Sunday, January 5, 2014

How we view slang in literature

Let me ask you: in our day and age, can we put slang-speaking characters center-stage? You may recall the play-in-a-play, performed by the rude mechanics at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream, aptly described in their own words as 'The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.' These would-be actors, whose ability to express themselves is unabashedly mocked by their audience, were used by Shakespeare mainly for comic relief.

The play they perform is merely a farce of the Romeo and Juliet love story. Why, you may ask? Because like most artists and playwrights of that era, the bard knew only too well that he ought to entertain and complement his patrons, the most important of which where members of the royal court. This is the reason that characters who speak in slang were nearly never placed center-stage, as the hero of the story. Such characters were portrayed as simpletons, and by no means were they given any depth of feeling. 

It was only later in the history of literature that characters of the lower class were taken seriously, and their point of view began to resonate, despite much controversy, with readers and theatre goers. For example, Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. And yet today, it is recognized as an American classic, giving voice to teenage confusion, angst, alienation and rebellion. I suggest to you that in even today, there are two clashing views about the use of slang-talking characters, one from those who see themselves as 'upscale, educated nobility'--and the other, the more 'democratic' one, from the rest of us.

Recently I was reminded of this clash, when I posted an excerpt from Apart from Love in Anita's voice. You would be hard-pressed to find a three-syllable word in anything she says. The lack of long words is compensated by descriptive sequence of short words (see the replacement for ‘magnifying glass’ below.) You can spot a liberal use of the dreaded double-negative, and of the word ‘like’. In the excerpt she describes the memory of her first kiss with Lenny. Some readers told me, tongue-in-cheek, that the would need a cold shower by the time she completes her story. But one reader found the style of the excerpt incosistent. He complained that at times Anita is lyrical, and at other times her thoughts are expressed in slang.

So I ask you: why can't a character combine both? Are we still bound to write for the Pyramus and Thisby audience? Even if your grammar is atrocious, even if your vocabulary is somewhat lacking, does that mean you can't feel the throes of pain, or the exhilaration of joy? Does it mean you can't paint what you see, feel and think? As you form your own answer, I invite you to sense the texture and the power of unrefined language, by listening to Anita's voice once more:

"What matters is only what’s here. I touch my skin right under my breasts, which is where the little one’s curled, and where he kicks, ‘cause he has to. Like, he don’t feel so cosy no more. Here, can you feel it? I reckon he wants me to talk to him. He can hear me inside, for sure. He can hear every note of this silvery music.
It ripples all around him, wave after wave. I can tell that it’s starting to sooth him. It’s so full of joy, of delight, even if to him, it’s coming across somewhat muffled. Like a dream in a dream, it’s floating inside, into his soft, tender ear.
I close my eyes and hold myself, wrapping my arms real soft—around me around him—and I rock ever so gently, back and forth, back and forth, with every note of this silvery marvel. You can barely hear me—but here I am, singing along. I’m whispering words into myself, into him."

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  1. I agree with you ....... to be a successful singer you do not have to go school, or you do not need to take classes to paint as Rembrandt.

    1. Thank you Jorge. I think you do need to take voice lessons to be a singer, and Rembrandt took a lot of training to become who he was, and trained a lot of students in his studio. But with all this preparation, it is a choice that the artist makes, to choose the tight tool to describe the idea or the character he has in mind. If the character talks in slang, then the author must be faithful to the character's speech.

  2. Hola Uvi :) As an Artist my voice speaks y communicates in a way that's true to the spirit within my soul. As a Poet the poetry pours y expresses itself with the very essence of the universe around me. As an Author what pours from within is a combination of everything Artistic within me. If a character is to be authentic, it must emulate y or mirror the reality that makes the world created seem as genuine as possible. As always Uvi, tú expand the intellect to delve deeper y look for creative honesty. Gracias mí amor.

    1. Gracias Native! Yes, one poet to another, we embrace each others words and rhythms... xoxox