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.