Monday, 18 August 2008

Richard Morgan on sex and swearing in fantasy

Richard Morgan - author of the acclaimed SF novels Altered Carbon and Black Man/Thirteen, and most recently The Steel Remains - has written an interesting article on the Orion blog about swearing and sex scenes in his books.

He's not best pleased with one reader who wrote to inform him that he'd given up on Black Man due to the repeated use of the word 'fuck':

"Physical beatings, stabbings, shootings, the odd bit of enforced cannibalism – hell, nothing wrong with any of that, right? All part of the ride. But throw in a few four letter words, and suddenly this guy’s throwing down the book – a book he’s enjoying, mark you, a book he bought and paid for – and will not finish it....I confess this kind of selective prissiness is utterly beyond me. How can you derive vicarious narrative enjoyment from the kind of things I’ve just described – and then freak out about the language the characters use as they struggle and slaughter each other? I mean….how does that work?"

I'm totally in agreement here. Swearing in fantasy is a topic that crops up time and time again in online forums. It does seem odd that some readers are happy to read graphic descriptions of violence and torture, but take offence at what ultimately is just a word.

I personally have no problem with authors using expletives in their novels. In fact, sometimes it bothers me when they don't. There was a couple of times when reading Erikson's Deadhouse Gates when it really irked me that a battle-hardened soldier would call someone a "pile of horse dung" or whatever. Come off it - would a soldier really say that? In this sort of situation swearing is an effective tool to add realism, which these days is a standard staple of many epic fantasies. That said, when the same expletive is used repeatedly in a short space of time it can grate a little - there's a scene in The Steel Remains which falls victim to this in my opinion, but I'll touch on that in my review.

Morgan also has a bit of a rant about how some reviewers have accused his sex scenes of being gratuitous:

"Are we really so emotionally stunted as a readership that we can thrill and rejoice vicariously at the spurt of blood from an enemy’s severed artery, the hack and grainy slice of vengeful steel in flesh, but can only squirm with embarrassment when our protagonist experiences the deep, explosive joy of orgasm in a desired partner’s arms? Is that release so unacceptable to our appetite for narrative experience, so unpalatable beside the savage pleasure of combat and murder, that it has to be banished behind a barrier of tasteful euphemism and elision, or a chaste trailing lines of dots?"

I agree with Morgan on this one as well. I think it's pretty absurd that someone can have no problem with full-on violence but then takes exception to some full-on sex. The thing is, a sex scene can define and develop a character just as much as a combat scene (perhaps even more so), so I don't see why they should be portrayed in any less detail (unless of course the sex serves no purpose, in which case it shouldn't really be included at all). I think Morgan sums it up nicely when he says:

"But if we don’t mingle the pain in our fiction with life’s pleasures as well, then we are guilty of a crucial misrepresentation of the facts and, worse still, of perpetuating a po-faced, sanitised denial of what life is really about and who we really are."

I do think, however, that he goes into a little too much detail...

"Personally, I like sex. Excluding a couple of emotionally painful episodes here and there, pretty much all the sex I’ve ever had has been life affirming and delightful."

Well, um...that's great. Moving swiftly on...

I'm over halfway through Morgan's The Steel Remains, so expect a review in the next few days.


T.D. Newton said...

The only thing I would add is to say what my wife says. It's not the swearing that bothers her, really, it's that using "fuck" and whatnot makes the dialog sound/seem more "modern". I semi-agree with her on this but I'm not sure how to compensate for it without inventing new swear words (even though I've done so). Swearing is natural in regular conversation and I get annoyed at people who are prissy about it. Sex, yeah, it's still a little shocking to see descriptions of sex in novels (like in Before They Are Hanged) but you and Richard are totally right - it is just as natural as lopping someone's head off. Heh.

Robert Walker said...

Good post. This is the general trend in this society -- that graphic violence is okay, but sex is taboo. It's utterly ridiculous, but then again, doesn't it fit right in with the general puritanical bent of (the majority of) this (repressed) country?

The following was on one of my favorite sites (What Would Tyler Durden Do) the other day regarding Kevin Smith fighting to get an R rating for his latest movie:

----"Hostel 2" has a scene where a naked teenage girl is suspended upside down over a huge bath, then a naked woman lays underneath her and slits her throat with a sickle, then bathes in her blood. That was rated R. But Jason Mewes humps a girl and that gets an X. Ok actually I hadn’t pictured that until just now. I think that actually might be worse.----

I left the last two lines in just because they're so funny, but I think the point is well made.

Regarding sex and violence in books/fantasy, I'm for what fits, makes sense, and is necessary to the truth of the story. Along those lines, one thing I really dislike is gratuitous sex or violence. It's usually a substitute for good writing. As for Steel Remains, I haven't read it, but I look forward to your review.

Also, just had to mention that one of my favorite "up yours" lately is how they use "frack" on Battlestar Galactica. Everyone knows it's a substitute for "fuck," but saying "frack" instead suddenly makes it all okay. And they use it all the fracking time. Classic, stuff there. Classic.

Gabriele C. said...

Steel Remains has naugthy scenes with two men? I'm so getting that. :)

Newton, I admit to get thrown out of the story by the f-word in some cases, fe. in Simon Scarrow's Roman books, and Fantasy with a very Mediaeval feel. It's just such an American word, particularly to European readers. But on the other hand, some of the words that would work in Roman context, like cocksucker, are regarded as worse than fuck, I bet.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Great post. The word "fuck" has been around for centuries. Since the 1400's I believe. I picked up a collection of anecdotes concerning William Blake of Tyger Tyger Burning Bright fame. And there was the word. I suspect that most people think it's modern because the older novels rarely used the word...although the novelists themselves used the word in their letters.

Am not sure if the reason we have issues with the word is that we're repressed, though. If we use values which much of the rest of the non-western non-euro world uses, we might be seen as far from repressed. We might be viewed as rather middle-of-the road when placed between European ideas and say, Muslims or Hindu ideas. Who knows? It depends on if we are comparing ourselves to a tiny portion of the world's population (Europe) or to the majority of the world's population which would probably not think we are repressed at all.

T.D. Newton said...

Now you're getting into a cultural discussion and, not to get off topic BUT, it reminds me of something my friends got all bent about with the Olympics. Apparently the girl that "sang" during the Opening Ceremonies was actually lip-syncing because the girl with the voice was "not pretty enough" to be on television. My friends, coming from an American/Christian worldview, got all flipped out because they projected all these assumptions that the girl was traumatized over it and whatnot - without even realizing that the culture and mindset are totally different. It bugs me when people try to interpret another culture's actions through their own lens and come up with the conclusion that they are brutal uncaring assholes or some such nonsense.

Sorry to hijack the topic [again].

But back to the real matter. The word "fuck" actually can't be tracked in history as far as origins or first "real" usage. I've watched a documentary on it (available via Netflix, called F*CK) and they debunk the common assumption of the origin (fornication under command of the king, which is totally false) and also discuss the word's many uses and magical powers. And it's not just an American thing - they also talk to John Cleese!!

James said...

Agree on the fact that sometimes excessive use of 'fuck' can modernise dialogue. Think Lynch's novels sometimes fall victim to that.

I think it's a good point - the amount of swearing/sex in a novel should be determined by how necessary it is. No point sticking it in there for the sheer hell of it.

Yes, The Steel Remains has graphic, full-on homosexual sex. Lots of it. ;)

The thing with the word 'fuck' is that it is just so damned versatile. That's probably why it gets used so much...