May 20, 2012

Swearing in YA: should authors be filters or mirrors?

I took my kids to the park last week. Since I hadn't brought my Kindle along, I spent the time creating an ending for my WIP (it is AWESOME), and trying to narrow down my next shiny idea (still working on that). In the middle of this brainstorming, the high and middle schools down the street let out for the day. The park was soon swarming with teen boys, who needed to run off their energy just like the little guys. And the swearing began.

I work with teens on a daily basis and in my school, bad language has consequences. So I rarely hear it while I'm teaching. But the park was a free-for-all. The vulgarity was constant, automatic and completely unselfconscious.  If the f-word had exploded with blue smoke each time it was uttered, the air would've choked us all.

Which made me think of language in YA. I've noticed that edgy or dark books generally have more profanity in them than, say, a contemporary or romance. Their target audience includes more males than other subgenres, and apparently, it's culturally acceptable - even expected - for males to  use vulgarity more than females.

Last week, ABC ran this: Swearing Characters More Popular, Attractive in YA. In 2010, agent Mary Kole wrote about it here. In Feb, writer Colin Mulhern discussed it. And Absolute Write has a thread on the BYU study ABC quoted in their stories.

The BYU study* - which found that characters who swear were better looking, wealthier and of higher social status than others - made me wonder if swearing has replaced smoking in the Cool Factor. It used to be that lighting up a cigarette and blowing smoke in somebody's face was an expression of teen rebellion. It also proved you had the connections and the money to get the smokes. Twenty years ago, had my friends hit the park on a sunny day, a small percentage** would've been sneaking off into the trees to smoke. They turned the air blue with toxins and language.

But smoking can give you cancer; swearing does not.

ABC's reporting hints that the taboos against vulgarity are softening...(Who defines bad language, anyway? Doesn't part of a word's shock-value come from the fact we rarely hear it? And if we hear it all the time, has it simply become a figure of speech?)...and it's basically our fault as parents. We can blame TV, or movies, or whatever other media, but the fact is, all of it caters to us. To an extent, media is simply a mirror of society.

So where does that leave YA writers? James Dashner, whose trilogy started with The Maze Runner, comes up with his own lexicon of swear words for his group of desperate teen guys fighting a dystopian zombiefied society. The words accomplish some important world building, which works for his genre. Not every writer can do such a neat side-step.

Some of my characters do say 'hell' or 'damn' occasionally. I'm not a big fan of repetitive language - IMO, constant vulgarity is the product of a weak mind - but if the word fits, and if it gets through twenty rounds of revision, in it stays. One of my goals as an educator/writer is to expand teens' vocabulary whenever and however I can. And it's so much more fun to think of a colorful expletive that's unique to a specific character (like my six year-old saying 'cheese-and-sprinkles!' when he's mad) than to resort to a boring four-letter word.

So what do you think? Is it our job as responsible YA writers to hold our characters to a higher standard in the hopes it'll rub off? Or is our role just to hold up the mirror, not as a preacher or a teacher or anything else but a story matter what words we use?

Can we do both?

*Important note: the BYU study only included 40 YA books.
**I never inhaled. :) Also, the smell makes me sick.


Jolene Perry said...

I'd like to think we do both.

my firt round I let the cursing fly, and as I edit I weed it out bit by bit.

It also depends on the character. I've done two co-author projects with a good friend where I've written the girl both times.

one was a straight A student who was on her way to college and med school.
Freak was as dirty as she got.

The next girl i wrote played hockey, raced in motorcross, and was a snowmachining queen. Her language was a little racier.

I will say that my tamer language girl was definitely richer than the other, lol.

I think the number of f words used in Nick and Norah by Norah's whose dad is one of the wealthiest men in the country may have skewed the results. Okay. Not really.
When it's everywhere, it detracts, when it's used as needed, it reflects what's out there.

Geez. I just wrote a whole post in the comments section here...

tinkerbell the bipolar faerie said...

I myself think hold the mirror. Aren't novels a sort of reflection of the society in which they're written?

Cassie Mae said...

I'm so like Jolene, during my first rounds, the sailor version of my characters definitely comes out. But after a few edits, the number of times I use curse words dwindles. One ended up with nothing at all. I suppose it's like all the other overused words we use. Our 'crutch' words, and during the edit, we need to make the decision if they are necessary or not.

Kimberly Gabriel said...

The writer in me swears...the teacher in me typically edits those words out. At the end, I'm left with possibly a handful of swear words...none of the big ones. It's something I too go back and forth on all the time. Such a great post!

Cordelia Dinsmore said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm not a fan of swear words in my reading, so I tend not to use them in my writing. It forces me to become more creative. But you brought up some interesting points. I just don't know if I believe it makes a book more interesting to the younger set if it contains swear words. But, then again, it may be a weird sort of selling tool.

Tobi Summers said...

I'm looser with my curse words in my adult stuff than my YA, but I tend to go with the mirror approach in both. As you observed, teens swear (I know I did), so my teens swear sometimes. Sometimes I just say they swore, or have them cut off before the word comes out. Too much cursing kind of diminishes the impact, I think, but I do like to shock my readers with it sometimes.

Both my rich and poor characters curse. I think the richer one curses more, but that may just be because she has more lines.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I thought that was such a clever way to handle it, too, in the Maze Runner books. I'm not put off by swearing in books, YA or otherwise, but then I can be pretty vulgar on occasion myself. I don't use swear words much in general conversation, mainly because my husband doesn't. But get me around my friend who I've known since jr. high, and my language rapidly deteriorates!

Lynn Proctor said...

i guess it is different when you are targeting a young group of readers

ilima said...

I do the occasional hell or damn, and in my latest several a**, but nothing more. Not sure if I'll ever get heavier, but I do know I will never be blasphemous in my books. It's hard when I don't swear but my characters do. It's taken me a while to get comfortable putting it in where it needs to be.

Andrew Leon said...

I'm tempted to say that it doesn't matter because it doesn't rub off; however, some new studies are showing that the connections we make with the fictional characters we read about do rub off. In our minds, it's like those people are our real, actual friends, and we try to be like the ones we most associate with or draw the strongest connections to. So... if a 13-year-old feels a strong connection to a character from a book that swears, s/he will be more likely to also swear.

Melanie Stanford said...

I don't like to use swearing in my own writing, but it doesn't bother me so much unless it's used ALL THE TIME in a book.

My big struggle is, I've got this SNI but it involves gangs and drugs. I don't want to use swearing, but will it ring true without the vulgarity? I doubt it.

Don't really know what to do...

Rachel Morgan said...

In my stories I try to use "tamer" words like crap or damn, and steer clear of the F-bomb type words!

Carrie Butler said...

I love it when writers find ways around outright profanity (as long as it's creative and appropriate to the book/show. Take Firefly, for example. They threw in Chinese. :)

Suzi said...

I think it should be in moderation, too much swearing is a put off, but it also has to fit the situation.

I would expect that a gritty novel about serious issues would have more of that. Sometimes the fake and tame words just don't work. But a fluffy, fun romance or something probably wouldn't.

And in most of my novels, a lot of the swear words get edited down, because I want it to have more impact--which it will if you don't see it too often.

Rowenna said...

I think we should hold a mirror, but we also can angle it in the direction we'd like it to reflect. Not all teens curse up a storm. (Not all adults do, either.) Novels are, in fact, fiction--they're not documentaries, and we as authors have the happy ability to prune some bits down and encourage others to grow.

And while media mirrors societal norms, I tend to think it also reinforces and creates them--the more comfortable we are with swearing, the more it shows up in TV and movies, the more exposed we are to it, the more comfortable we get...the cycle goes on. I don't feel a need to perpetuate it, personally, and only incorporate swearing in my YA when it's truly the only thing that particular character would say in that situation. So often I think there are other reactions, but swearing is the easy one to pick. Cassie is so right--curse words are often crutch words, both in writing and real life!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

My favorite YA novel, Fat Kid Rules the World, won the Printz Award, despite the language in it. Maybe even because of it -- because if you took the language out of the book, it wouldn't be true to the subculture portrayed. And in Fat Kid, KL Going captured the punk subculture like few writers ever have, including some who've been around the scene a lot longer than I have.

Language for shock value? Yawn. But language to help accurately define the world the book's set in? Absolutely.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

In my WiP I have a couple characters who swear and one who doesn't. It's been challenging because I want to reflect reality and I know these kids WOULD use these words, because that's the kind of kids they are. Still, I try not to overuse them because I don't LIKE them. I also think overusing swear words is a bit tacky (and lazy ... for example, throwing in an f-bomb every time you want the reader to know someone's angry, instead of using your skill as a writer to show they're angry). After all, we're not holding up a mirror when we write because no one really wants to read about real life. Just as we cut and prune our scenes to get to the juicy parts, we need to cut and prune dialogue so any swear words we choose to use have punch. Too many and they lose their effect.