Salinger and the F-bomb

I don’t know what it is, but there’s always the tendency in young journalism students to relish the opportunity to curse in their writing. I suspect it has something to do with spending four years in high school writing formal and appropriate papers and now, suddenly finding oneself with the freedom to pepper writing with the F-bomb and not receive an automatic F for the indiscretion. But be warned, young grasshopper: curse in moderation.

The Catcher in the Rye
by the late J.D. Salinger is one of my all-time favourite books (if not my absolute favourite). I can’t point to one single piece of writing that inspired me to enter journalism, but Catcher comes pretty close. I’ve read it more times than I can count, and each time I am floored by his simple and succinct writing style. Also, Salinger uses the F-word only five times in the entire novel.

In light of Salinger’s recent death, Roy Peter Clark wrote last week on his PoynterOnline blog on Salinger’s use of the F-word, and compared it quite scathingly to the use of the same word in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. He wrote:

“Salinger uses the word five times in ‘Catcher’ with great power and specificity. As an expression of Frey’s phony bravado, the word appears over and over again. Look, he says, what a down-and-out badass I really am. I can use the F-word. Over and over.”

These days, you aren’t likely to find too many journalists that don’t swear like sailors. It’s just one of those things that they all do (and all journalists seem to smoke, too—what’s up with that?). I’m admittedly a bit of a goody-goody when it comes to swearing. I generally don’t curse in conversation and definitely not in my writing. This isn’t because I find the words improper or crude, but because I’ve always felt that these words hold a tremendous amount of power that ought not to be squandered away by casual use. If you drop the F-bomb ten times an hour, it’s not going to have very much impact, ever. But if you let it slip for the first time in months in the middle of a heated argument in which you’re angry or upset? Well, the receiving end of your wrath is going to know you mean business.

As far as I’m concerned, the same concept should apply to writing.

There’s some old advice for journalists regarding exclamation points: A writer is allowed only three exclamation points in his lifetime, so should use them wisely. (This advice is so old, in fact, that I can’t remember who said it first. If anyone does know, please let me know so I can give this very smart person due credit.)

My advice for cursing in your writing is similar to that advice for using exclamation points: make it count.

And one more bit of advice: If you haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye, run—don’t walk—to the nearest bookstore, pick up a copy and don’t come back here until you’ve read the whole thing.