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Writing Righteous

A blog, three days in a row? Must be something in the air. This one was inspired by a Twitter KidLitChat last night. The topic was "how far is too far" in your writing. It was a spirited debate, and I didn't get to read every post because I couldn't manage to tap into the platforms that allowed you to see everyone's posts at once. But I did get to see several, a couple of which had to do with swearing in YA books. One woman claimed, "I will NEVER swear in a book." Another said, "great writers avoid the major swears" and that swearing "isn't authentic. It's there because of the author's vanity." She went on to ask, "Do we want teens to talk that way? What kind of example are we setting?"

I told the first woman that I thought she was limiting her audience. Her pithy response was, "Well, so are you." Later she messaged me to say her YA skews young, toward middle grade readers, and that when her two young children aren't listening, she might even swear a little. I agree middle grade books don't need swear words. And, as agent Jennifer Laughran pointed out, if you're trying to get your books in book clubs, they are definite no-nos. I'm not even saying all upper YA HAS to have swear words. But to proudly claim 1. You'll NEVER use them and 2. If you do use them you're not a great writer and your writing isn't authentic? To that, I offer a long, loud raspberry! (I'd say middle finger, but I'm trying not to swear.)

More worrisome is the idea that an author who writes swear words is not a good role model, or is somehow a bad influence on their readers. First of all, today's teens don't live in a vacuum. They want books that speak to their own experience. A YA author has no business jumping up on a pedestal, hollering, "Look at me. This is how you want to be. No, not like that. Like me!" Didacticism has no place in YA, or IMHO any children's literature. That is inauthentic. Self-righteous.

An authentic YA author writes where her readers live. She goes down in the trenches, walks the streets with them, talks about choices and shows possible outcomes of those choices. And she speaks their language, including swear words if they are the words her characters would use. Not all my characters do, by the way. Some never do. But the ones who do are often the best role models. They are characters like Tony, a street kid who has suffered the worse kinds of abuse, yet remains resilient and searches for love. Characters like Ginger, whose mother has sold her to men, yet who finds the inner strength to save a stranger's life and create a better future for herself.

Some of my readers live the situations I write about. They thank me for letting them know they're not alone, and for showing them that they can find their way into a more positive future. Others have great lives, and yet thank me for letting them see the dark places they never want to visit, but are curious about. Not one of them has been damaged because I dared write the f-word. (Still trying not to swear.) I believe I am, in fact, a straight up great role model. I don't back away from the truth. I look for solutions to tough problems. I find light beyond the dark, encourage my readers to do the same. And I write righteous (not self-righteous). Even if that means saying fuck.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 2nd, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
Wait, swearing in a YA book (or in general) automatically means people are bad role models? That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard in a while... But hey, if she sticks to it then more power to her.
I completely agree with you, though -- readers want to be understood. Using a swear word isn't going to make them go on a rampage or change their entire vocabulary; kids know better than that.
Besides, I've heard children as young as 3 say worse things than fuck. :|
Sep. 2nd, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
I said it on twitter, but I'll say it again - I'm saving a copy of this entry.

That last three paragraphs are worth their weight in gold.

Congrats on the #1 debut!
Sep. 3rd, 2009 12:57 am (UTC)
Major swears?
"Great writers avoid the major swears," leaving it to hacks like Chaucer and Shakespeare and even Margery Kempe to exploit that vocabulary I suppose. Oh for crying out biscuits! Son of a bunny rabbit! "Swears" isn't even a noun as far as I'm concerned. And anyone who disagrees with me is a niminy-piminy chit.
Sep. 3rd, 2009 12:02 pm (UTC)
Brava! Anyone who seeks to "protect" YA readers from swears obviously has not walked the hallways of a middle school in the last decade or two. It's scary though, because as an author I do find myself self-censoring at times. It's hard to keep this "chatter" out of your head.

But clearly dropping the F-bomb hasn't prevented you from making it to NUMBER ONE ON THE NYT BESTSELLER LIST!!! Score one for reality, baby!!
Sep. 3rd, 2009 01:37 pm (UTC)
Preach it sister...I can't believe how pious people pretend to be. Argh! Obviously they aren't hanging out where kids are. I love it when I have to call in a parent about a child's behavior and they say "Oh my child would never say that word or do that thing" and their child did and I love it how they say we don't say those words (and I know they do) or don't watch those shows (and I'm thinking really?) But yet they think it is okay to censor a book because of a word or theme. Censor the dang thing if it is poorly written and if a realistic fiction story portrays some sickly sweet version of reality.

Congrats on your #1 status =D As soon as I get through the opening of the school year I plan on sitting down and reading my copy.
Sep. 5th, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
Go Ellen! Haha.

I've been reading your books since Crank came out, and at the time I was just in the beginning of my teenage years. Now, I can't always relate to the situations that the characters were in, but I could relate to some of the things they felt. Even if I didn't, it was interesting to get a different point of view.

And I think you are a role model. You stick to the truth and tell things like they really are. Reality. :)
Sep. 26th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
When I wrote my mg novel, I had a younger audience in mind and so, when one adult fell in some slush, he swore, but I had written "Sh**!" When I went through the final edits, I saw that had been replaced by the whole word. I am no priss but it made me uncomfortable, thinking of the audience. There are times when no other word would do, when one particular character would only say that one thing, so as a writer, I agree you need to be true to that character. However, in this case, there were a few things he could have said. I decided to skip the swearing issue all together and have him yell, "Oh, perfect! Just perfect." It got across his anger and disgust without my having to cringe if that part ever gets read aloud in a mom-daughter book club;)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )