people become indignant one way or the other.
Personally, I tend toward minimalism. I don’t care to lump sexandviolence together as if it’s a single Nixonian concept. I consider them separate topics, but sex, violence, and swearing have this in common: My feeling is they should be used only when necessary.
As Fritz Lang demonstrated, a lot can be said with a little. I don’t relish violence, yet I don’t mind portrayals in Silence of the Lambs or The Bone Collector (although the steam pipe scene proved stomach wrenching).
Why accept some violence and yet detest other murderous scenes? It’s the difference between Jeffrey Deaver and a slasher movie. While Deaver’s books contain gore and violence, the tension derives from a battle of wits between the good guys and the bad where violence signifies the price of failure.
In slasher movies, the tension comes from guessing who next gets hacked and splattered and whether you barf your popcorn. Gross-out choreographers refer to the flying meat as "gibs", short for giblets. If you lose your cookies, the movie-makers have done their job.
Such may have a popular following, but is it good fiction? As with everything else, we have to fall back upon the rules of writing.
The question is: Does it move the story forward?
Yummy. I mean, ahem, yes, only when necessary. Sex as filler seldom works. Seventies pulp fiction suffered from thin plots plumped up with gratuitous sex that didn’t particularly reveal character development. Sex should show something in a story and not sit there merely to pump up the libido and word count.
Lindsey Davis (I know I mention her a lot– we’ve yet to announce our engagement) wrote one of the more unusual sex scenes in One Virgin Too Many. It was original, intelligent, stimulating, and well worth reading.
In contrast, another history mystery writer sometimes uses the same sex scene from book to book, almost copy-and-paste. When that happens, it’s a clue that scene isn’t advancing the story.
So what makes the difference? It’s a matter of characterization. When Steven Saylor’s Gordianus and Bethesda entangle, we learn it’s more than a master/slave relationship, they genuinely care for each other.
Sometimes sex shows something entirely different. My first story to AHMM included a couple of sexual references (or inferences), short and semi-oblique. Each was a sentence long and meant to illustrate, not titillate.
The bottom line: Does sex move the story forward?
In an earlier article, WTF, I wrote about one word. The ƒ-word is one of the most used and most controversial words in the language, so well understood I don’t even have to name it. Odd, when you think about it, that a certain arrangement of letters has the power to shock, titillate, anger, seduce, insult … and stupefy and stultify.
A concentration of swearing tends to short-circuit intelligent discussion. Exceptions abound, of course. When Dorothy Parker was on her honeymoon, her editor sent nagging telegrams about her deadline. Parker replied, "I’ve been ƒ-ing busy… and vice versa." The ƒ-word in the first half might seem gratuitous, but the end of the sentence makes all the difference.
I don’t walk out of movies, but I walked out of a 1990s flick (title long since forgotten) because the ƒ-ing language suffocated plot and characterization. Sure, I get it that cops and drug kingpins rarely speak like Edith Wharton, but language should salvage a film, not savage it. Most writers use a light touch when using patois and it’s wise to do the same with swearing.
The question is: Does it move the story forward?
Drunk with One’s Own Words
About the same time as that movie came out, a local radio station played a tape of a drunk who was lost and phoned 911. Although the caller swore with every other word, the result had a peculiar naïveté that came off as funny rather than offensive.
Therein may lie an unexplored link: Kids think it’s adult and loads of fun to get drunk and swear a lot. In truth, neither is mature and seldom as much fun as portrayed, but the misconception remains.
Some people never grew out of that childhood where kiddies chortle over "doodie poo-poo", roll on the floor giggling, and look up "penis" in the dictionary. You see the adult version in Vegas-style shows where people laugh riotously at obscenities, absent any real humor.
When I first learned to write, I came across a rule that said if you like a passage too much, you should probably erase it. I’ve found this to be amazingly true in my own writing, but some writers fail to heed it. I don’t believe in bowdlerization or censorship, but in monitoring and moderating oneself. For example, the expurgated version of an Eddie Murphy HBO special was funnier than the self-indulgent original, streamlining a distracting empty padding of words out of the material.
The Other Extreme
When I was in school, police arrested a smart-ass student on an obscenity charge for telling them to "Kiss it." The student deserved a smacking, but that was beside the point.
I turned the hearing into a self-consciously bad script for a student play, which improved with time, editing, and a selective memory went something like this:
"What exactly did the defendant say?"
"He told me to ‘Kiss it.’"
"Kiss it? You mean like kiss his cheek? Kiss his ring? kiss his mother?"
"No, you know what I mean."
"I don’t. This case hinges upon a pronoun. What exactly did he mean?"
"He meant…" (sotto voce) "my ass."
"Pardon, did you just swear in court?"
"No, I’m just repeating what the gentleman said."
"You mean what he didn’t say, don’t you?"
"Well, yes. You’re twisting my words."
"You mean twisting his words?"
"That’s not what I meant."
"So you curse in court but you arrest a boy who didn’t swear at all?"
"Well, yes, no, but …"
"Cursing isn’t a gentlemanly thing to do, is it?"
"No, of course not."
"And you admitted the defendant is a gentleman."
"I did not!"
"Your honor, may we have the last dozen lines read back?"
"I meant it like a eupha… You know, like a figure of speech."
"Yet you arrest a young man for what you contend is a figure of speech?"
"But his was obscene."
"Which means you read his mind? Could he possibly have meant anything else?"
"He might have meant … You’ll accuse me of obscenity if I say the word."
"You have very limited ideas of what constitutes obscenity, don’t you, sir?"
Both deserved a little jail time with each other.
Dale and Dee-Dee
I worked on Wall Street with two twenty-something women, Dale and Dee-Dee. Dale was lithe, fashion conscious, and acted ditzy. Dee-Dee came off as tomboyish, solid, profane, and very bright. When Dale would announce to the world, "I’m gonna go tinkle," Dee-Dee would pop up and say, "I gotta take a piss."
Both made the rest of us cringe, Dale because she talked like a six-year-old and Dee-Dee because she swore like a coal miner. The point is one needs balance. (Better yet, if you’re older than six, the rest of the world doesn’t want to hear about your body functions.)
Dorothy Parker also said, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words." Another writer almost paraphrased her. He said, "Swearing is like masturbation with words. It’s non-productive, no one wants to watch, and no one else enjoys it." When it gets out of hand, is an onanistic imagination the lasting impression you want to leave with readers?
The question is: What do you think?
Death in the Family
The first quarter of this year has been bizarre with bad luck. One of the most significant events was that my sister-in-law Bonnie died two weeks ago today after a devastating battle with cancer. I spoke with my brother, Glen, shortly after, then for the past ten days he went radio silent.
He finally dropped me a note today and for a non-writer (he’s an industrial electrician), it’s a hell of an evocative piece of writing:
I have days that pass in a blur; other days I seem to function sort of OK. One of the weirdist things is to attempt to absorb that I actually met, marreied and partnered with the coolest, ungodly prettiest, unpretentious humans I’ve ever known. I stand awestruck. Best I can do for now.