To f**k or not to f**k, that is the question.

(Warning: this post contains some fucking bad language.)

Clearly, I’m looking like shit these days. Or at least (oh God I can hardly bear to think it let alone write it…old). Apart from the mirror, how do I know this? Because at work this week the on-site nurse, in her starched white uniform with matching jackboots made from the hide of some unfortunate albino creature, visited the staffroom clutching clipboard and forms to her ample bosom. She was offering flu jabs to teachers of a certain age. Surely, I blustered, there must be some mistake – in England flu jabs are only offered to the sick and elderly. I was told that this is the case in Turkey also. I was asked if I wanted one. There was some sniggering from the young bloods in the corner. I declined, maintaining a degree of composure and dignity, although inside I was crushed. (Male vanity). Besides, I wouldn’t trust this lot not to inject me with a fatal dose of something that wouldn’t show up in a post-mortem, so they could get rid of me without a fuss. (I think everyone has had enough of me throwing up on  the commute. There are only two of us left on the long journey now – me and the driver. And he’s stopped trying to make conversation. I can see that before long I’ll be driving the school bus myself.)

As part of last week’s blog-post I wrote and included the first line for my new writing project. (A bit gimmicky, ne desperate, even for me.) For those of you who missed it it went like this: ‘Will someone please tell me exactly how the fuck that happened?’ (I’m not even sure whether it should have a question mark at the end. And I’m an English teacher.) I’ve now written the first chapter and the opening line hasn’t changed.

I had a comment on the blog-post on this use of the ‘f’ word in the opening line of a book, which made me think about how opening lines of other landmark novels (other?) might have been affected for better or worse if the author had shown some mettle and spiced them up a bit by dropping an ‘f’ bomb or two.

Because the Internet is amazing I was able to punch a few buttons and within seconds I was presented with a website that contains the first lines of one hundred famous books. I was then intrigued to see whether inserting the ‘f’ word into any of them would make me want to read them. I wonder what you think, dear reader. Here is a selection.

‘1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my fucking landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.’ Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a fuck.’ Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

‘Lolita, fuck of my life, fire of my loins.’ Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

‘It was a fucking cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ 1984 by George Orwell.

‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fucking fish.’ The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway.

‘It was a fucking pleasure to burn.’ Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

‘This is the saddest fucking story I have ever heard.’ The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

‘I am a fucking invisible man.’ The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

‘The fucking sun shone, having no fucking alternative, on the nothing fucking new.’ Murphy by Samuel Beckett.

‘It was another fucking beautiful morning on the Island of Sodor.’ Thomas the Tank Engine: Thomas Saves the Day by Rev. W. Audry

‘Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen. Fuck!’ (OK, so I broke the rule there by putting the ‘f’ word after the first sentence but it just seemed to be crying out for it.) Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman. (I think the gentleman who does my proofreading and editing might have something to say if I opened a book like that. And I bet he’d use the ‘f’ word in his first sentence.)

Before I go, I just have to relate a totally surreal reading experience I had on the mini-bus home today. (This is a true story.) I’ve just started reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. So there I am reading the story on my Kindle in the front seat of the bus and I’ve got the window down because the weather is still pretty good here. We’re in the centre of Istanbul which is just cars and concrete as far as the eye can see. And I’m about four chapters in and at a place where the animals are in the barn being spoken to by Napoleon. And I can actually smell the farm animals. (The scent of livestock is unmistakeable for me because I was born and raised in the country, with a farm down the road from home. I’d know it anywhere, blindfolded.)

My first thought was, holy crap what a writer – I can actually smell the scene. How can he do that with words? Can you imagine? I’m not exaggerating anything. I think my mouth was hanging open. And I looked up, and in the parking area of whatever-the-place-was the other side of the fence from where we were stuck in traffic there were cows and pigs and a big pile of soiled straw. In the middle of Istanbul! I’d have been less surprised to have seen Elvis. This will now be my prime example when I have conversations about coincidence.

21 thoughts on “To f**k or not to f**k, that is the question.

  1. Sorry Oliver but you are too good a writer to use what you term “the F bomb” I don’t think it improves anything at all, and wonder if this is you letting your (self-confessed) inner schoolboy out again. I personally find it very off putting and have on occasion given up on books which persistently use it. If anything, it simply shows a lack of imagination, and we know that you DO have a very vivid imagination.

    Have you got anything close to publication yet?

    • Hi Dawn
      Good to hear from you. Nice to know you’re keeping an eye on me. 🙂
      Believe it or not I agree with you for the most part: I’m not keen on reading books peppered with swearing, although I do think that the ‘f’ word is one of the most versatile words in the English language (it’s also, unsurprisingly, one of my favourites. There’s nothing to replace it in certain contexts. Nothing that comes close for my money.) I can take it in a book where it is used sparingly and of course to good effect.
      I do hope you’ve read the other comments on this post. What a great bunch of differing opinions.
      Rich’s comment is really spot on, I think.
      Acer #3 is finished my end and is now with the gentleman who does my proofreading. He is very busy in life at the moment and so I must hang on for him. I’ve also finished the first draft of Booker and Cash #2 in the last couple of weeks. I’ll be tackling that again soon and then passing it down the line for proofreading and editorial suggestions. Apart from that I’ve got this other project that I’m now 10,000 words into. Not sure how far I’ll get with that because I have a Romney and Marsh itch that’s turning septic.
      Best wishes as always.

  2. You don’t have a lot of cursing in your books which is fine because cursing wouldn’t really work in your books, so to add it in the first sentence … do you really need to? And, if you really need to, it should be revealed somewhere close to the first sentence why such strong language was needed in the opening line. On the other hand, this is coming from someone who can drop the f bomb 5 times in one sentence and who loves to teach foreign students how it is one of the words that is every part of speech, and when they should say it and when they shouldn’t say it.

    Finally, I was stifling giggles while reading your post – this could get me in trouble as I am at my part-time ESL job, my students are used to me bursting out in giggles or gasps (when the tornados are coming – or the hail, blizzard, white out conditions, 108F with hurricane gusts of wind blinding people with the red dirt of Oklahoma) while huddled at the computer but if the boss came walking in… – oh, wait, I’m a teacher, I’ll just turn it into a lesson!

    Keep writing! Your Okie fan

    • Hi Tamara
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve had quite a range of comments on this post, which is great for me.
      I agree with you that if it’s going in the first sentence then pretty soon it’s should be hinted at as to why it was absolutely necessary. And I had done that in the opening short chapter. But having read RIch’s comment below I’m having second thoughts about including it at all. He’s right. He’s always right.
      But the ‘f’ word will remain one of my favourites because of its versatility and in certain contexts nothing even comes close to doing my thoughts justice. I think it’s great that you tackle it with your students. Teaching four and five year olds I might not include it in the weekly plan, however.
      Your weather sounds a bit extreme at both ends of the spectrum for me.
      From one ESL teacher to another, don’t let the buggers grind you down.
      Good to know that you read and enjoy the posts.
      Best wishes as always.

  3. I really don’t mind the odd ‘fuck’ here and there. It’s a word that’s used constantly these days by workmen, military men and teenagers: one can get quite immune to it. As writers we explore language to depict characters, and the use of ‘bad language’ is a tool we can use, especially when we are narrating the story as another person, or using ‘stream of consciousness – internal monologue’.
    ‘Lolita, fuck of my life, fire of my loins’ did make me laugh. But I am taking issue with your Pride and Prejudice quote:
    ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a fuck’.
    It is not the fact you are debasing out literary heritage, but the ‘fuck’ just didn’t sit right. Read it again, you might see using alliteration would have worked better.
    ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a ‘wank’.
    Flows better, don’t you think?
    Keep writing.

    • Hi Pat,
      Great call with the Austen quote. Made me chuckle.
      You are quite right that the ‘f’ word is an integral part of the language. As I said to Dawn, above, I can take it any form if it’s used sparingly. When the text or speech is lettered with it it can become dull and irritating and lose its impact.
      Probably the Lolita quote is the one that benefits best from the change. Maybe if Vlad were writing today he’d have used it.
      I hope you read the other comments here, especially Rich’s at the end, as I type. He’s spot on.
      Best wishes as always.

      • Rich, you’ve totally got me pegged wrong. I belong to the 2 and 4 group, and I take great exception to being put in the 3 group which says I don’t really mind the ‘fuck’ word.
        My opening sentence may have sounded like that, but it was served with an enormous ladle of irony. Military men have a language of their own and its peppered with ‘fucks’ and many more words of that ilk. Look at all that hype in the press when DHL used that ‘C’ word – no not commute: that is one word that does make me cringe. And I personally take great exception to someone calling ‘lady-parts’ a twinkle, a nancy, a chuff, a muff etc. etc.
        I write adult fiction, not children’s fairy tales, and, yes, I do use words that are not normally used in everyday conversation, unless you’re mixing with a bunch of squaddies.
        I choose words that suit and portray my characters, therefore, my third novel only includes one ‘fuck’ as I was writing about another era: another time. So , for Christ’s sake, what’s wrong with the word? and how will it affect an author’s integrity?
        I don’t live in Midsomer or St. Mary Mead, I live in a city where life can be seen at its best and its worst. I’ve also lived in Pakistan where poverty is the norm for the masses. I’ve also witnessed the PTSD of a soldier coming back from the Gulf War. I’ve nursed cancer patients with their cancer’s growing on the outside – not a pretty sight. I’ve laid many a dead body. Life’s too fucking short. So why can’t people fucking get over that ‘f’ word.
        Soap-box has now been put away until the next time someone ruffles the feathers of this old bird.

      • Sorry Pat, I completely missed the joke in that first sentence! Categorisation withdrawn with apologies. But nonetheless, I think the general point stands for the purpose of thinking about an audience: there ARE people who don’t mind either way.

  4. oh I thought the first word was “of”, then I’m hearing a voice say “pay attention at the back” and I remember that was the B&C opener. You promised the second word.
    A few fucks are ok in context, I swear heavily on a bad day.
    Dymchurch was heavily coned off around the Hospice furniture shop yesterday. I asked them why – they had no idea but it was like it the day before too. Many parking spaces gone.
    Answer – 1) They are going to film your book
    2) Adolescent idea of a joke and running bets on how many weeks it will be before someone twigs.

    • Hi
      Good to have another vote in the ‘sparingly and in context” corner. As I’ve said above, for me the ‘f’ word is irreplaceable in certain contexts and so versatile. And as a means of venting one’s anger there’s something so missing with the weaker alternatives.
      If they’re filming the book where’s my money?
      If it’s an adolescent’s joke it’s probably my son.
      I just hope it’s not because the building is falling down.
      Best wishes as always.

    • Thanks, Richard. I wish I’d thought of FW&aF when I was writing the post. But it worked, didn’t it? In the film. I don’t think that there is another word that would have worked so well.
      Best wishes and thanks for your comment.

  5. Oliver,

    Speaking of Kindles (f*cking Kindles?), have you pre-ordered your 300ppi new Kindle Voyage yet? I just pre-ordered – scheduled to be released October 21, but my guaranteed ship date is November 28.

    Maybe the new B&C will be out then – I find Cash very intriguing!

    F*ck all.


    • Hi Clinton
      Well I had to look up the Kindle Voyage, which I hadn’t heard of, and now I want one. I’m not sure that I need one but I just like the look of it.
      I’d love to promise B&C #2 will be available for your projected shipping date but I can’t. If it’s not available, it won’t be for the want of trying.
      Glad you like Cash. I do to. More than Booker. And I like her in book two better than book one.
      Best wishes and thanks for your comment.

  6. This comes up occasionally with clients, and it’s a tricky issue. As with all editing, I think the best approach is a mix of the analytical and the practical. There are various competing groups here, but I’d say the four most important are: 1) People like Dawn, above, who really don’t like it. 2) People like me, who think swearing is a rich and interesting part of language. 3) People like Pat, above, who don’t particularly mind. 4) And you, the author, who presumably had a good reason for including the swearing in the first place.

    The Pat group can obviously be discarded (sorry Pat!). They don’t care much either way, so why worry? (Or they secretly do care once swearing hits an arbitrary level you can’t foresee, in which case they’re really in one of the other groups). I think the filth lovers can be ignored as well. We’d be sad to know you’d taken a lot of swearing out, but since we only get to see the finished product we never know that. No-one hates a book because there’s not enough swearing. (Just don’t use asterisks. Either fucking swear or don’t.)

    So you’re left with the opinion of the author vs the opinion of potentially offended readers. Perhaps controversially, I think the author’s opinion should carry less weight. Much less weight. You’re making a product, why risk alienating the audience over a few harsh syllables?

    And sure it will feel like a compromise you shouldn’t have to make. But does that really matter? I feel this way any time an author trots out the self-centred “I wrote this for me”, usually as an excuse to avoid doing any actual editing. Sure, you wrote the first draft for you. You have to. But now you’ve done that. You’ve read it. It’s not going away. You can read it again if you like. But now it’s time to write a version for everyone else. The one you’re going to sell.

    So if you can cut the swearing out and leave the book substantially unchanged, I’d say you should. But can you?

    The amount of swearing is an important practical consideration. My sainted mother thinks that swearing should be reserved until you really need it, and so would probably advise just using a few F-Bombs. But with all due respect to her, that’s fucking bullshit. If swearing makes up a few dozen words out of 100,000 then why keep it in and risk offending people? It’s possible that rare and pointed swearing could be an essential piece of characterisation or make the difference between a drab sentence and an exquisite one (like that Bradbury edit above – brilliant). But how often is that actually the case? If you don’t think you’re writing at that kind of level, then stick with retaining as large an audience as possible.

    But if you’re swearing several times a page then it’s clearly an essential part of the language of the book and should be kept. And if you’re doing that then swearing in the first line is the BEST thing you can do, because then readers who don’t like it get the information they need as quickly as possible and can move on to something else.

    • Rich
      Really pleased to have your input on this. And I have to say that I agree with you 100%.
      I love to swear. The ‘f’ word cannot be improved upon, for me, in certain contexts. It’s so right, so often. It’s everything from funny to aggressive.
      The clincher for me in your remarks is why risk offending people if I don’t have to. For the record the use of ‘fuck’ was supposed to show how a character was agitated way beyond usual and as such I considered it what you refer to as an essential piece of characterisation.
      But based on your argument, I’ve now removed it. However, this gives me another problem: what the fuck to replace it with!
      At present it’s looking like this and it’s not doing it for me: ‘For crying out loud, will someone please tell me exactly how in God’s name that happened!’ I even looked up alternatives on the web. I spent a really interesting few minutes finding out that there is nothing that really hits the mark like a good fuck. This will bother me for a long time, I think.
      Best wishes and thanks again for you comment.

  7. Hi Oliver, no comment on the ‘F word’ issue, I think it’s all been said! However, to up-date you from sunny Dover, (and yes, it really is sunny) some idiot has re-opened the Golden Lion on York Street and painted the outside in the most lurid, horrible GREEN imaginable! What the F… is going on?

  8. First, let me say how fucking excited I was to read (in one of your plethora of replies) that you have a Romney & Marsh itch, nearly septic! Made my day, Mr Tidy.
    Secondly, I ♡♥ the new & improved first sentence selections, which I personally felt were, indeed, improved in several cases, although some of the fucks/fuckings were not modifying the correct noun (“…invisible fucking man.” and “.., a beautiful fucking morning…”) which may simply be due to British English versus American English, or down to hair-splitting or nitpicking. Obviously, you have rightfully deduced that I am on board with the judicious use of “the f-bomb” (a phrase I despise nearly as much as the usage of ♡♥ instead of “love” , “like”, “adore”, “find attractive”, or ANY written word); with the caveat that it is used properly, naturally, in dialog or as an emphatic, such as the increasingly popular WTF. I believe the word is used (maybe over-used) in everday language, at least in the States. I realize it is more common with those under 70. Folks of the “greatest generation” are appalled by such language, as it certainly would never have occurred to them to utter that word, not even in private.
    So, there you have it. Many people use the word in daily discourse, so it seems totally appropriate for certain characters/narrators to do the same. It is not necessary to ‘pepper’ your novel with any sort of ‘foul language’, anymore than using archaic words–simply for the sake of ‘I can’.
    Words are your tools, Mr Tidy, and I have read all of yours and never felt you’ve used any extraneously or gratiously so far. I trust you to use your (and your editor’s ) continued wise judgement…regardless as to whether it includes ANY particular fucking word.
    Now, back to fucking writing!!!

    • Hi Lucy
      Good to have your input. Thank you. And a very amusing one at that.
      Your remarks on where to put the ‘f’ word certainly gave me food for thought, especially the invisible man one. For sometime I’ve been thinking of trying my pen at erotic fiction, although I fear that boat may have already sailed commercially. But how about humorous erotic fiction? ‘The Invisible Man Fucking’, anyone? Could make a great film, no?
      I do agree with you that because it is such an integral part of daily language it shouldn’t be such a surprise when it turns up in contemporary fiction, although, as you suggest, not just for the sake of it. That’s not going to make for great writing or win fans.
      I shall continue to use that word and others of a risqué nature, but only where absolutely fucking appropriate. 🙂
      Best wishes.

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