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Ode to a Four-Letter Word

Despite New York’s impact on my speech—and this particular article aside—my prose remains relatively ­Oregon-­friendly. Or so I thought until last year, when I published a nonfiction book and reader reviews started appearing on Amazon:

“Unfortunately the author calls upon profanity. That alone is worth a one-star deduction.”

“I do not think the author should have used profanity.”

“I removed a star for profanity.”

Docked a star for profanity! This was Amazon as elementary school: no swearing allowed, gold stars for good behavior. It was also a nice illustration of the American hypersensitivity to swearing: Of the 117,000 words in my book, just fifteen are expletives—0.01 percent—all but three of which appear in quotations.

At first I assumed these comments were the work of some small, strange prisserati, feverishly hitting SEND on several hundred censorious reviews per day. I began to reconsider, however, after a host of otherwise ordinary-seeming readers e-mailed me to express the desire to wash my book out with soap. Something was bothering these people, and, while I can’t say for sure, I suspect it was this issue of context—the presence of a so-called bad word in the middle of serious nonfiction. Maybe they would have docked Elmore Leonard a star, too, but I doubt it.

For as long as some people have fretted about expletives in literature, others have seen fit to laugh at them. Here is Cole Porter, mock-lamenting the profanity of writers back in 1934: “Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words writing prose / Anything goes!” That was sometime after James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and sometime before Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Erica Jong. Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit.”

Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or to shock. We use them because sometimes the four-letter word is the best one.

This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.

But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it. In The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson argues that okay is “the quintessential Americanism” and “the most grammatically versatile of words.” Okay. But surely it has a rival—or a compatriot—in fuck. Wherever it originated (the jury is out), the F-word has flourished in our adolescent American soil. And pace Bryson, its grammatical versatility cannot be topped: You can use it as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or interjection, not to mention in any mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage.

I know of no better rebuttal to the “bad words are bad writing” equation than film critic Anthony Lane’s brutal 2005 takedown of Star Wars in The New Yorker. Listen to Yoda for a moment: “Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. The shadow of greed that is.” Now listen to Lane demolish—with awesome precision, as one demolishes a single building in a city block—that mangled syntax and ersatz wisdom: “Break me a fucking give.”

Bad? Boring? Please. Pulitzer him a fucking give. Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one. In The Debt to ­Pleasure, John Lanchester provides an astute breakdown of three words that, at first, might seem interchangeable. “Compare,” he writes, “the implication of mismanagement, of organization going wrong, in the Gallic debacle with the candidly chaotic, intimate quality of the Italian fiasco, or the blokishly masculine and pragmatic (and I would suggest implicitly reversible and therefore, in its deep assumptions, optimistic) American fuck-up.

Here’s the thing: The book I wrote was called Being Wrong. It is entirely about fucking up, with all those optimistic American undertones emphatically included. I knew, when I chose to use the F-word in it, that some people would have difficulty reading past it, for moral or cultural or religious reasons. But why shouldn’t reading sometimes present such difficulties—not even but especially in serious literature? Surely one of the chief pleasures of literature is that it urges us into unfamiliar terrain, through both the stories it tells and the language it uses to tell them. Context might be everything, but we read, at least in part, to slip its chains.