Ode to a Four-Letter Word

Illustration by Dienstelle 75Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the poet Philip Larkin declared in “This Be the Verse.” Maybe so, but Adam Mansbach would like to point out a corollary: The kids return the favor. Mansbach is the father of an apparently insomniac toddler and the author of five books, including the fake bedtime story Go the Fuck to Sleep. That book, which began life as a jokey post on Facebook, won’t be published until next week. Nonetheless, it has topped the best-seller list on Amazon (not Amazon>Children’s Books>Satire>Profanity—all of Amazon). It is being translated into more than twelve languages. Fox 2000 has acquired the movie rights. It all but begs for sequels—having spent some time taking care of a three-year-old this winter, I’d like to nominate Put on Your Fucking Boots—and it makes an ideal gift for the infinitely self-replenishing population of new parents. In short, I suspect it will be with us for a while.

Why has the world gone gaga (so to speak) for this book? Part of its appeal is the barbed send-up of a normally saccharine genre, but Go the Fuck to Sleep is not, at base, a parody. It’s more like what Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz—a book that tells a familiar story from the perspective of a previously marginalized character. Bedtime, like a lot of modern parenting, is organized around the child (the thirsty, hungry, OCD child); Mansbach shows us the parent’s side, and despite some charming lion cubs, et al., by the illustrator Ricardo Cortés, it ain’t pretty:

The flowers doze low in the meadows

And high on the mountains so steep.

My life is a failure, I’m a shitty-ass parent.

Stop fucking with me, please, and sleep.

This is not a spoof of Goodnight, Moon. This is Battle Hymn of the Tired Father.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of commentators are using Mansbach’s book to reflect on the state of modern parenting. You’ll forgive me if I use it for a different purpose: I’d like to talk about our culture’s bipolar relationship with the word fuck.

That word—which appears, like a crude jack-in-the-box, in the last line of every stanza—is why the book works, both creatively and commercially. Yet this popularity was not a foregone conclusion. Like sex, alcohol, nudity, and drugs, swearing sets off the great American seesaw of schoolmarmish horror and schoolyardish glee, and it can be hard to predict whether a writer who curses will wind up exalted or excoriated. I know, because I wound up on the wrong side myself.

When it comes to profanity, I hail from what you might call a mixed background. My father swears freely and ­exuberantly—although, when I was a child, he did so exclusively in Polish. In moments of paternal irritation, an entire shtetl sprang to life in our suburban home. Psia krew, cholera, curwa, szmata: excrement, cholera, whores, rags. (Predictably, that gritty archipelago of my father’s native tongue is all the Polish I ever learned.) My mother, by contrast, swears approximately never. Moreover, some years ago, she confessed that she hates it when I do so. I was startled and abashed, and cleaned up my act immediately—which is to say, I stopped swearing in front of her.

As that concession suggests, all cursing is contextual. My mother’s aversion to profanity has everything to do with being born female in the forties, and her primary objection to my own occasional expletive was that it seemed “unfeminine.” (In context, speaking of context, that objection struck me as faintly comedic and overwhelmingly kind: This is a woman who didn’t miss a beat when I first brought home a girlfriend.) My father, meanwhile, reverted to Polish to swear because he knew that imported expletives lose their shock value—which is, of course, almost all the value they ever had.

In addition to this mixed family background, I also enjoy a mixed geography of profanity. Like Mansbach, I live in New York, which surely deserves the prize for most foulmouthed city in the nation. (You Chicagoans can go fuck yourselves.) Profanity flows from New Yorkers as the East River flows into the sea: constant, filthy, strangely magnificent. It’s not just our ability to cuss each other out; it’s the blasé and cheerful vulgarity of everyday speech. I was once in a packed midtown crosswalk at rush hour when a guy next to me retrieved something from the street and sprinted ahead, shouting, “Yo, lady, you dropped your fuckin’ wallet!”

This endless, extemporized profanity has had an unmistakable effect on my own speech. Before I moved to New York, I lived in Oregon; nowadays, when I go back to visit, I feel like a sailor on shore leave at a Raffi concert. On the other hand, I blush when I return to Chile, where I also once lived, and where the locals speak a famously profanity-happy version of Spanish. You know those nice respectable Midwesterners who say “sugar” when they mean “shit”? Nice respectable Chileans sit down at the breakfast table, look at the sugar bowl, and say, “Pass me that shit.”

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.

Not that this is always easy to do. Literature also offers us the pleasure of identification, and it is as comforting to feel at home in a book as in a locution or a location. Case in point: Last year, I gave a reading at a bar in the East Village—which is, along with a few select mountain ranges, the closest thing I have to a spiritual home. I took the opportunity to read aloud all the passages in my book that contain profanity. I did this partly as sideways homage to my more squeamish readers: Ever the polite kid, I was swearing out of my mother’s earshot. Come to think of it, I probably also did it in homage to my multilingual father and his unbounded, irreverent eloquence. “You taught me language,” Caliban says to Prospero in The Tempest, “And my profit on ’t / Is I know how to curse.”

Mainly, though, I did it as a kind of love letter to New York. At this point I’d been on the road for months, giving G-rated talks and generally doing whatever I could to make Mom and Miss Manners proud. I missed my home, my friends—even, strangely, my book: the way it felt to me when, like a toddler, it was still keeping me up at night. I was bored by the grown-up version of it, or maybe by the grown-up version of me. The New Yorkers assembled for my reading—bless their dirty, nerdy hearts—did not seem inclined to dock me a star for my use of profanity. There are other ways to say this, but none so exactly right: I was very fucking glad to be home.

Go the Fuck to Sleep
Adam Mansbach.
Akashic Books. $14.95.

Ode to a Four-Letter Word