The Dark Side of Writing: Should we Swear in Literature?

‘Reading literature remains a civilising activity, no matter that it’s literature in which people do and say abominable things and the author curses like the very devil’ – Howard Jacobson.

I read the above in an article from The Guardian recently, in which Jacobson was discussing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, amongst other texts. The jist of his argument, if I’m remembering it correctly, was that a huge amount of novels are made up of content able to make skin crawl, and language able to burn ears, combined with very little, or no, redemption. Infact, these novels have few redeeming qualities, other than that they’re undeniably well-written, popular tales.


I recently encountered an editor who informed me that ‘offensive language’ was very rarely considered in her publication, and would only ever be printed if absolutely necessary. (I took this to mean that it would never be deemed as such).  Infact, there are several magazines which discourage use of profanities, and some that ban it alltogether. I agree that swearing like a trooper right through a text could cause the work to lose impact, but if used correctly, swearing can inject the piece with life. It’s real. I don’t know about you but I write my literature in the same way that the character would speak. I form the narrative of an internal monologue in the way a character’s mind would run, swear words and all. I call this ‘language’ because that’s all it is – a form of dialect. It’s not there to offend the reader, it’s there to bring the piece from the static world of an idea on a page to a three dimensional story.

‘Offensive Language’ can only be offensive when used offensively. In literature, it is used to mould a character, to shape a story and to bring the piece to life.

Robert Carlysle as Begbie in Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of Trainspotting


Trainspotting wouldn’t be what it is without Begbie throwing out curses and smashing glasses over people’s heads. You may have seen the film adaptation with Robert Carlysle? Well he plays pretty much the same character in the film adaptation of The Beach, and again, what would Mr Duck be if he wasn’t a mad junkie who swears every other word and eventually slits his wrists?

Pin the Tail on the Donkey

(or don’t… maybe he’d prefer some jelly and a hug?)

I personally don’t think it would be particularly believable to have Gaz in Pin the Tail on the Donkey call Timmy a ‘stupid-head’, or any other form of quick-witted insult concocted in the mind of a child. Teenage boys swear. Whether you like it or not, it happens. In essence, I suppose I’m saying that I agree with Jacobson. ‘Reading, (and writing) literature remains a civilising activity’ despite these issues. Or maybe it is made such because of these issues. Pin the Tail on the Donkey highlights the difficulties of adolescence, of feeling different, of falling in love, and yes, it does this while using a bit of language. If it didn’t, it would be a story about a few nursery school children and a couple of elves instead. Not very enlightening at all.


One Comment Add yours

  1. mariiellis says:

    Literature reflects life. Life is not censored.

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