Literary expletive avoidance

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

deirdre madden - molly fox's birthday - faber & faber book coverTake Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.

Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:

‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’

‘It was in the paper.’

‘What! How old did they say I was?’


She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’

I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?

It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.

[Cross-posted on Sentence first]

4 thoughts on “Literary expletive avoidance

  1. Roderick January 24, 2015 / 11:36 am

    I agree.

    It is often much better just to hint at an oath than to use a clumsy homophone such as the one spoken by Enderby in a novel by Anthony Burgess: “For cough!”


    • Stan Carey January 24, 2015 / 11:44 am

      Roderick: Sometimes it is, though it does depend on the writer’s aim, their fictional character’s nature, and so on. “For cough!” has a humorous effect, but may strike some readers as arch or plain silly. Burgess explained his choice in an interview with the Paris Review:

      I think there’s more artistic pleasure to be gained from the ingenious circumvention of a taboo than from what is called total permissiveness. When I wrote my first Enderby novel, I had to make my hero say “For cough,” since “Fuck off” was not then acceptable. With the second book the climate had changed, and Enderby was at liberty to say “Fuck off.” I wasn’t happy. It was too easy. He still said “For cough,” while others responded with “Fuck off.” A compromise.


      • Roderick January 25, 2015 / 7:30 pm

        Impressed by your research, thanks. I used to be a big fan of Anthony Burgess, then read the vitriolic biography of him by Roger Lewis. It seems that there was much not to admire.


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