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How much swearing – cursing – is too much in a book? This question was posed to readers in a newspaper and a few books, infamous for their swearing index, were discussed. One of the books I had read, How Late it was, how late. I read it, actually, not quite all, on the basis that was akin to a favorite, Molloy, and that connection is true enough as far as it goes. The question was put as to how attitudes over effing and blinding have changed.

Over a century ago a famous swearing incident occurred on the first night of Pygmalion when Eliza shrieked ’Not bloody likely’ and the audience were convulsed in laughter for so long it stopped the play.

Laughter is a valve to manage outrage, but the audience were also laughing in that peculiarly British way at the class status of the speaker. If it had been said by a lord it might be seen as eccentric and imitated, but as Britain was, and maybe still is, pathologically cursed by class, analogous to a racist society, such that any interpretation of the behavior of others is through the conditions of racial difference. Hence, the laughter at Eliza’s convention breaking swearing is deeper for an elite audience because it comes from someone so uncouth and common.

A few well used swear words can be very effective but the returns diminish very quickly and so it was with How late it was how late, which, though it displayed the genius of various swear words as adjectives, nouns and imperatives, as phrasal verbs and naturally, the common tmetic usage; the experience became fairly rapidly like sitting near someone at a sports game who has three good expressions to insult the opposition and the referee and uses them over and over and over. Fatigue sets in on that score but that does not mean the book was poor, the novel was very strong and deserved its acclaim.

It was words of another kind that occupied Will Self to ask in a serious essay: what is future of the literary book. This question has direct interest. Is this object that existed for a couple of hundred years going to last? It’s like discovering that the job you had is being phased out of existence, not going offshore to cheaper producers, but going altogether.

It was a question that invited some ridicule. The comment section to Self’s essay mostly jested at his obscure vocabulary and the frustration that self-proclaimed literary work is an effort, or seems to be an effort. The implication is that reading of significant literary works should be no more taxing than browsing the newspaper.

In this space it would be too facile to reduce the argument to either/or statements. The end of printed word and the novel have been raked over at various times, and it may be dwindling, or passing through a difficult period, but the larger idea in Self’s essay is that in a culture of glib distraction, is there opportunity to reflect on something more interesting than shopping and shoes. There is not a ready answer to that problem but it’s more likely it’s a conundrum that a person who sits in front of a keyboard everyday as part of their job ponders. For most people books with or without proscribed words, or dealing with perennial inquiries into significance are a peripheral matter.

Guy Cranswick
11th May 2014

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