|Grimdark Language or the limits of "Nice Bird, Asshole!"
||[Sep. 16th, 2015|10:47 am]
I am reading a fantasy book right now by Richard K. Morgan and for the most part I am enjoying the book. The plot is complicated and the characters are mostly compelling. The magic is pretty evil. But the language is pulling me out of the story every time. And mostly it's the profanity which is practically announcing "Hey guys! This fantasy book may take place in another era with barbarians and warfare that seems cool because the histories of the middle ages were written by the winners who totally dug sending armies against each other as opposed to the poor shmucks who lost their homes and families and lives but I'm totally writing it in the 21st century." |
While language is fluid and we all get that in a fantasy novel they are speaking a language that is being "translated" by the author, it gets really obnoxious when one of the characters is going "I'm going to kill you, Faggot!" and there are only so many times that the Steppe barbarians can say "Fuck you" or "well that's bullshit" before it gets grating. This is similar to the phenomenon that Mamatas called the Teenage Boy syndrome where every character from 70-year old Tibetan monks to Victorian Suffragettes are going "That sucks!" or "Shut up, bitch!"
Granted, in a fantasy setting you can have people speaking however they want and no one wants to read the tortured prose that was so prevalent in earlier fantasy books which apparently comes from Victorian translations of the medieval poetry that jumpstarted the fantasy genre (as well as fascination in King Arthur). I love Evangeline Walton but I almost gave up on her because she was so stylistically Victorian. Furthermore, as the title suggests, one of my favorite scenes in a fantasy book comes from scott_lynch following up a long and serious flashback about how you do NOT piss off the bondsmages with an insult to the first bondsmage he sees. It's ballsy and glib and hilarious (and also part of a death wish). I doubt it would have worked if he didn't write it as "nice bird asshole."
But over the long haul, the insults and profanity can be just as overused as the thous and the thees and ornate sentences were overused in the early 20th century. I am wondering why a fierce and trained warrior (and one who is capable of beating our hero) is talking like a frat boy. More curious is why "faggot" is an insult in this world. Is the protagonist gay? Is it just something people say to each other? Since most of what I've seen of this world (and I admit that I am reading the third book in a trilogy so there may be more background information elsewhere) is warrior culture material, I am even more confused as to why homosexuality is taboo enough to be used as an insult.
The author is not so much using these insults without context, but using the context of 21st century western culture as a common ground in which to use the insults. The mistake here is thinking that you can just transfer them over and that everyone should accept that this culture has the same taboos and issues (even though it is a barbarian warrior culture with death gods and swords) as the modern world. But profanity is much more complicated than that; in fact, our culture dictates our profanity and how we perceive the users of such.
For example, most of the ways we describe forbidden words come from religious contexts - swearing and profanity both once had very clear meanings that no longer hold as much power. If you swear an oath and don't keep it, then you are a jerk but you aren't trampling over G-d's law (and in Gemara there are long discussions on how to avoid getting anyone to swear oaths or vows since once someone swears they are bound to their word and if it turns out to be false the whole convention caves in). And profanity means that you are fucking over a sacred rite. You can also watch George Carlin's Seven Words bit for the evolution of words like fuck which were once neutral but we kept putting so much anger behind it that it became the worse.
Same goes with ethnic slurs and insults involving sexuality. These are all culturally based and even if you don't buy Michel Foucault's thesis that we constructed sexuality when we created a language for it (forgive me if I got that wrong), you must get that calling someone a faggot (in order to mean homosexual - apparently there were different meanings in different eras) comes from centuries of institutionalized and religiously codified homophobia. In other spaces, we have ethnic slurs like Wop or Mick which no longer have the power that they had to hurt and insult because they are not built upon a foundation of anti-Italian or anti-Irish prejudice. You can call your Italian friend a Wop Dago Guinea Bastard and the only part of that phrase that has the possibility of causing offense is bastard and even that is based on the belief that people need to be married to have children. Go back in time and tell it to your friend's Italian great grandfather and he's going to fuck you up. Go back even further in time to his great great grandfather getting off the boat and he is going to swallow that anger and comply with your slur because he doesn't want to fuck things up for himself.
And if you read the Bible in any decent translation you will see "uncircumcised" being hurled around as an insult. This is not an insult we use today because frankly it's confusing. If I were to refer to Chad the Uncircumcised you might not get that I'm insulting Chad as a rank barbarian from one of those places where they don't have to deal with sand under their foreskins. Instead you would go "so he's from Europe?" or assume that I fucked Chad at some point and that I really have no sense of decorum.
So at heart, my objection to the profanity in a fantasy novel is really about lazy world building. I am not asking for a Deadwood style language class but in any world building the profanities should be acknowledged as part of a particular place and time. Faggot is not a universal insult. Words like whore, asshole, chicken fucker, etc. are about taboos in our society. While the reader might want the comforts of familiarity in an unfamiliar world, there needs to be a balance between 21st century profanity and the fantasy world's profanity. Ideally, an author should figure out the taboos of the society that they are creating in order to come up with profanity that makes sense to that world. If the author establishes that the world is one where magic is feared and gods like to possess dead people in order to give orders to the protagonist about his fate, beings live for thousands of years, etc. these elements should be reflected in the profanity. Temple Smasher, Food Waster, Goat Thief, Glyph Spitter can all be powerful profanities within the particular world (and hell, remember how you started saying grok after reading Stranger in a Strange Land? It doesn't take much to sell a language tweek). And if the author insists on using the word "faggot" at least lay some groundwork as to the sexual nature of anyone in the book. Because a book about manly men being all manly seems like it should be based in a milieu that not only tolerates homosexuality but encourages it.