May 20, 2012
Swearing in YA: should authors be filters or mirrors?
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.
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 teller...no 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.