Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Cursed: swearing off swearing?

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Cursing in print

Unwisely, I tried an experiment – ‘experiment’ indeed: I already had a good idea of what I would find. I performed a search of this 'Haywire' manuscript for …curse-words. What most people seem to call swearing, I still call cursing. So I went for the old reliable, the f word.

The results were unsurprising. It is of little consolation that all except two of them occur in dialogue. This first book of a new series sets a tone that will be hand to change, so decisions need to be clear here. The central character, Malone, is doing – as he says himself – a fierce amount of cursing at certain times. And why not? He’s a Dub, born bred and starved. Cursing in Dublin approaches Glaswegian volumes. It’s not even cursing half the time.

That noted, qui s’excuse, s’accuse. I can’t shake off the relatively restrained background in which I grew up. Cursing in print still goes against the grain. I earn plenty of laughs at home because I don’t swear in front of our kids (adults now). One slip – a driver lethally inattentive about three feet off the front bumper – caused consternation, and then sniggering. It’s all I know really, this abstinence. I remember being shocked when I overheard my own father swear once – yes, once.

There was an is lavish cursing everywhere, from schoolyard to pub, and even to staff room, and I didn’t stint myself. So this old-fashioned fastidiousness is laughable, for everyone except me. And yet, here is the parade of characters pouring out of the pages here, their voices so insistent that maybe I should wear earphones full of The Doors while I’m writing, and most of them think nothing of dropping in a curse word. Far worse, these voices pass the critical read-aloud test with flying colours. They seem to only get stronger, more real.

Part of me knows that good books, good stories, don’t need any swearing to be persuasive, realistic. The much-cliched grittiness that fans cite in their praise of, say, the language in the television series ‘The Wire’ doesn’t work for me. ‘Grittiness’ is a texture you can achieve in writing without a single curse word. The magic is made in the reader’s imaginative landscapes.

Reading material that’s prolific with cursing makes me uneasy and averse, and frustrated too. It's a very rare person who can curse in conversation and not make me want to get away from him/her. I quickly tired of Roddy Doyle or Irvine Welch stories because of the cursing, and not even the comic parts could keep me at them. The cursing made the story flat and fake, and even depressing to read. I have a kitchen sink already, and I don’t need my nose rubbed in anything.

Coming out of this mental fog now do I see a fusty double-standard about working class language? The prim hypocrisy of the middle class?’ Maybe. Or maybe it’s that the cursing brought me into the company of people that I’ve met in real life and will surely meet again, people who are lousy, tedious company, and dangerous in a dreary, predictable way. Maybe the incessant cursing makes the characters too real.

There are other complications. Irish-English cursing may be mysterious enough to meet an editor-wall. Readers who have taken up my former stories will be jarred by cursing showing up. The trouble-maker in me whispers that this is a good reason to leave in the cursing as is.

That whole discussion can wait. It’ll never settle anyway, I reckon.

This I know already though, concerning this cursed cursing question: it’ll come down to ‘how much.’

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page