Is “That Kind of Language” Really Necessary?

Those of you who are faithful followers, or who know me personally, know that I am something of a potty mouth.  I could give you examples, or mention all the variations of the title question I’ve heard, but that’s not really what the this post is about.

Today, I finished another Dean Koontz novel, The Funhouse.  Despite Koontz’s tendency to include thinly veiled moral/religious connotations in most of his work, and his even more irritating tendency to overdo it on the metaphorical descriptives, I do like his stories.  The Funhouse, one of his older novels and based off another author’s screenplay, is in my opinion, one of his more entertaining pieces.

But what really struck me was a passage from the “new” afterword.  The novelization was originally penned in 1980 (a year before I was born, incidentally,) and the language is gritty and (to me) realistic to a bunch of rebel teens from the ’80’s.  Koontz had this to say in his newest afterword written this year.

If I were to write the novelization […] today, I’d leave out most or all of the explicit language, since I’ve learned it’s always a crutch and that it diminishes rather than enlivens virtually any story.

I immediately took issue with this statement.  To be sure, I am picky about my writing, and critical about the writing in the books I read.  For instance, Patricia Cornwell is an extremely popular crime novelist who has sold more than 100 million copies of her novels.  And I don’t like her.  Sure, her stories are fine, but I find her writing style so irritating that I just don’t buy her books.  I can’t recall specifics because it’s been a while since I read anything of hers, but I seem to remember her as one of those authors that feels like she has to “explain” everything to audience, to the point where it causes the dialogue between characters to sound disingenuous and phony.

Which brings me to my point.  One of the major things that determines a novel’s success is the ability of the audience to relate to and care about the characters.  Nothing detracts from that faster than a disingenuous character or one who does not seem realistic.  While I concede that there are people that don’t use profanity, and writers who may eschew the use of it in their work, I believe it is a writer’s job to be true to their characters.  If their characters are typical 80’s teens, as in The Funhouse, they more than likely swear at least a little.  Even if there is a token “good girl” or “mama’s boy” in there somewhere, more than likely, the rest will curse at least a bit and more than possibly like sailors.

Nothing is more irritating than to hear (read) a character tip-toe around bad words, or worse, substitute lesser exclamations as if they were the most natural thing in the world.  “Oh, crap.”

Anyway, I just think, as successful as Koontz is, on this point, he’s…well, wrong.

What do you think, my fellow writers and book worms?

profanity

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16 responses to “Is “That Kind of Language” Really Necessary?

  1. Ah, Dean Koontz. I can’t believe he would consider ‘bad’ language a crutch. How many does he have in his closet? Main characters with bad childhoods who have risen above it to be golly-gee-whiz perfect. Swing music, jukeboxes and golden retrievers being the favourite things of said good guys. Bad weather EVERY DAMN TIME some bad shit’s about to go down. Bad guys who eat a LOT at one sitting. Scientific achievement being abused for personal gain, over n over and over.

    I guess that’s what happens when you write several full-length novels a year for decades.

    And I do like his work, have a huge collection. Watchers, Lightning and Midnight were my introduction to him (back when you were six!) and are still my favourites. I am about sick of the religious themes though. As I (who was a teenager in the 80’s) would say: “fuck that shit.”

    • Well, that’s my only point. It depends on the story and the characters therein, you know? Like, you wouldn’t expect to be reading about a hardened criminal and him go, “Oh, phooey!”

  2. I was once asked if the language used by one of my characters was really necessary. I repsonded. “Hell yes! That’s who she is. And by the way, she cusses a F*ck-ton less than I do!”

  3. As with so many of your topics, this is something I think about (although in a different form, as I’ll explain) in my day-to-day life. As a kid, my mom constantly told me that profanity was the sign of a bad vocabulary. I thought that was silly, because by definition, the more bad words you know, the more expansive your vocabulary. I like to curse.

    In “real life” I do find excessive profanity rude, because, while I certainly don’t mind it, I know a lot of people do, and so I try to avoid excessive swearing in public.

    However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I thought the swearing was too much. I read a lot of Irvine Welsh, and he’s high on the cursing, but it accurately reflects his characters. So it’s probably possible to over-curse in a book, but I haven’t seen it.

    I enjoyed “Funhouse.” It wasn’t great, but it was a nice little read. I enjoyed the foreword (or possibly afterword) where Koontz explains how he had to put a lot of backstory into a relatively simple script.

    • Oh, good! You read it… So do you agree that the swearing in that novel kind of belonged there? It is prob possible to over-curse in a book, but not THAT book. LOL
      I agree, as I also “like” to swear, but find people who do so in certain situations to be crass…

  4. I find it irritating as hell when you can see how a writer makes the effort to “clean up” his character’s speech. Even if I were religious or was easily offended by profanity, I couldn’t expect a book about say… Eminem… to be child friendly. And besides, books include all manner or crime imaginable (also unimaginable…) is the ACT of rape described graphically on the page acceptable, while the word “Fuck” offends the gentle reader’s sensitivities?… I don’t fucking get this shit 🙂

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