August 14, 2017
Son of a bitch, these goddamn authors can’t stop swearing
by Susan Rella
If only we’d known gainful employment could be found by researching how many times “fuck” and “shit” show up in books.
As Alison Flood wrote last week in the Guardian, psychologist and author Jean Twenge (Generation Me, The Narcissism Epidemic) recently conducted a study of every book published in American English between 1950 and 2008 and available via Google Books (roughly a cool million of ’em). What was she looking for? Just ask George Carlin; the study searched for occurrences of the late comedian’s “seven words you can never say on television.”
In case you need a refresher, but mainly because this is a great excuse to type out some raunchy bullshit, the seven words are:
- …tits (I know: Tits? Lame.)
Overall, the study (published in SAGE Open) found that all seven curse words were being used more frequently now than any time since 1950, and books pubbed between 2005 and 2008 were twenty-eight times likelier than those published in the early fifties to include potty-mouth language.
But let’s drill this shit down. “Motherfucker” usage increased 678 times, winning the swear-off. “Fuck” was used 168 times more often, and “shit” only sixty-nine times as often. (Still, props to “shit” for sneaking that sixty-nine joke in there.)
Twenge was apparently surprised that the level of cursing had increased by so fucking much. “I had guessed that the use of swearwords would increase, but I was surprised that the increase was so large — 28 times more,” she told the Guardian.
But this is absolutely part of a visible trend in recent years. In May, we pointed out a recent increase in fucks given (literally) by the self-help genre. And the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, contained ample fuckery, dropping more than eighty F-bombs. The Sellout is also the first Man Booker ever won by a US author, so… fuck yeah, America.
But it’s not just ’Murican books that contain all the smut fit to print. Scottish author Jenni Fagan garnered almost as much backlash as praise for her wildly popular 2012 fiction debut The Panopticon (currently being made into a motion picture), whose voice Alan Bett memorably described as “a broad Scottish vernacular littered with fucks and cunts.” (The book did pretty damn well stateside, too, garnering a rave review from Michiko Kakutani.)
The study linked this surge in quadriliteralism to a rise in self-expression and individualism, and Twenge urges the public to view the findings through “this cultural lens… rather than as bad or good.” But culturally, we know that many see profanity not as a reflection of our times but as an invitation down the slippery slope to hell. Four of 2016’s ten most-banned books were challenged because of offensive language. And with challenges to free speech rising and self-expression being curtailed by the hour, don’t be surprised if the modern literature shelf at your local library starts looking bare as a piss-bucket in shit season.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.