What is Invective?

An examination of the purpose of invective within writing. Contains content which may offend.

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Invective is an age-old literary technique used by poets, playwrights and authors to lambast or criticise others, using the power of words to offer a window into one’s true feelings about another, often with contempt or with cynicism. For the most part, invective is used in both prose and poetry to malign others and express negative emotion, weaponised with sarcasm and sardonic flair, which means it has frequently been used to denounce political or public figures in works of satire for thousands of years.

Despite being quite cutting and hurtful to those on the receiving end of such malicious verbal lashings, it’s also possible the use of invective can be rendered humorous to your readers if used in the right way. Unlike swearing, which is a singular act of obscene denunciation, invective is a more elaborate expression of discontent which castigates an individual at length to the point of insult, and perhaps extends even to wholesale character assassination.

The central aim of invective is to use words to belittle someone and rail against them, or to inveigh derision or reproach, often making it slanderous or even libellous at times. Derived from the Latin word invectus, it essentially means ‘attack with words.’ The use of invective can often seem unrelentingly brutal, harsh and abusive, making it a much-used technique in works of humour and satire, so it should be considered an indispensable tool for writers.

Whether used to convey deep-seated emotional dissatisfaction with another, or to slander another’s motives with a vicious tongue, the vituperative language that invective deploys can often be exceptionally poetic in spite of its scurrilous nature. Some may suspect casting opprobrium in this way risks a writer being seen as lowbrow or unsophisticated, but even William Shakespeare was a huge fan of invective. The bard invented countless insults whenever he deemed it necessary for his characters to use pejoratives, such as in this extract from King Lear:

A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni’st the least syllable of thy addition.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

You will see that even though the above extract uses swear words to make his point, Shakespeare never loses sight of how invective can be artfully expressed in spite of its antagonistic tone. The best writers are ones who can straddle the line between peddling profanity and making malevolence almost poetic.

Oscar Wilde—the master of the witty put-down—was also superb at producing concise lines of invective in his works. This can be seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the titular character makes some spiteful remarks to the actress Sibyl Vane:

“Without your art you are nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

However, invective doesn’t just encompass character interactions. It also extends to lengthy diatribes which reel off more sweeping but equally offensive generalisations. There is a moment in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, for example, which uses invective in this particular manner:

Fuckin failures in a country of failures. Its nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant healthy society to be colonised by. No…we are ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wis the shite thev got. Ah hate the Scots.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

As you can see, invective is not the same as swearing. Invective may use swear words and profanity, but the overall intention behind invective is to make a more full-bodied, caustic argument, laying it on with dollops of derogatory fervour. Even if you may feel invective comes across as humiliating, scathing or perhaps even intimidating, as a writer you should try to ensure it serves its purpose in shaming or vilifying another in ways which lend your writing more meaning and purpose.

The art of snark is not easily mastered, but if done well, insolence can indeed raise a smile as much as it can raise a wince. However, there are some writers who may feel invective lowers the art form and renders it witless, or even lacks invention or originality, but I would say it’s a crucial part of bringing character conflicts to the fore, particularly in works of humour. After all, as the famous dramatist Dennis Potter once put it, “Genuine invective is an almost lost art in our wild satirical age.” In my view, that’s reason enough to rediscover it and keep it alive well into the future.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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