Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Something Nasty

Date: 08 Sep 2000 wrote:
> I said:

> > Doesn't Marlowe at one point say something like "He snarled and
> > called me something nasty." Would that sentence really have been
> > better if Chandler had written: "He called me a motherfucking
> > asshole."

> Chandler's point and mine (and I think I did have one) was that
> whatever the guy said offended the detective. The point wasn't so
> much what was said, but how Marlowe felt about it. As Marianne put
> it, "Marlowe feels contempt for the man's attitude and discounts
> his statement for that reason."

> After all, Marlowe and Chandler considered themselves gentlemen,
> above such vulgarity. Even if it "isn't a game for knights."

> Saying the actual words (and it might have been as mild as bastard
> or something) adds nothing. Were he writing the same sentence
> today, would Chandler have used the actual words, as Jess contends?
> I don't think so.

> Certainly, as far as I can remember, in his personal
> correspondence, far, far away from any editorial interference,
> Chandler rarely, if ever, relied on vulgarity.

I'll concede the point that Chandler himself would not have written a vulgar word, even today.

But the appearance of the words does add verisimilitude, even if they've become a cliche. And, frankly, in today's climate the comment "he said something nasty" would yank me out of the reading experience far more quickly than a string of swears.

> But words matter too, and which ones we use, in fiction and in real
> life. I was joking when I lamented that the word "nigger" was
> becoming devalued. It is still an offensive word, no matter how
> many times some misguided yahoo rapper or hack comic trying to
> be "street" uses it, or how many times some white suburban doofus
> tosses it around his high school. Or even how many times Saint
> Ellroy drops it into his prose.

So we should edit what we read because a word might cause pain or give offense? Is being truthful about how people use the language a bad thing if it's going to hurt someone?

> Don't think so? Next time you feel
> the word no longer hurts, go call one of your black friends'
> parents or grandparents "nigger". Or one of your friends' children.
> Or some black you don't know. See how well that goes over.

Believe it or not, there are white people out there so well-accepted by their black friends that they can and do use the n-word with impunity. Don't believe me? Come down to my library and watch them. Or go to the libraries I've worked at (downtown and suburban Chicago, suburban Boston) and watch them. And while most white people still can't use the word without someone scorning them (rightfully so) for it, audience reaction will differ from generation to generation, from class to class, and from geographic region to geographic region. There's no one monolithic "black" reaction to the use of the word. Many kids and teenagers today (that I've seen) react badly to its use by white kids they don't know--but without nearly the vehemence of older generations.

Still don't think the n-word (and other vulgarities, too) are devalued? Track their usage in popular culture (the best barometer for this sort of thing) in, say, the 1940s versus the 1960s vs. the 1980s vs. today. You brought up Richard Pryor. Compare the shock and horror of his audience on hearing That Word used as compared to, say, Chris Rock's audience. Compare the reaction of white audiences today to the ones of a generation or two ago.

All the old stand-bys--the offensive ones, I mean--are far more commonly used and accepted today than they ever have been. "Damn" was unspellable in the 1890s. Now one doesn't blink to hear it. There current debate in the media is whether or not the press should have printed, verbatim, Bush's "he's an asshole" comment. Most of the online papers and outlets I've seen used the word. Some did not; I think it was the NYTimes that used the memorable phrase "rectal aperture." (Far more attention-grabbing) Think anyone would ever have considered for a moment using that word 20 years ago?

It's an inevitable dynamic of language that bad words, when commonly used, lose their bite. I see no reason to believe that the N-word is somehow different in this regard.

> Richard Pryor, who may have helped bring the word out in the open,
> and make it "safer" for a mainstream audience, at least understood
> the power and pain of the word. For the most part, Eddie Murphy,
> Martin Lawrence and a thousand others who made careers off Pryor's
> material, using all the words but none of the soul, are mere
> poseurs. Pryor was working through his own pain--these clowns tend
> to inflict it.

We're veering off-topic, but I wouldn't call them poseurs. Simply people who haven't undergone the pain of a Richard Pryor and for whom the N-word isn't so dangerous and offensive.


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