Thursday, October 27, 2011

Actually, no, profanity is not "making a splash in book titles"

USAToday has fearlessly reported on the alleged use of profanity in book titles. Sort of. Actually, USAToday isn't sure exactly what it's reporting on, since it did one of those the-headline-and-first-paragraph-say-one-thing-which-is-then-directly-contradicted-by-the-very-next-paragraph things that most "journalists" seem to thrive on.

Here is the headline: Profanity is making a splash in book titles. And now, the first paragraph:
Somewhere, Maxwell Perkins is weeping.
Maxwell Perkins, for those of you who aren't as clever as Deirdre Donahue, the author of this USAToday piece, was a very, very famous literary editor. Probably the most famous literary editor ever. He edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tobias Wolfe. He was ahead of his time.
Explains biographer A. Scott Berg, Perkins "sought out authors who were not just 'safe,' conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world."
Why would Maxwell Perkins (who is, by the way, dead, and therefore not weeping, but decomposing, but let's leave that aside for now) be weeping? One assumes that it's because, as the headline of USAToday's article asserts, that profanity is making a splash in book titles. Meaning that Mr. Perkins, who championed Ernest Hemingway, for crying out loud, must have had some qualms with "profanity," to the point of which the sight of it on a book cover would cause even his very corpse to weep.

And yet:
Fitzgerald introduced Perkins to a young American writer living in Paris named Ernest Hemingway. When Perkins brought Hemingway's work to Charles Scribner (then 72), Scribner was shocked by the subject matter and frequent use of profanity. Perkins convinced Hemingway to tone down the language and Scribner's published The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to great critical acclaim.
So, it was actually Charles Scribner who was shocked by the profanity in Mr. Hemingway's book. Charles Scribner was the publisher. He held the purse strings. He wasn't going to publish a book that "shocked" him, so Mr. Perkins advised Mr. Hemingway to tone down the profanity in order to get the book published.

Wikipedia boils it down to this:
A daring book for the times, Perkins fought for it over objections to Hemingway's profanity raised by traditionalists in the firm.
Mr. Perkins actually fought for the more liberal use of language in American publishing.

Already, one paragraph in, we have reason to suspect that the USAToday author has no idea what she's talking about. But all doubt is soon to be removed, worry not. Back to the article:
Publishing used to be a gentleman's profession. But the trend of using profanity in titles — already common in pop songs and even on Broadway — has now spread to books.

In the past year there have been three songs on Billboard's Hot 100 chart with the f-word in the title. Chris Rock starred in the Broadway play The Mother------ With the Hat. And now publishing is awash with best sellers whose unprintable titles are, for the most part, being coyly disguised by asterisks and other symbols over select vowels on the jackets.
The author claims that "the trend of using profanity in titles" is common in pop songs and on Broadway, and then mentions that there have been a total of three whole songs on Billboard's Hot 100 chart with "the f-word" ("fiddlesticks"?) in the title.

In the past year! That's not just common-- that's practically an epidemic. The author also mentions one whole entire play with the word "Mother------" in it. Apparently, "Mother" followed by six dashes constitutes a profanity.

The author then contradicts the very premise of the article's headline, by stating that in fact the titles of these books don't have profanities in them at all-- they're actually "being coyly disguised by asterisks and other symbols over select vowels."

The headline of this USAToday article should actually read,

Bowdlerization is making a splash in book titles.

Here are the covers of the books mentioned in the article:

Maybe your definition of "profanity" is different from mine, but I count exactly one word in those book titles that could be considered as such. The rest of those titles, as the USAToday author points out, "coyly" bowdlerize the titles so as not to offend the likes of... um...

Maxwell Perkins?

This is the world in which we now find ourselves: So infantilized that the sight of "the f-word" on the outside of a book must be covered up lest some of us go into conniptions, and four whole books are enough to show that publishing is "awash" in "profane" titles. Watch out for the tidal wave.

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