I recently finished reading a gritty crime thriller. It was a riveting read with a compelling narrative arc, and had a great deal to say about the human condition. I reviewed it on Goodreads and Amazon, giving it well-deserved five stars on each site.
As I often do, I read other people's reviews. One in particular struck me.
The reviewer was articulate and used phrases such as "fantastic development of the book's protagonist from cover to cover." It also lauded the novel's premise, its narrative drive and the questions it raised about human nature. The reviewer even said it "could be counted as good literature for the way it causes the reader to ponder deeper questions common to us all."
Though I doubt the author intended the novel to be viewed as "literature," I certainly understood the reviewer's comment and felt it was perceptive and accurate.
The reviewer went on to say, "My one reason for giving the novel only four stars instead of five has to do with the vulgarity of the language..."
While he conceded the language reflected the speech of people "who live where the book's characters come from" he felt there could ways to "get around" such an issue. Clearly, the reviewer felt the novel's dialogue earned it a lower rating than if the language had been bland. In my view, had the language been "cleaned up" the novel would have lacked verisimilitude. It would have been inauthentic.
After reading both the novel and the review, I thought about the notion of vulgarity.
The word itself was intriguing -- not only its meaning, but its phonetics -- and the fact that it's not used very often.
Vulgar...has various meanings: 1. Lack of good breeding or taste. 2. Indecent, obscene. 3. Pertaining to ordinary people. 4. Popular or common in a culture.
Yes, some of the language in the novel could be termed "obscene" or "indecent." But the novel dealt with compelling issues: how the past haunts us; the nature of friendship and loyalty; and whether or not the ends justify the means in desperate times. The novel also addressed one of the most pervasive of human afflictions -- greed.
To me, the vulgarity in the novel was not its language. That view focuses on the novel's form rather than the content of the author's creation. To me, the novel's obscene and cringe-inducing element was its thematic infrastructure: its content, not its form.
I was in the army, went to medical school, and became a physician and psychiatrist, so very little can make me cringe. Dealing with troubled people -- some who are utterly insane -- and working as a forensic psychiatrist in courtroom situations, I've encountered the most cringe-worthy thoughts, feelings, fantasies and behaviors one can imagine in this life.
The language people use isn't one of them.
What truly makes me cringe -- the most vulgar and obscene things in life -- are humanity's ubiquitous displays of unrelenting greed, hatred, intolerance, and the unquenchable need of people and nation states to make war.
These obscenities make me fear for our well-being and our children's futures on this increasingly troubled planet.