Had I ever taught Creative Writing (and is that cozy old phrase more, or less, redundant than the rarely-encountered labels “Active Athletics” or “Audible Music”?), there’s one lesson I would have found myself reiterating every week, if not with every breath, because it’s such a fundamental, and persistently ignored, literary principle. Reading James Wolcott’s 2009 LRB review of John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, just now, I wanted to remind Wolcott himself of that principle; quoting the article:
“…a soft-spoken gent named Willard, […] expresses condolences to Alexandra over the loss of her husband, adding in his ‘sugary, melancholy voice’ that he lost someone too: ‘My partner passed last year. We’d been together for 37 years.’
A tiny bell rings in the parlour of Alexandra’s brain.
Partner. One of the new code words, usefully bland. Willard was one of those. She’d been fooled before. She felt some relief and some resentment. This fag had been wasting her time.”
“That’s a long time,’ Alexandra said. She did not add, for a pair of fairies. Who notoriously flit around, breaking each other’s hearts with their infidelities, their unchecked attraction to younger fairies.”
Flitting fairies? That Alexandra was ‘sucked into the orbit of a homosexual man’ and ‘betrayed’ way back when in Eastwick seems a slim reed on which to drape sneering contempt towards a character whose sole trespass is to engage in conversation and extend sympathy – whose presence has no bearing on the storyline, slack though that is. When Willard materialises a few pages later, again courteous to a fault, Alexandra can’t resist, noting: ‘His studied lumberjack costumes seemed, in retrospect, faggy.’
Yes, James, “Alexandra’s” Free Indirect stream is rather indelicate (and, remember: the same Updike who made “Alexandra” that way made “Willard” “courteous to a fault”). Maybe the character is designed to be genuinely homophobic, or maybe the text’s F-words are a bitchy exaggeration meant to emphasize the Alexandra-character’s condition of newly single, no longer young and fucking around not at all in her search for an eligible CIS of the proper vintage. I don’t know because I haven’t read, and don’t plan on reading, the book. But: are there any actual people on the planet who might think thoughts similar, in their offensiveness, to what “Alexandra” “thinks” there? That is: is it okay, at any point, to write a character that appears to be as nasty/ racist/ sexist/ classist, or even just as coarse, or cranky, as some people actually are? Though, are people…?
This a Planet of Paragons, right? Or we’re just a few thousand conversions short of it, right? Or are there a few atypically Nasty Types out there? Are there, perhaps, more than, say, a million people out there who have thought the word “Fag” (or its cognates) at some point in the past 50 years? If such people really exist, are Writers forbidden to portray them?
Anyone out there ever think the word “Retard” or “Nigger”?
(I know that I think the word “Retard” about a dozen times before lunch, every day, making me a Nasty Type who will, under only the rarest circumstances, eschew the use of the perfectly-descriptive word “Retard,” though I’m not quite sociopathic enough to shout it toward a woman walking happily along in the sunshine with her Down Syndrome child, context being everything; the word “Retard,” in any case, having nothing to do with a congenital birth defect and everything to do with a person with an otherwise-normally-functioning brain behaving like an Idiot, or a Fool, which, fair enough, you may think describes me when I use, or think, the word “Retard” … so please feel free to call me one).
Is it okay to discuss, or give voice to, Nasty Types by Writing them? If it isn’t okay, A) why isn’t it okay? B) Who says it isn’t? And C) is any Literature that doesn’t include, by default, the Author’s right to Offend, Confuse, Confront, Rebuke, Discomfit and Alienate the Audience really anything better than G-Rated Textual Entertainment (for Kids)?
Sometime after 9/11, tonsured Mainstream Critics and their dutiful followers began placing a rather humorless premium on “Realistic” Lit and a bounty on the heads of the Writers of The Other Stuff. They claimed to want a Lit that reflected The Recognizable World… and yet (as we later learned) they really wanted a Reflection of the Recognizable World without any Offensive Stuff included. In other words: what they really, really wanted was “Disney Realism” aka Totally Unreal Realism.
The fundamental literary principle I reference in the intro of this quick essay, the principle I argue to defend (and that should, by now, go without saying, although it always needs saying, over and over again) can best be summed up as: Everything Is On The Table, In The Mind and On The Page.
If you don’t like what you read, critique it, yes, but to act as though it goes without saying that certain things just cannot be written or spoken… is the Philistine’s anti-Intellectual default and the Fucktard’s Anti-Literary Banner. Yes, Kiddie Prn and Murder Manuals are special cases but precisely because they’re special cases they can be dealt with without applying convenient, blanket, stultifying and fang-pulling rules of pissy decorum to an Art-form meant to convert Reality into Aesthetic Pleasure, generating heavy sparks of Truth along the way. You cannot police Lit for Niceness without destroying Lit.
The Critics (working in harmony with publishers, the “educational” system, consumer-fads and the mandarin tastes of certain gatekeepers who may or may not preserve the Finer, Higher Stuff from the exterminating judgments of The Market ) are police enough. We can’t deputize and arm, with Twitter-Tasers, every thin-skinned, bluenose, semi-literate civilian if we want to nurture any pretense of maintaining a Literary Culture worthy of the attention, and participation, of intelligent adults.
“Alexandra” can think “Fag” and Flannery (the real one) can type “Nigger”. These are not definitive/ authoritative declarations about any group(s) of people and can only be misread as such (if they are read as such); these are not to be taken as value-judgments external to the world of their texts. A Novel is not a Manual for Life; a (brilliant) Novel is a work of Art that can enhance Life in complex ways; arguably more complex/ nuanced than visual art or music, which each resolve to limits the Novel is not bound to (the painting you see is the painting; the music you hear is the music… but the book you read is merely the medium for the Novel the book somehow contains in your mind: these letters I type are merely a step in the process forming the words you are “hearing” now). From the foul to the exquisite; from despondency to hilarity; from torture-agony to lovemaking bliss: Let the Novel do its work.
(And Wolcott should know better, ferchrissakes).
The structural problem with “offensive language” isn’t Literary; the structural problem with “offensive language” is how unbalanced the resource of the vocabulary of pejorative words is. Some pejoratives… eg “Yuppie Scum,” “Rich Bitch,” “J.A.P.,” “The Whitest Guy Alive,” … are actually compliments masquerading as insults. Sneaky, eh?
There isn’t a slander-word in English for upper-middle-class, straight White Males that is even fractionally as effective in denigration as “Nigger” or “Gook,” and there isn’t a slang word for “penis” that has half as much kick to it as “cunt,” which is why it’s so much more fun to call an asshole a “cunt” than a “dick”. “Dick” is about as biting as “jerk” or “ne’er do-well”.
A German friend once observed, inaccurately, that “English-speakers have a negative attitude toward Sex… they say ‘fuck’ so angrily, so often!” but I pointed out that I say “Jesus!” quite often, too, without having, in mind, the eponymous Christian super-being while saying it: it’s just that the sound of the word “fuck!”*… the long-or-short fuse of the juicy introductory ‘f,” followed by a quick trip across a putrifyingly contemptuous “u,” before the satisfying impact of “ck!” is better than any other one-syllable word I know, for expressing spring-loaded rage, awe or dismay… except for “cunt”. “Bitch” is still pretty propulsively good; “Bastard” now feels fey, metrically weak, almost antiquated and even a little pretentious compared to a modern, two-stroke, hard-rubber truncheon like “Fucktard”…
But can it be a coincidence that all the best epithets punch down? No. Is it a dark and unfortunate irony that by drawing a ring of JHVH-fire around all the worst down-punching epithets (Nigger, Cunt, Kike, Fag), we increase their power? Oh yes.
I will always contend that “Nigger” would lose its sting in three months if everybody called everybody “Nigger” all the time. Although there’s something a bit deeper to consider. Something so deep that a Fearless Literature is the only way to address the matter with nuance.
No one… no SJW, no Woke Sista, no Celeb, no pseudo-Socialist Politician or Nun… would object half as vociferously to the use of the word “Nigger” if they honestly felt that being Black is every bit as good a thing to be as White, or Asian, or Whatever Else. Do you see? The actual Signifier here is made of living flesh. In other words: too many of us seem to feel that being Black is a terrible Fate and defect** and that’s why the word “Nigger” is so supposedly awful; that’s where its “sting” actually comes from. The real pejorative behind “Nigger” is Blackness itself.
And how can a Writer ever get you to face that shocking fact about You, The World and the (mere) word “Nigger,” if He/She isn’t even allowed to use the word?
*re: “fuck”, Wiki (untrustworthy on politics, a convenient aggregator of general and obscure knowledge) has a delightful thing or two to tell us:
In 2015, Dr. Paul Booth argued he had found “(possibly) the earliest known use of the word ‘fuck’ that clearly has a sexual connotation”: in English court records of 1310–11, a man local to Chester is referred to as “Roger Fuckebythenavele”, probably a nickname. “Either this refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex”, says Booth. An earlier name, that of John le Fucker recorded in 1278, has been the subject of debate, but is thought by many philologists to have had some separate and non-sexual origin.
Otherwise, the usually accepted first known occurrence of the word is found in code in a poem in a mixture of Latin and English composed in the 15th century. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, “Flen flyys”, from the first words of its opening line, Flen, flyys, and freris (“Fleas, flies, and friars”). The line that contains fuck reads Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk. Deciphering the phrase “gxddbou xxkxzt pg ifmk“, here by replacing each letter by the previous letter in alphabetical order, as the English alphabet was then, yields the macaronic non sunt in coeli, quia fuccant vvivys of heli, which translated means, “They are not in heaven, because they fuck the women of Ely”. The phrase was probably encoded because it accused monks of breaking their vows of celibacy; it is uncertain to what extent the word fuck was considered acceptable at the time. The stem of fuccant is an English word used as Latin: English medieval Latin has many examples of writers using English words when they did not know the Latin word: “workmannus” is an example. In the Middle English of this poem, the term wife was still used generically for “woman”.
William Dunbar’s 1503 poem “Brash of Wowing” includes the lines: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit: / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane” (ll. 13–14).
The oldest occurrence of the word in adjectival form (which implies use of the verb) in English comes from the margins of a 1528 manuscript copy of Cicero’s De Officiis. A monk had scrawled in the margin notes, “fuckin Abbot”. Whether the monk meant the word literally, to accuse this abbott of “questionable monastic morals”, or whether he used it “as an intensifier, to convey his extreme dismay” is unclear.
John Florio’s 1598 Italian–English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, included the term, along with several now-archaic, but then-vulgar synonyms, in this definition:
- Fottere: To jape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.
Of these, “occupy” and “jape” still survive as verbs, though with less profane meanings, while “sard” was a descendant of the Anglo-Saxon verb seordan (or seorðan, ON serða), to copulate; and “swive” had derived from earlier swīfan, to revolve i.e. to swivel (compare modern-day “screw”). As late as the 18th century, the verb occupy was seldom used in print because it carried sexual overtones.
A 1790 poem by St. George Tucker has a father upset with his bookish son say “I’d not give [a fuck] for all you’ve read”. Originally printed as “I’d not give —— for all you’ve read”, scholars agree that the words “a fuck” were removed, making the poem the first recorded instance of the now-common phrase “I don’t give a fuck”
**You’re All all Wrong, of course. You need to read seriously, and think seriously, to address that error. I can help with that…