Is It The Only Word We Have Left?
By The Criticess
Note: this piece was not originally so ladylike, but in order to remove both an adult-only rating and facebook blacklisting of the site, it has had all rude words replaced with nice euphemisms. The necessity of rewriting the piece rather proved its point: the word shocks like no other.
So, while reading an interview with the now 73-year-old Jilly Cooper about how getting old ain’t all bad, I realised that, to my shame, I’ve never read any of her books. Nor have I read any Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, or Barbara Taylor Bradford. This isn’t a boast – it’s a confession. And one I’m embarrassed to admit.
It’s not that I’m a snob. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that, literary giantesses though they are, these women’s books didn’t matter. That it was love and not romance that mattered. That there was something desperate about the women who read them, as though they had nothing in their lives – or their heads – but badly written bonks, charmers, and chicks. Quite what I thought I had in my life, or my head, that was so much worthier of taking up space, I don’t know. Come to think of it, had I let any one of these writers’ heroines live all manner of things for me, I could have saved myself many many hours to devote to all those higher things, whatever they might be.
I could try blaming school – my English teacher let me write about Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha for my Review of Personal Reading. Maybe it was university and all the Italian metaphysical poetry I’m sure even the poets didn’t understand (and which, incidentally, my pet rats would shred years later, unafraid to be outspoken about their literary taste). Raised in the Scottish countryside without a tv, deprived of Blake and Bobby James, I could even give blaming my upbringing a shot. But, really, I’ve only myself to blame.
It is entirely through my own doing that I’ve allowed myself to be ruined by literary fiction. Jilly, Jackie, Danielle, and Barbara – these women are Queens of Literature. They are amongst the bestselling authors the world has ever known. By definition, their books are classics. They tap into something in the female psyche – in their multimillions.
And if they’re trash, well I can’t help thinking of the scene in The Fisher King where Robin Williams hands Amanda Plummer a loveseat he’s made from a champagne cap and says “There’s nothing trashy about romance. Besides, you find some pretty wonderful things in the trash”.
So, I set aside Jill Dawson’s moving, expertly crafted depiction of Rupert Brooke (a man whose musings take self obsession to new lows, though it is very well written if you want to read about the minutiae of the man), and took my hollow tin chest off to the Saint Columbus Hospice charity shop where they had a half price sale on books. I resisted Mills and Boon, though the British Heart Foundation shop has them on sale at two for £1 and a friend and I were thinking of co-writing one because, apparently, there’s a lot of money in it. It might help if I read some first. Taking the first step towards an alternative career and doing good – what more could one ask for?
Jilly’s Riders was a jolly good fun romp through steaminess I never knew existed in the Cotswolds countryside.
I stuck with Jackie and Lethal Seduction till I got bored of the repetition. The man’s a rogue who likes having sex where people can see him; the girl’s a brat with a wholesome, caring husband who she thinks is boring; her father’s a gangster caricature who likes women with enormous breasts and little brain; the intelligent journalist is undervalued and feels lost. You’ve made the point – get on with the story. She doesn’t, though, and the whole thing drags on for over 500 pages when 200 would have done.
I read all of Danielle’s Secrets because it was short and, from the opening lines, had the promise of a happy ending and who doesn’t like those. It all came together very neatly which was pleasing. The beautiful yet aloof and formidable star finally opens her heart (by way of enormous diamonds and enough mink coats to render the mink extinct) to the television producer who, in her arms, finally recovers from the loss of his wife and children in a plane crash; the sweet, sensitive actor’s junkie wife has the decency to get herself murdered so he can marry the woman he’s been horrible to throughout the entire tv shoot but who he secretly loves and who secretly loves him; and the motherly, gorgeous actress who everyone loves, leaves her abusive husband and makes the gay matinee idol realise that all that gayness he’d been indulging in was just the result of an emotionally-deprived childhood, but with her love, he’s all better now. Sorry if I’ve just ruined the story.
I got bored of Barbara’s Being Elizabeth pretty quickly, when I could see how it was going. I like a feisty heroine, but when the whole thing’s been mapped out and you’ve read the bit at the back where she talks about it being based on English monarch, Elizabeth Tudor, so you know it’s not going to end well, the story loses some of its momentum.
Then there were the sex scenes. Jilly romped, Danielle ascended to new heights they’d never known, and Barbara smouldered and suppressed.
Jackie’s scenes got me thinking, though. Not about sex so much as about words. Jackie’s intention, it seems, is to shock. Thing is, there’s nothing shocking in the language she uses. If the unmentionable four-letters-beginning-with-f-word no longer needs to be replaced with “fug”, what words can a writer use to shock? There are shocking acts, of course – scenes a writer could put down that would horrify readers across race, class, age, gender, and culture.
The only single word I could think of that is pretty much guaranteed to offend is the not-to-be-mentioned-four-letters-beginning-with-c-word. There are other words directed at certain social groups that are intended to offend, but sometimes members of those groups use them when addressing each other. So, though their original intention is to cause offense, they’ve been appropriated into cultures to the point that they may be used as terms of endearment or with pride. Since it changed from a slightly racily descriptive word in Middle English to an insult, the afore(not)mentioned has not been appropriated by any cultural group. Unless you have a particularly witty or personal putdown, if you want to offend, to express just how much you loathe an individual, it is the most powerful word we have in our vocabulary. The same is true, whether you’re in conversation (of sorts) or a writer attempting to shock your readers.
Jackie used it once, slotting it into a coke-addled machismo rant from a photographer who refers to a temperamental model as a “super-not-to-be-mentioned-four-letters-beginning-with-c-word”. Makes it sound like a super power – something to be proud of. And maybe it is. We could appropriate the word into our culture – use the “super” prefix to give it a new meaning. Should you decide to test it in its all-new incarnation, do let me know how you get on. Meantime, I have some chicklit to attend to.
About the author:
The Criticess spends her time stealing female writers, labelled classics and consigned to the doldrums of academia, and exploring them in all their unhinged, electrifying, mischievous, eloquent, mistressful glory.
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