A couple of years ago I received an angry email from someone who had read one of my books. Here's the entire text of the email:
I enjoyed the premise of your book and found it interesting but could not read it because of the language. Why did you think it was necessary to have such awful language? No need, in my opinion for the use of the \"f\" word! I skimmed so I could read the end but I could not and will not recommend this book to any of my friends or book club groups. You are a talented author and I would really appreciate being able to read your next book.
Naturally, I took this email to heart, and never again included a shred of profanity in anything I wrote. Just kidding.
What made this email easy to dismiss, was the fact that it wasn't from my target demographic. At least so far, all of my published novels are YA, meaning the target audience is teens. I don't have a problem with grown-ups reading my book, but unless they are my agent or editor, I don't feel the criticisms of these grown-ups have much weight.
Now, that's not to say that all teens universally adore my books. They don't. That's cool. What is interesting is that so far I have not heard from any teens who were disgusted by the occasional profanity or were shocked and offended by the occasional reference to premarital sex. Those teens who didn't enjoy my books or who took issues with some portions of them had other concerns, some that I agree with, some that I don't, but that's for another discussion.
Today, it's time to talk about words. Now, I'm lucky in that my publisher, Flux, has never had a problem with the use of profanity in my books. I've heard of other authors with other publishing houses who have had to clean up some of the language in their books. What is and is not acceptable in YA varies from publishing house to publishing house, and can depend a lot on the target demographic. I've had middle school classrooms read my books, but some teachers worried about strong language might pass up titles with four-letter words, and publishing houses that are aware of this insist on cleaning up language to make the books more appealing to these teachers.
Though once again, this is an issue of adults having issues with the words. One figures that the students might not care so much.
I find our fear of and obsession with bad words a bit bizarre. I should point out that I grew up in New Jersey where the dialect might be a bit more colorful than it is in other parts of the country. We call athletic shoes sneakers not tennis shoes, we call our Pepsi soda and we've been known to sprinkle our sentences with words like fuck and shit and the like. So, maybe I don't entirely understand people who are shocked by these sorts of words.
I am so thankful that there isn't a rating system for books like the one that exists for movies. I'm not sure I entirely agree with having a ratings system at all, but I certainly I don't agree with the ratings system as it currently exists.
As an example, I want to use a movie that happened to be set in my home state, which I enjoyed called Win, Win.
What bothered me about the movie is that it received an R-rating, and I genuinely can't understand why. Yes, there were some of those scary words, but it was set in New Jersey, that's how we talk, goddamnit! There were some references to drug use, but it certainly wasn't glorified in any way - as it happens, the teenage protagonist has a troubled home life because of his mother's drug addiction. So, if anything, the drug references were cautionary in nature, which would seem like something you would want impressionable teenagers to be exposed to.
The double standard is that I have watched countless movies that received only a PG-13 rating, but which were riddled with violence. I'm talking about movies that had lots of people shooting and killing each other, which seems like something you might not want impressionable kids to see. It's hard to believe that according to the Motion Picture Association of America that hearing the word "fuck" spoken in a movie is somehow far worse than seeing a bunch of people shoot and kill each other.
Of course, it's not just the MPAA that's the problem, we have television news outlets that are extra cautious about bleeping out any "bad" words, but have no problem showing videos of actual people being murdered. I'm not talking about simulated film violence, here. I realize that not all news programs are guilty of this strange double standard, but the ones that do really disgust me.
Are there words that are damaging and disturbing? Of course there are, but, alas, many of these words are not words that get bleeped out on television or that are removed from books written for young people. Words that denigrate, spread hate or that are used to abuse others are pretty awful, but often the same people who get up in arms about the word "shit" in a YA novel don't make so much as a peep for words or phrases that spread hate.
If you write for teens, I encourage you to choose your words carefully and think about how they will affect your teen readers. Profanity shouldn't be used gratuitously, but if it suits the character, the story and the setting, by all means use it. Never forget that your audience is teenagers, and they value authenticity.
As for adult readers of YA, whether you are reading for pleasure or reading as a gatekeeper of one sort or another, remember that you are not the target audience for the book, and remember that profanity on its own is not an evil, corrupting thing. And, of course if you are tempted to write an email to a YA author after being shocked at finding such filthy language in her book, ask yourself, does she really give a flying fuck?
When not busy corrupting young people with foul language, Alissa Grosso spends her time hanging out with her boyfriend and her dog, making videos on YouTube and selling stuff on the internet. You can find out more about her and her profanity-laden (okay, they really aren't that bad) books at alissagrosso.com.