Monday, January 30, 2006

Rated for Language

Not too long ago, I received a critique for a chapter of my current work in progress in which the critter took offense to my "salty" language. (Yes, that's how he described it.) The grounds for his objection were that fantasy worlds shouldn't include swearing and that fantasy publishers didn't want foul language in the books they published. CS Lewis and Tolkien were cited as examples. (Because they're current, and all. *cough cough*) He claimed that he read fantasy to read about pure and noble characters who made sacrifices for the greater good, and not for lowbrow swearing.

Because I try not to scare off the newbies, I merely thanked the critter for his effort and mentioned that he might not enjoy my work if he was looking for purity and nobility of mind and spirit.** I'm more interested in how people react under pressure and how human beings cope with horrible events. Because I'm evil, that's why. Because purity of spirit bores me to tears, for another.

This is not to say that my characters (or I) curse incessantly. I'd say there's a few who never curse at all. But to say that cursing is always wrong is utterly asinine. Few things are always wrong, just as few are always right. It's about context.

I'm not the type to go around saying (or writing) "effing this, effing that" just for shock value or because I can. (Though I've always liked "because I can" as a reason.) I worked at Scout camp for five summers without once swearing in front of the campers or parents. Sometimes, swearing is not appropriate. Sometimes it is. If I look down and see that I'm about to put my foot on a big fat desert hairy scorpion on the hiking trail in the middle of the night, you can rest assured that I'm going to being saying "motherfucker" before I jump off the path and succumb to the willies. The key is knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate times/places/audiences.

This is why I try not to swear in front of small children. They've got no idea about when and where different language is appropriate. So if I slip and say "shit" in front of them, they think it's a cool new word and just suck it up into their little brains along with "b'bye" and "more". And once it slips in.... you just never know where it's going to slip out. With my own (hypothetical) kids, I don't think I'll worry about it too much, but you can't get other people's children to forget something they heard, or the fact that they heard it from you. And some people don't much like that. And I don't much like pissing people off for no good reason. So.

It's not about some language being "bad", it's about knowing when and why to apply all kinds of language. In the academic world (at least the parts I've experienced), they use the term "discourse areas" to describe the different worlds of communication we live in. For example - a kid growing up in a working class family with parents who speak English as a second language if at all, is going to need to speak very differently at home than he does while at school. For such a student, "school language" may be a whole new code to be broken, and is too often one that defeats him. In reverse, take a upper middle class white kid and stick him in the ESL household and see how well he survives. Each culture and sub-culture has its own code of language. One is not better than the other. It's all about context.

Language is control. Language is power. Language gives you the power to create, the power to move through this world, the power to control how people perceive you. I wish my students would grasp this concept.

**Of course, what originally wrote after reading this crit was something a little more explicit and a little less tactful. Of course, since I do have some measure of impulse control, and I realize he's new to this critting business, and I don't like to burn my own house (or crit circle) down, I deleted all that and put in the "thanks for the effort" post as mentioned above.

No comments: