Spoiler Warning: I'm going to spoil parts of Pilgrimage and Summer's End in this blog. If you haven't read them, go read them. You'll enjoy them. Keep reading at your own peril.
In the first chapter of Pilgrimage, Roland is people watching in a bar and he sees Lloyd enter and intimidate Griffith. Not knowing the context and being just a little drunk, Roland assumes Lloyd is hitting on Griffith and, in a moment of casual homophobia, describes Lloyd as a faggot.
Since the book's release, one person has told me they could not stand for the use of the word and did not read further. I get that.
But the word exists. People use it. The fact that a reader might be disgusted by Roland's usage is kind of the point. Roland is a terrible person. That's the beginning of the arc, and his use of the word helps show the reader how terrible he is. Roland is less obscenely homophobic later. It perhaps doesn't come through quite as well that homophobia is somewhat inherent in the culture that Roland exists in at the beginning of the story. These people are real, that culture is real, homophobia and the word faggot are real.
Is that justification, though? Haven't I gone on record saying realism is poor justification for the events of fiction?
Both film maker Mel Brooks and Mark Twain have famously used the word nigger in their works. Works of comedy. In the case of Mel Brooks, it is appropriate to the era of Blazing Saddles, but Blazing Saddles is so anachronistic and so unconcerned with realism that one can hardly say it uses the word as an acknowledgement of reality. Mark Twain was writing in a period where nigger was not only in open common usage, but was acceptable by the society around him. There are places in the English speaking world where it is still accepted by society.
But as I've said, realism is poor justification. I think this applies. Just because people say nigger and faggot does not give us licence to use those words as a reflection of that ugly reality. Hell, there are black Americans who choose to reclaim the word nigger and use it to described themselves and those around them. There are also black Americans who frown on its usage in that way. Even then, I'm not convinced that its use by some people as a positive or even neutral term is implicit permission to use the word.
It's generally accepted that Mark Twain and Mel Brooks have used nigger in a permissible way. The reason for this is the same for both of them. Social satire. They do not just use the word as set dressing, they acknowledge the history and weight of the term, and juxtapose its meanings against characters that defy the stereotype suggested by racism. Bart and Jim are not just main characters who happen to be black, they are black heroes that challenge a villainy that is accepted in society both in the plot and in the subtext. There is a thematic weight behind their usage that recognises that these words are tools of oppression and dehumanisation and that their acceptance by society is a crime.
Pilgrimage has thematic weight. My intention was always for the novel to be a complicated and mature story about redemption and friendship. Roland his a terrible person, his homophobia establishes that he is a terrible person and the novel does not endorse him as he is at the end of the book, but rather his redemption.
Summer's End also has thematic weight. The story acts as something of a metaphor for the expansion of cities at the expense of small rural communities, and it takes a heavily anti-city approach. It attributes corruption to cities as natural and youthful innocence to small towns. Summer's death and the cover-up are the city and the country at odds. But nary a usage of bigoted language in the whole novel. If Summer's End has something to say about humanity and society, would it have justified using a word like faggot?
No. It's not enough. Blazing Saddles and Huckleberry Finn aren't just about society, they are specifically about race within western society. I mean, that's probably obvious. The justification works not because they are intelligent works, but because the usage of nigger is part of that intelligence.
Does Pilgrimage meet that test? When I wrote it, I thought it did. I was pretty confident that it made it clear that I and the novel did not endorse hateful language or homophobia. I don't. I used the word to a specific and deliberate purpose that highlighted that Roland is bad and his views are bad.
Or so I thought.
It certainly does the job of establishing Roland is a bad person. But does it also establish that his language is bad? Not really. In fact, it relies on you acknowledging that the language is bad to understand Roland's views are harmful. That this language is wrong, as a specific subtextual point made by the narrative, is not really there.
But then, in a sense, Mel Brooks and Mark Twain also need you to understand that the language is wrong, but neither Lloyd of Griffith are homosexual and so it lacks that juxtaposition to of stereotype to hero. You the reader must acknowledge the language is hateful and that the hate is wrong. And basically everything Roland does in those early stages of the book is wrong. He's unkind, violent and unhelpful. Everything he does is wrong in some way, and a lot of it is hurtful to those around him. That is the point.
At this point we've done something of a circle around the subtext. It both relies on reader's assumptions and pushes an anti-hate agenda. In fact, the whole novel has a strong anti-hate agenda. As a result, I'm conflicted. Using the word faggot was meant to accomplish something and it accomplished it. It perhaps also accomplished more, but didn't accomplish as much as it should. Ultimately, what I am sure, is that it was clumsy.
And it's not up for me to decide whether I went too far. It's up to the reader. And if I did and you were offended, I am sorry. My use of the word was intended, but the offence was not.