When I read Trainspotting, way back in the 90s, before the film was released and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ would forever (and inescapably) be associated with that opening scene, I had never read a book with so much swearing in it.
Mostly because John Fowles used it sparingly.
This was the early 90s. It’s odd now to think how square the world was then. The uproar violence in films like Reservoir Dogs or Romper Stomper or Man Bites Dog caused; or sex, like the hilarious Basic Instinct (Michael Douglas in that sweater. At a disco. Really?).
On the telly, swearing in films like Beverley Hills Cop or Die Hard would be dubbed – actors gurning emptily at one another, or stranded with an odd mouth shape. Frick. Mother fricker. These examples demonstrate the hilarious substitution British television felt obliged to use in an era where sex and swearing was still being reprimanded by the late, often parodied, Mary Whitehouse. Perhaps it’s a generation thing, and sometimes it’s right to wish that the immediate response is “my goodness”, or “jeepers”, rather than fuck me or bollocks or shit-off pussy-hole… stuff like that.
But does swearing still shock? No. Not so much anymore. Perhaps it’s a personal taste thing – and some might argue that you should be able to have a conversation or tell a story without resorting to swearing…
So, our launch novel, King of the Bored Frontier, has its fair share of swearing in it. And our second novel King of the Jungle does too. I suppose KS Silkwood would qualify its use as a need for authenticity – swearing as just a part of everyday language for certain characters in certain situations, contexts, and environments.
Types of swear words, now, there’s the interesting bit. Some early reader feedback for King of the Bored Frontier jokingly suggested drinking a shot every time the word “slag” is used, a neat reference to The Big Lebowskidrinking game, based on whenever “dude” is uttered.
Well, what’s interesting about that is there are ten uses of the word slag in the entire novel. Just ten out of 76,763 words. Four times in the first 27 pages, six times from page 173 to 322.
That’s just ten measly shots…
It’s used casually, most often in reference to the narrator himself or about people who sell-out. So, is the power and historic meaning of the word slag so strong that it becomes amplified, leaving that reader of King of the Bored Frontier with the feeling that it’s used frequently? And not sparingly and in a particular context?
Looks like it.
So then to Trainspotting. Drug use, pop culture references, alcohol abuse, swearing (bit like King of the Bored Frontier then). Politicians amusingly condemned the Trainspotting film without even having seen it – great marketing. Danny Boyle must still be applauding that decision.
In Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh peppers fuck and cunt, pish, shite, bollocks and many other sweary variations throughout the novel. And it’s great. It’s authentic. It tells us a lot about the characters – their age group, their backgrounds and their attitude. That’s why swearing in novels or on the TV (yes, even you Game of Thrones) can be narratively important.
Used flippantly, and often, it loses impact, but also hints at sociological desensitising, or rebellion or peer collusion or… Used sparingly, or unexpectedly, by a character in a particular scene, it can be incendiary, galvanising both the line and the character, lending them depth and texture (HBO series Six Feet Under was particularly good at this).
And so, the question/title of this blog can initially be answered with the riposte: how important is swearing to a scene or to a character?
If the answer is very, to tell the story, with authentic dialogue, reinforcing character development, and aiming for narrative and thematic truth… then that’s as much fucking justification as you will ever cocking need.