Bad Language in The Casual Vacancy

I find the bad reviews on The Casual Vacancy (more bad than good) amazing and kind of depressing. I’ve always been mystified when my own novels get targeted for their bad language.  In a world where Tarantino is mainstream, how is it that readers of books are more conservative? I thought there was an intrinsic opening-up of the imagination just through the process of reading. So it is surprising that readers of books are this lightweight. A sample:

And the language! No thanks, I don’t need to read all that profanity and tasteless talk. Why couldn’t this adult book be written for grown-ups? Why is something considered “adult” because it is filled with bathroom talk?

Reading what I did of Casual Vacancy left me feeling violated, like I need to wash my mind out with a bar of soap.

After the first three chapters of this book, I had had enough of being splattered with a verbal buffet of offensiveness.

These are adults talking. Adults who live in 2012, not 1812.  I should say that I haven’t read the book, but this doesn’t seem like something that adults should give a shit about. This was my snide response to one review:

Honestly, grown ups don’t get overly upset by an arrangement of letters in a certain order.

Which received this response:

Although adults use such foul and obscene language now does not make them grownups. It simply proves how immature they are and a lack of communication skills. Not only is it disrespectful to those around you to use such vile language, but it shows a great disrespect for yourself as well. Not to mention it is a repulsive and ghastly example for our children and youth today. It’s very upsetting how accustomed to this our public has become. Not to mention the fact that so many people use these words and fail to understand their meaning. Does that say grownup to you? It certainly does not to me.

Oddly, I partly agree with a statement as conservative as this. I’ve long thought that oversexualization in the culture is not taboo-breaking, but careless, if not outright devolution, where people are more obsessed with the body than the mind. There’s something to be said for propriety and a sense of grace. Still, there’s music to profanity, just like there’s music to other sorts of dissonance. Profanity can be descriptive in ways that other words cannot. And the world’s profane – whitewashing this isn’t telling a truer story. Saying that people can’t use the full range of language in fiction is more odious to me than any writer overusing profanity.

Perhaps we’re in a transition period before natural things like sex and language are not feared like they are today. Eventually, the puritanical view of sex and language will look quaint – and people won’t need to flaunt it either because people won’t care enough to be shocked or titillated, any more than people are shocked about  bearing your calves (I’m talking in 1000 years). Same goes for language – eventually “fuck” won’t be any more shocking than “duck,” not because people have been desensitized, but that they’ve smartened up and started caring about things that matter. That is, ideally. If everyone’s only using profanity, then, yeah, it’s Idiocracy. But it’s also a step toward Idiocracy if adult themes are cut out of books and all fiction needs to be palatable to the mindset of a ten-year-old.

I’ve never been quite enamored with the idea that “at least people are reading” in regards to Harry Potter (or Twilight, or the Hunger Games). The Harry Potter series is extraordinarily inventive and smart, but they are also unchallenging about the realities of modern life. Voldemort is Darth Vader – a definable evil, where the world is actually a lot messier than that. Obviously, fantasy is an escape, and there’s a place for it, but readers are not just attracted to the safe language of the series, but the safe language of good and evil. The books are, after all, about child wizards, and a lot of HP fans are proving they’re more comfortable with language aimed at children than the messy reality of adulthood. That’s not progress, even if reading is better for the brain than watching television.  If this is all people are reading then we have a problem because it means people aren’t just trying to escape reality, they’re afraid of it.

I’m glad JK Rowling wrote this book – and hopefully it’s instructive to the publishing industry about what sort of literary environment they’re fostering. If you take this process to its logical conclusion: books will more and more have to be written at a third grade level because this will be deemed the most “marketable” to the greatest number of people. Over time, books will need to be more and more remedial. This is already happening. It’s not just that there are fewer readers, there are fewer readers who want to read books for adults. That strikes me as far more of a devolution than bad language could ever be. Really, it’s a kind of censorship.

It was brave of JK Rowling to write this novel, knowing that she would be offending a sizable portion of her audience – damaging her “brand,” and other bullshit terms that pass for book marketing, and get in the way of true self-expression. Maybe she overdid the profanity to divorce herself from her young adult past, I don’t know. Maybe the reaction is surprising to her and her publisher. But the fact that people are this upset by four letter words shows that this book needed to be written.

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