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How Many C Words Is Too Many C Words?

We’ve talked about this before in terms of literature that glorifies a subject, but I want to touch on it again today.

When it comes to literature, I believe we all have a limit to how much obscenity we’ll put up with. Even the most liberal and “open-minded” of us have a limit, I believe. The issue being that we all define “obscenity” in different ways. It’s subjective.

I bring this up because, with Portnoy’s Complaint, I think I’m right at the edge, if not over, my limit. I definitely wouldn’t have finished this novel had it not been a part of the list.

But what exactly do I mean by “obscenities?”

First, I’m no prude. I’ve read a lot of words during this journey and even before, and I believe my boundaries are more liberal than most. So I’m not talking about normal run-of-the-mill stuff.

We’re not talking about stuff you hear on cable TV or The Sopranos or even the most over-the-top movies: The F bomb. The MFer and all the variations thereof.

Portnoy’s Complaint, at times, is somewhere along the lines of what I imagine a transcript of a porn movie would read like. I’ve read the “C-word”—yes, that C-word—more times while reading this novel than I have through the entirety of my life. And I’m not exaggerating about that.

By comparison, the C-word is used in Atonement once. But, if you’ve read the book, you know it fits there. It’s in context and the word makes sense. Robbie is writing a note that he believes Cecilia will never see.

With Portnoy’s Complaint, though, Philip Roth had verbal diarrhea of the C-word. The C-word rains down in this novel like confetti at the end of the Super Bowl.

C-word everywhere. At the beginning of sentences. At the end of sentences. In chapter headings. In dialogue. In narration. C-word. C-word. C-word.

And the question I have for Philip Roth: Why?

What’s the point? Okay, so you use the word here and you use the word there and you use the word another dozen or so times. But I think it’s fairly safe to say that the C-word is used, literally, hundreds of times during Portnoy’s Complaint. Hundreds.

Now I’m not talking about censorship or banning the novel. I’m not in that camp.

But it’s just too much. The obscenity and just—there’s no other way to put it—“vulgarness” of this novel is so over the top that it makes Lolita seem like a Dr. Seuss book. And it’s not just the use of that one word.

That’s just the beginning of the wildness that is Portnoy’s Complaint. Every slang, derogatory variation of name for both male and female genitalia is used here.

I understand that it was written in 1969, perhaps the height of the sexual revolution, a theme the novel certainly doesn’t shy away from. But man.

So…my question here is: Where’s your limit? Would 147 uses of the C-word bother you? Or maybe there’s not a word in the English language that offends you, maybe it’s certain types of content, like rape or pedophilia or something else along those lines.

Do we all have a personal limit?

(Image: icanhascheezburger.com)

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45 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eww…the C-word in chapter titles. I would still read along hoping there was more to the book than vulgarity…but a book that seems to not rise above the vulgar? I would question why this is on THE list.

    Apart from the vulgarity, how is the book? Is it good enough to overlook this part? or is the vulgarity the book?

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • The book has a purpose. Roth is Jewish and it explores a lot of issues related to growing up as a Jewish kids with strict parents. So there is more going on, but I would say that at least half the novel, if not more, is about Portnoy’s sexual exploits, and that’s where all the C word usage and the vulgarity comes in. I have a hard time overlooking it, even though there are a lot of funny parts as well. It’s definitely a unique book.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  2. I used to cringe at the mere whisper of that word… then I read Henry Miller. It is littered throughout ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and I hate to say it, but it almost felt fitting of the novel. So much so, that I stopped thinking too much about it. It was a huge desensitising exercise.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • Yes, I’ve heard much about Tropic of Cancer. It’s on the list, but I’ve yet to get to it.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
      • I loved it! I think I will read it many times over, even if it is pretty cringeworthy

        Like

        May 24, 2013
  3. You’re 100% right. I’m pretty open-minded when reading obscenity, it doesn’t bother me much (probably because I do tend to swear a lot). But that’s just way too much.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  4. MichelleR #

    In “Portnoy’s” the word was shocking, transgressive, intentionally. Time has moved on enough that the word has lost much of it’s context as one of the unspoken/unwritten words, so what’s left to newer readers reads as vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • That is how I read it also. It was 1969 and it was a very different world than today, especially where language was concerned. I was a little girl, but my brothers were heading for college and look out – the eruptions that occurred in our house were monumental.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  5. I’m of the school of thought that certain swear words lose their impact if used too often (although I’m far from prude). We are more likely to actually ‘shut the F up’ if the person yelling it never swears, rather than if the person drops it here there and everywhere. I think the C-Bomb could enhance a moment – for instance, if the protagonist has taken repeated abuse from one person and explodes it at them then you’ll know they can’t take any more- but if it’s just there because the author felt like shoving it in, it loses any potential to add effect. If it’s part of the character’s personality then it may work, but if it’s just a neutral narrative perspective describing it then it’s unlikely to fit.
    In my creative writing degree, we are advised to review every piece of work and take out anything (either a word or an entire paragraph etc) that doesn’t add something to the overall progression of the piece. 147 C-bombs are hardly gonna have enough effect to warrant keeping, instead just becoming irritating. I’d also view it as lack of originality if he can’t come up with another way of illustrating the message rather than those kind of words.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • I agree: at some point it becomes less about obscenity or shock value and more about shoddy writing. If the reader hits the same word so often that it actually diverts their attention away from the narrative, then the book needed another edit.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
    • Precisely. It really is uncreative to use the word over and over and over. I’m not understanding why this book is so highly regarded.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  6. Rosie Baillie #

    I’m fairly open minded when it comes to swearing, it doesn’t offend me but I don’t like swearing for the sake of it. For me, swear words are reserved for times of anger or frustration because that’s just what we naturally tend to do, any other time and it just comes across as lazy to me.

    I’m yet to come across a book with extensive swearing in it, if the character was annoyed or frustrated I could deal with it, but if it was just for the sake of it, it would definitely annoy me.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  7. I haven’t read any books with the C-word, and I think I’ve heard it in only one movie (Bridesmaids). I don’t know why, but even that one instance rubbed me wrong. Like you, I’m not a prude by any stretch, but to me that word is like scraping the bottom of the obscenity barrel. I’d rather hear an F bomb ten times over.
    That being said, overuse of the F word was what had me stop reading Stephen King. Then again, I was 14, and I’ve become a bit more open minded (or desensitized, take your pick) since then.
    Now I known to skip this book if I ever find it in the shelf!

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  8. I’ve never been a Roth fan. I will definitely never ever read this one. It sounds like it has been a horrible experience for you.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  9. bba #

    I have never cared too much for Roth, although I really admire his style and talent. But I’ve always thought he was too focused/obsessed with sex. I just never could get past it. I’ve certainly read/watched things that are more explicit that don’t alienate me, but I never felt like he was aiming for a purpose with all his cunt, prick, etc, run-ons. So we agree there I think. It’s not so much the content as it is my perceived intent of it.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • I’m with you. I love his writing style and, as I’ve said, I really enjoyed American Pastoral, but this one is off the map. It just makes me feel dirty reading it. Like you said, there really seems to be no purpose to his obscenity other than just to shock.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  10. I’ve read that Germaine Greer said that the C-word is very precious to our language, as it’s one of the few English words that still retains the power to shock. A useful tool for any writer! Of-course, if we want to retain this then we should probably use the word sparingly or risk diminishing its returns. Personally, I am always an advocate of a writer using any language at their disposal to make their point well, but if the word is scattered indiscriminately it strikes me as tacky even if I don’t find it offensive. (I don’t mean to comment directly on Roth’s use since I haven’t read the book!)

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  11. I read both Portnoy (second time around) and Tropic of Cancer last summer. T of C, while very vulgar, was easier to get through. I read it all. I managed to only skip through Portnoy. But it was more than just the vulgarity. I’m not sure Portnoy has aged well. Perhaps the cultural context of neurotic-Jewish-boy-in-1969’s sexual coming-of-age story is too narrow to warrant a reading in 2013. Contrast that with Malamud’s ‘The Assistant” which has aged well. My Jewish ex-husband and our male friends LOVED Portnoy in 1969. I wonder what they would think about it today.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • You would think a novel that was written 40+ years ago, and was considering shocking then, wouldn’t be as shocking today. But it is. That’s just a word that I never hear or read, even today, so it’s amazing that it’s used so frequent in a book this old.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  12. I’m not sure I have a limit directly related to a word, but I cannot see myself continuing to read a piece that bothered me just because I had to finish. There are pieces that I tend to steer away from because of subject matter, but it is sometimes not possible to do. As I haven’t read this book, I can’t say whether end 147 uses of the c-word is too many…

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • The things I do for the Time list…

      Like

      May 23, 2013
    • Being somewhat of a bibliophile myself, it is rare I would not finish a book. I have put one down to return to late, in some cases several times before finishing. However, I will finish them even if I hate them usually.
      I agree that it is not a hard limit of any particular word or image, it is a tone, a feel, rational, impact, and quality issue. I swear quite a lot but not randomly and without point. I love good writing, even on subjects I am uninterested it, but bad writing on a subject I love is painful. Good writing done poorly is simply frustrating, and that is what this sounds like to me.
      There is a series of science fiction I won’t read because of the frequent rape scenes and general treatment of women. I like the stories, and the writing is pretty good. However, the tone of inferiority is just too much and they frequently feel very unnecessary to the story, just something from the author. Each thing written should add something, I was taught.

      Like

      May 27, 2013
  13. sally1137 #

    Well, Roth did put the “coming” in the Coming of Age novel, didn’t he? I got used to the c-word and it lost its power to shock me in the book.

    I understand that his vehicle was supposed to be various sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist, but it felt to me rather a cheap trick to allow him to be supremely self-absorbed. Granted, teenagers can be self-absorbed, but he takes it up a few notches.

    It’s very well written, but it’s well-written self-absorbed semi-porn. I’m about halfway through the book and trying to force myself to finish it. Is there a story there? Or just a theme?

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  14. Does this book change your view of either Roth or his other work? It seems to me that the quality of an author (or anyone really) may be the sum of their work.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
    • Yes. I still love American Pastoral, but I would do more research on his other novels before reading another one. He’s obsessed with sex, and not in a good way.

      Like

      May 23, 2013
  15. Reblogged this on megh13.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  16. I’m with tonia994. If a word doesn’t add something, cut it. Sounds like the c-word is one of Roth’s “darlings.”

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  17. I read Henry Miller and he really did use the C-word a lot, but it didn’t bother me,even though that’s one of the few curse words that make me cringe. It just seemed appropriate for the characters and the contexts he was giving us. I haven’t read Roth, so I don’t know if I would feel the same. It’s a very delicate balance and not all writers can pull it off well. Maybe Henry Miller pulled it off because so much of his writing was already experimental and very stream-of-consciousness, and so we accept the word more easily from him. The themes seem similar between Miller and Roth (breaking free from social and religious conventions, sexual awakening, social turmoil…different time periods but similar atmospheres of unrest and social change) but maybe the rest of Roth’s style or voice makes the use of the C-word jarring whereas it seemed fairly seamless in Miller’s writing: much more…erotic and almost reverent. But that word can also be used more like a weapon, and that can be quite disturbing if it’s overdone.

    I read a book by Steve Martin a few years ago, and he used the F-word a lot in it. Now, I have no problem with the F-word. None at all. In fact, I revel in its use. I think it’s a marvelous word. But it was wrong in that novel and it bugged the hell out of me. It didn’t fit the voice, it didn’t fit the context. I mean, using it only in certain scenes once in a while to convey the disconnection that one of the characters felt with his lover was fine. That was a very specific and purposeful use of the word. But we can get that point without having to read it All.The.Time.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  18. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Was that “C” word cliché? I thought not….However, if used often enough it will lose it’s shock value just like the F-bomb, etc. Vulgar language in a book does not bother me since I assume (rightly or wrongly)that the author is trying to make a point. If I had to choose what does bother me then I would have to choose bloody, gory, degradation and violence. Yup that’s what does it for me.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  19. deependofapuddle #

    I find that I can handle a lot of obscenities when used in dialogue and if it’s essential to define a character…. but as narration, too much is just annoying.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  20. I’ve not read the book but it sounds like he is using the word either for shock value or to drive home the point that the character is a teenager. Either way, repeated use doesn’t quite do the job. It’s more irritating than shocking, and he could use other literary techniques to illustrate the characters angst. Not that I shy away from a good swear, but I have to admit that I only use that one when Im driving.
    Is there any word that can transform our relationship to it, by mere repetition? That word is only good for stinging ugliness, a verbal slap. If we take away its power to offend, then it becomes only a bizarre slang for female anatomy. The rest of the swear words seem to be more versatile.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  21. I think Roth uses the C word with a purpose. It’s a rant, a mantra, a diatirbe against repression. It’s not the kind of repression that results in Nazi death camps he fears, it is the kind of repression that doesn’t allow us to notice what is common place. What is human. I, too, have a limit. But my limit is more related to what I think of as the theme of the book and less related to an actual count of some kind.

    Like

    May 23, 2013
  22. The only thing I know about the C-word is that my mom would go nuts if we EVER used it. We could say every other swear word in the world but if we said that poop hit the fan!!

    Angie
    Angela’s Anxious Life

    Like

    May 24, 2013
  23. Yes, we all have limits. And I would probably agree with you that this book sounds like it excessively uses the c word; I haven’t read it, but your description of it sounds pretty bad. I think it is due to the era in which this novel was written, to prove the authors point, that he can write anything and everything and express himself how he wants. Kinda reminds me in the early 2000’s (not sure of the year) when the makers of South Park made an episodeto purposefully say the f word like a ridiculous amount of times, just to piss off the censors and make a point. It’s stupid and low class if you ask me. Good post though, I like your observations.

    Like

    May 24, 2013
  24. It’s easy for words to get stuck in our heads, even more so when we read them. I understand that context does have a big impact on the relative ‘vileness’ of many words, and I particularly hate it when bad language is used unnecessarily. Reading words, like the C word, makes it a part of your internal monologue. That is not the type of language I want to be coming up in my own mind.
    In regards to being open minded; I often smile at the quote: ‘Be careful that you’re not so open minded that your brains fall out.’
    Thanks for posting, it’s an interesting one.

    Like

    May 24, 2013
  25. Gwen #

    I don’t know if I’d be able to finish a book like that. I’m not put off by foul language; I don’t cringe at the F-bomb and all its variations, but the c-word is one I’ve never been able to tolerate well. Maybe it’s because I’m female. I think analysis of why the author may have been compelled to overuse it is logical, but the question of why is still in my mind. Or the fact that it made it past an editor’s desk.

    Like

    May 24, 2013
  26. Alex in Leeds #

    It’s a word that needs reclaiming… Roth would make all my hackles rise for showing why it needs to be reclaimed.

    Like

    May 24, 2013
  27. It’s the only offensive word left in the English language (unless we go down a pc route and start including “retard” and the like). I don’t like the word, for me it’s a word of last resort.

    If I really want to swear. and usually it’s when someone cuts me up in the car or risks my life in some insane manner…then I will bust out that word.

    Like

    May 26, 2013
  28. I took a creative writing class in college. One day, I read a story I wrote to the class, in which there was some appropriate cursing amongst the characters. After the class, another student commented that I am not one to cuss, and then asked why I had written a story in which my characters used so much profanity. I said, “I have no right to take away my characters’ free will.”

    I would be more afraid of offending my characters than I would be the reader. What I mean by that is that if you are not true to your character, who they are, their problems, their wants, their needs, their desires, etc. then you are not true to your story and then you are not true to your audience.

    Like

    May 26, 2013
  29. Becky #

    I can’t say that would bother me at all, I dunno if I’m just desensitised but that word has literally never bothered me. The lack of originality and variety in the language might annoy me though I think.

    Like

    May 26, 2013
  30. I am quite an admirer of Roth and I would always maintain that Portnoy’s complaint is his best creation as it created, not only the appalling reaction amongst millions, but a genre in itself. I don’t think we would ever have had the pleasure of reading works like Vernon God little, had not been for Portnoy’s complaint. Catcher in the rye alone was not enough.

    Like

    May 27, 2013
  31. Reblogged this on perpustakana museum sejarah jakarta.

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    June 2, 2013
  32. I probably have a limit in terms of content, but not vocabulary. Maybe I watch too many R-rated movies. I’ve seen this one British gangster movie where half the dialogue went “You callin’ me a c**t, you f**king c**t?” Words don’t bother me so much as subject matter.

    Like

    August 30, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Book 57: Portnoy’s Complaint | 101 Books
  2. A Brilliant Experiment In Censorship | 101 Books

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