April 21, 2009

Essay #4- Obscenity by Vonnegut

ESSAY #4- Obscenity by Kurt Vonnegut
FOUND IN- The Outlaw Bible of American Essays
DATE READ- April 18, 2009 (as part of Dewey's Readathon)
RATING- 3 Stars
QUOTE- "But even when I was in grammar school, I suspected that warnings about words that nice people never used were in fact lessons in how to keep our mouths shut not just about our bodies but about many, many things-- perhaps too many things."

Vonnegut's essay is about the use of obscenities in his writing. He mentions some reviews that suggested while his themes were important, his execution left something to be desired. Why? "Small obscenities crept in, and four-letter words became frequent in Breakfast of Champions in a riot of indecorous line drawings and misbegotten words that were suggestive of a small boy sticking out his tongue at the teacher."

Um, okay.

I guess I must consider the year that this review was written in Indianapolis Magazine. I wasn't even alive. I have to understand that in 1973 it was a huge shock to the world to have four-letter words floating around on an open page like that. In 1972, Vonnegut mentions, he wrote a short story for a friend entitled The Big Space Fuck. I am sure that was full of scandal for all who read it and heard about it as well.

As someone who cares not if someone uses obscenities, and, in fact, uses them myself, I don't see the big deal. A word is just a word. A word has power and meaning because someone gives it power and meaning. I am not suggesting we all start letting obscenities fly in church sermons and job interviews. I am saying that people talk this way, so why not write in the same way that people talk?

What do you think about obscenities in writing? Do you feel it has no place in books? Do you think it can be overused? Should we write the way that we talk? Do you think writing that uses obscenities lacks class? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Obscenities are just words. I use them all the time in my writing and aloud. I have the "swears like a sailor" mouth and have had for years. I used the F-bomb in the 70s while in high school. I don't get why people were all excited about Erica Jong or Vonnegut or anyone else's use of profanity.

  2. This is a great topic. I was raised by an enlisted Marine whose every other word was a curse word for much of my childhood (he's much improved now). It was a natural part of my life and so I can't say that I notice it much when I'm reading a book unless it's over the top. And I do think there is a point where it can be over the top. I think obsecenities are best used in writing when it fits the story and the characters.

    Even so, I've never big about using obscenitities myself--except maybe in private and it always seems to be a big shock to anyone who may be around me when I do. My husband says it's cute.

  3. Personally, I agree for the most part about how a word only has the power that one gives it. I am not offended in any way by obscenities, but I choose to use them within limits. I just think there are sooo many other words out there, why limit yourselves to just the obvious 'SH*T'.

    However I do love Vonnegut and am not going to have to add this to my list of things to check out by him! Thanks for the great post.

  4. I can't help but let out an annoyed sigh when I'm reading a book and an obscenity is used. I don't like profanity (especially the F word, and GD), but I won't *not* read a book with profanity in it if it's not overdone and if the story is good.

  5. I don't see the big deal either. I swear occasionally, and I don't mind swear words in books at all. Especially if I feel they serve a purpose. I might not be too happy with a book in which a swear word appeared every two lines, but that would be because it would probably be the case that it was being used to express emotions that might be expressed more interestingly, not because I would be shocked or offeded.

    I love Vonnegut too and will look for that essay!


Thank you for visiting! Leave a comment and share your thoughts with me!