Posted by: stelladuffy | September 19, 2011

the swearing thing

Right then, I’ve been putting this off, not wanting to seem grumpy or ungracious, but the fact is I’m grumpy and ungracious as hell about it …
So. It has come to my attention (ok, I googled Stella Duffy + Theodora) that some people find the use of profanity/cussing/swear words in Theodora a little much. Excessive. Too rude. Unnecessary.
This didn’t come up in any of the UK press/mainstream reviews but been mentioned in a couple of recent UK and US blogs talking about the book.
And honestly, I really wouldn’t usually respond; you like the book, you don’t, I’m glad you read it, I hope you enjoy it, thank you for buying it, but there’s no accounting for taste, and none of us can (or should) write to second-guess the market. I can only write as well as I can and on an idea I believe in/care about, doing so to the best of my ability at the time I do the work. (While hoping I’ll get better with age and practice!)
But … the question has been asked, would the characters really have sworn this much in those days?
And the answer, dear readers, is yes. Yes they would. People have always sworn, cussed, cursed, profaned, blasphemed. It’s what human beings do. There wouldn’t be a commandment about it if they didn’t, there’d have been no need. Some more than others. Some more readily than others. But yes, people swear. Some people, in some occupations, swear more readily than others.
I’m guessing, if you’re a sex-worker (as Theodora may have been in reality, and is in my book) then yes, you and your colleagues may swear a little more than the average judge. (Then again, thinking of judges I have known …) Theodora was also a performer, a comedian, a dancer. Do those people, in my experience, swear? Again, yes.
Is it appropriate to say ‘making love’ when a twelve year old girl is about to engage in paid-for sex for the first time? I’d say not.
Would a dwarf madam in a theatre company/travelling brothel use the words cunt and fuck? Well yes, I rather think she would.
I want to write realistically, I want to write truthfully. (I may not always succeed, I may not always be good enough, that’s a different matter.) I don’t think swearing is either big or clever, but I do think it’s realistic.
This is Constantinople in the 6th century. When murderers are sentenced, if the judge is feeling lenient, they are blinded or maimed instead of hanged for murder and other severe crimes. Boy are sold by their families to be made eunuchs. Girls are sold as sex slaves for the price of a pair of sandals. These people are ROMANS. Decimation, crucifiction, wholescale invasion … they were highly skilled at the lot. And in these very last days of Rome, where they are trying to hold on to the last vestige of the Empire, from Constantinople, tensions are running even higher. Thirty thousand people may have been slaughtered, on the Emperor’s behalf, in the Nika rebellion. Churches, hospitals, the Senate, the Baths – all were burned to the ground by rioting Constantinopolitans. I’m guessing they didn’t say “bother” when an ember jumped from the flames and landed on a foot. I’m guessing soldiers and builders and dock workers and actors and firemen and anybody working a tense and exacting job were as skilled blasphemers then as now. I’m guessing they had way juicier swear words in old Illyrian, Thracian, Syriac, Aramaic, Greek and Latin than we’ll ever know. I had to make do with Anglo Saxon, it’ll do very nicely.

(Meanwhile … the profanity loathers might be pleased to hear that I think these characters swear a little less in the sequel. Well, it’s mostly set in court, in the Palace, in Church, so I’ve gone with time and place and all that – and anyway, everyone knows kings and queens and courtiers and politicians and churchmen don’t swear at all. Ever. Right?)


  1. Something related I wrote a couple weeks ago:

  2. Yes yes yes, that. Exactly. So many novels I read have utterly graphic descriptions of violence and not a murmur. Use time-honoured words for sex and passion and watch out. Pah.

  3. Thank you for the above. I’ve mailed your blog to a couple of friends who have (proof) read my latest novel and are worried about the ” excessive” use of profanities. Get over it: it’s life; people use profanities. Never censor yourself.

  4. I don’t know about never. We should certainly edit, and we should make sure we’re using the right words for the character, the scene, the work … but if we want to be realistic, and if a real character would really swear, or be mean, or difficult, or any of those other ‘unsympathetic’ character attributes that are so often smoothed out in our media that likes everything nice (while having no problem with violence and misogyny!), then we (writers) should most certainly go for it.

  5. You’re right: “never” is too strong a word. But we don’t live in a Jane Austen world and we can’t keep on tip-toeing around Daily Mail readers.
    I’ve been wondering about violence, esp on television, for years. Someone gets killed or beaten up and you can see every detail in slow-motion, but the simplest mention of “fuck” gets beeped out. Strange, that.

  6. I totally agree violence is seen as acceptable – especially on the tv and especially violence towards women. I also agree
    that thoughout history people have alwayd sworn – its basically a fact
    of life.

  7. Why do people get so exercised about the use of words deemed profane; and they are just deemed to be? There is nothing intrinsically offensive about a collection of letters put together in this way.

    In response to the comment about violence, did you notice how many complaints there were about the gay love scene in Torchwood? I didn’t hear about any complaints about a scene in the same episode where the character gets stabbed and beaten repeatedly.

    There are times when I think we have our priorities wrong…

  8. Well, true there is more profanity compared to past novels about Theodora but I think that it fits with the story line and characters. As for the next novel, Theodora could still call someone like John of Cappadocia a bastard with a Capital B since Procopius wrote in his Perisan Wars Theodora and John hated each other,

  9. Oh yes, she certainly does!

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