Curses! Using profanity in Teen Fiction

You’ve seen the numbers. 55% of people reading young adult fiction are adults and the number keeps growing, but that doesn’t mean the target audience has changed. I try to write for my sixteen year old self: a kid who was largely dissatisfied with what the world had to offer and was using books as a means of escape into fantasy. Sex, swearing, and death were okay topics for me to indulge in if they turned up in the source material, providing my mother didn’t flip through the book before I could get to it. (My mom never censored me, though she did express her concern over my obsession with both Stephen King and Anne Rice when they turned up on my bookshelf from time to time.) You know what they say though, where there is a will, there is a way.

Who has the buying power?

Not all teens have such freedom. The fact remains that the person with the buying power — the Gatekeeper — is usually the parent, the librarian, the storekeeper who will stock a well-known author on the shelves without too much censorship, but unknown names will go through assessments to determine if they are acceptable or purchase and distribution, and those decisions are made quickly when it comes to debut authors. The decision remains: do you want your book to be relegated to internet sales, reducing exposure to your target audience, if your editor feels that anything stronger than, “Oh, potatoes!” is a deterrent to your book getting stocked? Editors will make suggestions based on the context, but your editor isn’t the lady buying your book either.

While there might be aberrations in this assumption: most parents don’t encourage their kids to develop a foul mouth, regardless of what strings of profanity they use out of earshot and around their friends. I think for a couple of years, I remember (embarrassingly) swearing for the sake of swearing. It might be an exaggeration to say every second word out of my mouth would have deserved a BLEEP! but the way I remember it, it was pretty close.

Out of curiosity, did anyone ever take a bar of soap in the mouth? I’d hope that threat was never acted on for any of you, but my darker curiosities prevail in some circumstances. I always thought that was a hollow threat, myself: “Say that again and I’ll wash your mouth out!”

Respect the Stimulus

Hollow Pike by James Dawson

Hollow Pike by James Dawson

Since I like to contextualize this sort of stuff in regards to fiction and horror, suspense, and dire situations — be they the result of axe murderers, masked mad men with kitchen knives, spectral manifestations or otherwise, certain stimuli deserve a stress response to keep the writing real. If we’re aiming for honesty in fiction, it’s a difficult decision to permit the inclusion of the occasional cuss when it’s offered the proper stimulus and not just swearing for swearing’s sake. In an article for the Guardian, James Dawson, author of Hollow Pike, admits that as a new author, he made sure to keep the Gatekeepers in mind when it came down to including swearing in his book at the expense of artistic integrity in favour of getting stocked. A few books into his career, and he’s been requesting the use of stronger language.

Add a little pressure to a high stress situation, and the reality of fiction is that saying, “Oh, potatoes!” in the place of a good f-bomb is distracting to the reader, and reads as insincere. Kids swear. Kids swear a lot. Given the right circumstances in the book, I try to push the envelope a bit because I remember my sixteen year old self, and I know my thirty something self, and anything less — while it won’t break the work — wouldn’t feel right for the character I want to speak through.

Remember who you’re talking to

At the end of the day, I think as writers we need to remember who we’re speaking to. Teenagers are wiling to explore more mature topics, and we should allow them a certain degree of freedom to decide for themselves if its not right for them. It’s a part of how they grow as readers, and if you’re a parent, you need to remember that there are much harder truths in the world that will mark them as they grow. We want to equip our kids in such a way that they can think for themselves, make good decisions, and grow from difficult situations. Books are a safe way to facilitate that. Giving teenagers “ideas” isn’t an immediate threat to their safety, last time I checked.

“As a 12-year-old, I had no access to young adult fiction because it didn’t exist. Instead I went straight to Stephen King and James Herbert. I was able to choose what was suitable and unsuitable. The rise of young adult means we are able to explore ‘the darkness’ with the safety wheels on.”

– James Dawson: Why teens in books can’t swear


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  • […] post I wrote about swearing in teen fiction got quoted at Dead Darlings. The post in particular is Curses! Using Profanity in Teen Fiction — an opinion piece that questions what the appropriate approach should be on the inclusion […]

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Bernard MeltzerThe Ides of March
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