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My fascination with fart descriptions in literature began in graduate school when a fellow fart-loving classmate and myself began to ponder the seeming lack of flatulence in serious literature. Why don’t writers describe farts?  Or do they?  I decided to be on the lookout.

Thankfully, I soon found this stunning sentence in William Styron’s 1967-Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner from the POV of Nat Turner, the imprisoned black revolutionary describing being interviewed in prison by his white lawyer:

“I saw Gray stir uncomfortably, then raise one haunch up off a fart trying to slide it out gracefully, but it emerged in multiple soft reports like the popping of remote firecrackers.”

 

James Joyce, as with so much else in 20th century fiction, blazed the trail in the opening sections of Ulysses with the description of Leopold Bloom “asquat the cuckstool…seated calm above his own rising smell.”

Be careful what you look for, because soon I found this staggering love letter of sorts to farts, from a Joyce letter addressed to “my sweet little whorish Nora”:

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”

Who knew farts could be erotic?  Apparently Philip Roth, who describes a fart-fantasy from Portnoy’s Complaint:

“When I fart in the bathtub, she kneels naked on the tile floor, leans all the way over, and kisses the bubbles.”

The Scottish writer Iain Banks has a fart-detecting/telepathic father in his novel The Wasp Factory, who can tell how much his alcoholic son has been drinking:

“‘Well, just you be careful, then.  I always know how much you’ve had from your farts.’ He snorted, as though imitating one.

“My father has a theory about the link between mind and bowel being both crucial and very direct…. He has variously claimed that from farts he can tell not only what people have eaten or drunk, but also the sort of person they are, what they ought to eat, whether they are emotionally unstable or upset, whether they are keeping secrets, laughing at you behind your back or trying to ingratiate themselves with you, and even what they are thinking at the precise moment they issue the fart (this largely from the sound.) All total nonsense.

“‘H’m,’ I said, non-committal to a fault.

‘Oh, I can,’ he said as I finished my meal and leaned back, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, more to annoy him than anything else.  He kept nodding. ‘I know when you’ve had Heavy or Lager.  And I’ve smelt Guinness off you, too.’

“‘I don’t drink Guinness,’ I lied, secretly impressed.””

And later in the novel:

“‘Brap!’ said my anus loudly, surprising me as well as my father…I could see his nostrils flex and quiver.

“‘Lager and whiskey, eh?’”

 

If you think about it, farts have incredible literary potential in terms of drama, plot, and sensory details.

The famous essayist Montaigne sagely observed the anguish of a suppressed fart:

“God alone knows how many times our bellies, by the refusal of one single fart, have brought us to the door of an agonizing death.”

And the poet W.H. Auden connected the egotistical component of writing with flatulence:

“Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.”

Even as early as the 1600s, the philosopher and writer John Aubrey invoked the inherent drama and tragedy of a slipped fart with a simple anecdote that I’m sure cemented The Earle of Oxford’s reputation:

The Earle of Oxford, making his obeisance (meaning he bowed) to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell 7 years.  On his return, the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, ‘My Lord, I had forgotten the fart.’

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the last line of Inferno Chapter XXI reads: ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.  In other words: “and he used his ass as a trumpet.”

Writing about Farts, of course, can mean far more than farts.  Don Fartinanado Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Crackowow, published “The Benefits of Farting and Arse Musica” in pamphlet form in 1722.  Its real author, however, was Jonathan Swift, though you will search mostly in vain through biographies to find any reference to the fact.

Swift’s fixation is not merely scatological but religious and political, the title itself a parody of the most celebrated religious writer of the previous century.  Swift describes four types of farts, and how to produce them.  They are:

First, the sonorous and full-toned, or rousing fart;

Second, the double fart;

Third, the soft fizzing fart;

And fourth, the sullen wind-bound fart.

By identifying fifty-two women in Arse Musica for their “prowess in farting,” a Swift biographer contends that Swift is claiming an intimacy with these women that included sex.  Their names are hidden by suggestive pseudonyms that are difficult for the modern reader to decipher but which were obvious to Swift’s contemporaries.

Swift ends by proving not only that the suppression of farts leads to Quakerism, but also to excessive talkativeness in women.

But not before showing the fart as a great equalizer and liberator—a triumph, if you will—which is how I will end my essay, invoking you, as Swift did, to:

“Fart away, then, my brethren, and let farting be in common among you.  Vie with each other in producing the sonorous, full-toned, loud fart.”

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Victoria Patterson Victoria Patterson is the author of the novel This Vacant Paradise, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Drift, her collection of interlinked short stories, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the 2009 Story Prize. The San Francisco Chronicle selected Drift as one of the best books of 2009. Her work has appeared in various publications and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Riverside.

55 Responses to “Great Farts in Literature”

  1. This is great. I’m also very disturbed by the absence of bodily functions not only in literature, but in cinema. People do poo. There’s a book about it (_Everyone Poops_). We definitely need more realistic scenes like this in pop culture. I’m so glad you sought these out. Very interesting.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Yes! My kids have a great book called, I believe, What Your Poo is Telling You. It’s hilarious and informative, and actually helpful, makes scary poos less so. But yeah, there is an absence of bodily functions in literature/movies/arts. I suppose we cut out the mundane–but we’re so tied to our bodies, it’s important. I remember reading an Alice Munro story with a character in the throes of severe menstruation. I’d never read anything like that before. Made me uncomfortable but very real and added to tension of story.

  2. SAA says:

    The earliest recorded joke is about farts: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

  3. D.R. Haney says:

    Well, of course I had the pleasure of hearing you read this at Book Soup a few days ago, and I like the accompanying images here. (The one with the bubbles and the Asian NO FARTS sign especially crack me up.)

    But, man, can you imagine farting as you bow to royalty? And then to have a royal personage remind you of it seven years later? That would have to amount to the ultimate embarrassment.

    Meanwhile, as you can easily guess, there are farts galore in Bukowski.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      That Queen was especially cruel, bringing up his fart. I guess he had no one else to blame it on. Or it was to loud to ignore.

      I should’ve thought of Bukowski! Damn–listened to him on youtube “Farting Better than I Fuck”

      Thanks for coming to the reading. I was so glad you were there.

  4. Justin Benton says:

    Farts definitely have pathos. This is cool. Confederacy of Dunces had some righteous fartwork within, if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Oh my, yes! Ignatius J. Reilly is always gassy, staining his sheets, etc, as I recall. If you find a good fart sentence or two, please send it to me.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    This piece is ripping good, and I of course had the pleasure of watching you read it live.

    It was Ovid, was it not, who wrote, “He who smelt it, dealt it”?

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Yes, I do believe that was Ovid.

      There’s a new thing: when someone farts, if a person witnesses said fart calls out “Doorknob,” he/she can (hopefully lightly) hit the farter until the farter touches a doorknob. That is unless immediately after he/she farts, he/she says, “Safety.” Kids these days. Sigh.

      p.s. Thanks to Steph for teaching me the term Toilet Echo.

  6. A terrifically winded piece. Thank you for being the one…who supplied it.

    “Brap” has to be right up there with the best onomatopoeia for farting. In French they call it a “pet,” so you have to be careful about asking if they allow pets in restaurants.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      “Brap”is very unusual for a fart noise. Farts are so distinct. Sometimes they can sound very melancholy. Other times quite upbeat.

      That’s hilarious about “pet” in French. It makes a weird sort of sense!

  7. Christopher says:

    Great essay! I think, though, the author of The Wasp Factory is, in fact, Iain Banks.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m thousands of miles from my copy of Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” but somewhere in it is a hilarious scene involving competitive farting between men and women (or a man and a woman, I forget). Takes place in a boat, as I remember.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      If you find it, let me know. I did find one thing from The Sotweed Factor, and from The Catcher in the Rye. How about farts as moral identity upon an individual or group?:

      J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “All of a sudden this guy sitting in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do in chapel and all.”

      John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor: “But this was a hard matter, inasmuch as for everrie cheerie wave of the hand I signaled them, some souldier of Gentleman in my companie must needs let goe a fart, which the Salvages did take as an affront, and threwe more arrows.”

      • Don Mitchell says:

        It’s frustrating. I spent some time with Google and at Amazon, but I couldn’t find it. I’m surprised that The Sot-Weed Factor isn’t on Kindle.

        I was thinking false memory but I asked Ruth, who also remembered it. Whew. Or Phew.

        BTW, I’m reading This Vacant Paradise on Kindle now, and enjoying it. I’ll watch for fart jokes, in case you snuck some in. Or out.

        • Victoria Patterson says:

          Thanks, Don! Greg reminded me that there’s some fart action in TVP. He’s also got some farts going on in Fathermucker.

  9. Zara Potts says:

    Being fart-phobic as I am, I read this and laughed uncontrollably while simultaenously trying to avoid reading on!!
    Phillip Roth’s – “Kissing the bubbles” – nearly made me throw up. I have actually vomited over farts before. Surely, I can’t be the only one????
    I think I should get some help for my fart aversion.
    Reading this was the first step!
    Brilliant piece!

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Thanks, Zara! The kissing bubbles really disturbs me as well. The Joyce letter is crazy crazy and makes me laugh even though it’s disturbing–but the little farties thing gets me. There must be other fart-phobes. I don’t think I’ve ever almost-vomitted from a fart. Maybe a bit of a gag reflex..

  10. pixy says:

    the accompanying photos/drawings only make this piece more awesome mainly because the venn diagram is so very true. and you read it with such aplomb on friday night. i snortled many atime.

  11. Ryan Day says:

    Shakespeare’s always good for a fart:

    A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind
    Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.

    Comedy of Errors, 3.1

  12. margaret says:

    I am worried, Victoria, that you are preparing us for your next novel.

  13. Gary Socquet says:

    Let’s not forget Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past is little more than an extended meditation on the Dutch oven.

  14. This was so incredibly funny when you read it at Book Soup. Sorry we didn’t meet. I was making a video and wanted you to be in it too. I’ll be around on Dec. 1 if you are, at the next reading. Thanks so much for making me laugh that night. I’m looking forward to your interview on Listi’s podcast. Just started listening to them.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Thank you! I think I saw you sitting in the chair in front. It was so strange to meet TNB people in real life. I really enjoyed it. Yes, I’m planning on being at the Dec 1st reading, so definitely we’ll meet soon!

  15. Don Mitchell says:

    These came to me while making a trip to Green Waste.

    O parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles. You need this book for the kids:

    http://www.amazon.com/Walter-Farting-Dog-William-Kotzwinkle/dp/1583940537/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

    and there’s a certain amount of farting in this hilarious one:

    http://www.amazon.com/Fungus-Bogeyman-Picture-Puffins-Raymond/dp/0140542353/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321500448&sr=8-1

    Seriously. An introspective, sometimes depressed bogeyman? Yes indeed.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Kid books address farts far more than adult book. This reminded me of Roald Dahl–an author my kids love–and his book The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). The giants believe burps are disgusting, and they love farting. They drink frobscottle, which makes the bubbles go down, instead of up. This passage says it all:

      “With frobscottle,” Sophie said, “the bubbles in your tummy will be going downwards and that could have a far nastier result.”
      “Why nasty?” asked the BFG, frowning.
      “Because,” Sophie said, blushing a little, “if they go down instead of up, they’ll be coming out somewhere else with an even louder and ruder noise.”
      “A whizzpopper!” cried the BFG, beaming at her. “Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time! Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness. It is music in our ears! You surely is not telling me that a little whizzpopping is forbidden among human beans?”
      “It is considered extremely rude,” Sophie said.
      “But you is whizzpopping, is you not, now and again?” asked the BFG.
      “Everyone is whizzpopping, if that’s what you call it,” Sophie said. “Kings and Queens are whizzpopping. Presidents are whizzpopping. Glamorous film stars are whizzpopping. Little babies are whizzpopping. But where I come from, it is not polite to talk about it.”
      “Redunculous!” said the BFG. “If everyone is making whizpoppers, then why not talk about it? We is now having a swiggle of this delicious frobscottle and you will see the happy result.” The BFG shook the bottle vigorously. The pale green stuff fizzed and bubbled. He removed the cork and took a tremendous gurgling swig.
      “It’s glummy!” he cried. “I love it!”
      For a few moments, the Big Friendly Giant stood quite still, and a look of absolute ecstasy began to spread over his long wrinkly face. Then suddenly the heavens opened and he let fly with a series of the loudest and rudest noises Sophie had ever heard in her life. They reverberated around the walls of the cave like thunder and the glass jars rattled on their shelves. But most astonishing of all, the force of the explosions actually lifted the enormous giant clear off his feet, like a rocket.
      “Whoopee!” he cried, when he came down to earth again. “Now that is whizzpopping for you!”

  16. Mark Sutz says:

    Damn this was funny. Love the pictures interspersed. Really had me doubled over and, in the case of Joyce’s letter, totally surprised.

    I recently saw an old coworker who works at another bookstore I frequent and when I shook his hand hello, he let one ripple in bubbly portions right into a low shelf of May Sarton first editions. I stymied a laugh that must have lain dormant until I read your appreciation. Still chuckling. Thanks.

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Thank you! Maybe, in some way, it was a form of bestowing best wishes to May Sarton. You must have a firm handshake grip!

  17. [...] in Los Angeles, along with Lenore Zion, Ben Loory, and Victoria Patterson, who read a piece about literary farts.  Thanks to everyone who [...]

  18. This is hilarious! You are hilarious!

  19. I love this. I had no idea farts were so prominent in literature! It really is a delight to know.

    On a vaguely related note, one of my friends in university ended up doing an essay (I want to say dissertation, but I’m not sure if it went that far) on a drunken notion that “gash” (as in the Scottish for “terrible” or “vagina”) has a place in literature. At the time, it was a very popular bit of mild swearing that seemed quite contemporary, and her idea was considered as ludicrous. But she traced the usage of the word quite impressively through several hundred years of Scottish lit., including a few cases where it was used as “gashly”. Which I think is just fantastic.

  20. [...] Paradise, squirmed a bit as she informed the crowd that we would be the first to hear her essay, “Great Farts in Literature.”  This is why Patterson is one of my literary heroes.  “Please laugh, laugh or I’m [...]

  21. Jim Dawson says:

    Hey, weren’t most of these items in the 1999 cutting-cheese-edge book “Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart?

  22. Natasha says:

    Very funny piece. Although some fart descriptions made me cringe – thank you vey much Philip Roth – I love the attention and humor you gave to one of life’s daily details. My relationship to farts is quite ambivalent however, as I grew up in a family where my uncle and my mom would try to outfart each other at the dinner table…

  23. Paul Bernal says:

    Excellent piece – but how can an article on farts in literature exclude the grand master of farts, Harry Flashman? George MacDonald Fraser’s creation may not illuminate the highest level of literature, but he is nonetheless a masterful creation, and his farting is legendary, most notably perhaps as he joined the Charge of the Light Brigade. He even managed to acquire the Apache name ‘Wind-breaker’ – the short form of his full name ‘White-Rider-Goes-So-Fast-He-Destroys-the-Wind-with-His-Speed”…

    • Victoria Patterson says:

      Thanks, Paul. I’m so glad you alerted me. This is new to me!! The Harry Flashman series sounds amazing and funny. How great that Flashman doesn’t age and seems to have been present for much of history in all his farting glory. I suppose writers use farts as a moral identity marker on groups and individuals, and, it seems, also to humanize protagonist with humor? Give me a lovable, fallible, stinky, unreliable narrator. Maybe there’s got to be a Part II to Great Farts in Lit? Also, so far no women writers on farting? I must be missing something.

  24. [...] In 2008, I was just a lowly undergrad at UC Riverside, finishing up my senior year. I was a creative writing major, and I had Victoria Patterson for one of my craft classes. Patterson was awaiting the publication of her first short story collection, Drift (Mariner Books), which she had worked on while in the MFA program at UCR. She quickly became one of my favorite professors, due to her assigning us really devastating novels (The House of Mirth, Revolutionary Road) while still managing to maintain a sense of humor about it all (see this example). [...]

  25. kenzo says:

    Sophie needs to read “Frankie the Farting Whale.”

  26. weed says:

    What about ol’ Edgar Marsala damn near blowing the roof off in chapel at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye?

    The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing. Old Marsalla. He damn near blew the roof off. Hardly anybody laughed out loud, and old Ossenburger made like he didn’t even hear it, but old Thurmer, the headmaster was sitting right next to him on the rostrum and all, and you could tell he heard it. Boy, was he sore. . . . compulsory study hall . . .The boy that created the disturbance in chapel wasn’t fit to go to Pencey. We tried to get old Marsalla to rip off another one , right while old Thurmer was making his speech, but he wasn’t in the right mood.

    and so much much more — what about Sir Walter Raleigh “clearing his ‘nether throat’? in Mark Twain’s 1601?
    Sr W.–Most gracious maisty, ’twas I that did it, but indeed it was so poor and frail a note, compared with such as I am wont to furnish, yt in sooth I was ashamed to call the weakling mine in so august a presence.
    It was nothing–less than nothing, madam–

  27. Fred Faustroll says:

    There’s a story in the Thousand and One Nights entitled “The Historic Fart”; I won’t even mention Rabelais. But as for modern French, this has always killed me:

    When taking the entrance exams for the notorious seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Ubu is asked to translate the Latin sentence Ego sum Petrus [“I am Peter”]. After asking the examiners, “Do you want it word-for-word or in really good French?,” Ubu responds: “Ego, The brats [Les gosses]; sum, have [ont]; Petrus, farted [pété]: The brats have farted.”
    - Alfred Jarry, “The Paralipomena of Ubu” (paraphrase),
    La Revue blanche, 1 December 1896 (Gallimard Jarry Oeuvres complètes 1:468)

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