Cussing up a storm

A very interesting Guardian piece about why teens don’t cuss in novels.

This is actually something we thought long and hard about with respect to Debris Dreams, as witnessed by this earlier post on the subject. The second draft we looked at was chock-full of some very vulgar language. But it was also very appropriate: It’s just inaccurate to have teens who never use bad language, especially when they’ve been drafted into a war and are expected to be Military Folk, in a bad and stressful situation. But at the same time, too much swearing results in a lot of readers – mostly parents and some librarians – bringing the hammer down on a book as inappropriate. Where’s the line?

In the case of Debris Dreams, we drew our own line, basically allowing some low-level English vulgarities and restricting the rampant cussing to Mandarin and a smattering of Swahili. It’s appropriate within the context of the book – the characters primarily speak Mandarin and a touch of Cantonese, with English and Swahili slang and technical terms thrown in – and it also makes it slightly less likely to trigger a “protect the children’s delicate ears!” impulse. Which we wanted to do, because, frankly, there’s a LOT of other points in this book that censorious individuals are not going to be terribly happy about. We’d rather have people focusing on the actual issues present than on swearing.

Thoughts? Do you think it’s inappropriate or inaccurate to have teens swearing in books ostensibly meant for teen audiences? Is there some good middle ground, where teen characters use natural language and some mild cusses, but rampant swearing and the “big offenders” are edited out?

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8 Responses to “Cussing up a storm”

  1. Patti July 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    I think teens in fiction should speak the way teens speak. If that involves swearing, so be it. But then I’m not offended by swearing at all. Clever to hide the swearing in Debris Dreams, but what about the sensitive parents who speak Mandarin and Swahili. What are you going to do about them? Hm? 😉

  2. Katie July 11, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    I have a novel-in-progress where the main character is a 15/16-year-old, and this is the exact reason it won’t be YA. He cusses constantly, and it’s such a part of his character that I’m not willing to change it for the sake of a label, even though most of the other elements in the story would likely fit YA. So it is also the reason the novel will probably end up self-published, haha. 🙂

  3. Candlemark & Gleam July 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    I feel like it’s unfortunate that you have to make that choice – and that it’s making that choice for TEENS, too. I mean, c’mon, let’s all think back to when we were teens ourselves, and probably reading (or at least looking for) stuff that might have made our parents uncomfortable. I don’t necessarily like the idea that we can’t accurately portray teen characters – cursing and all – without it being deemed inappropriate for youth reading. And yet, that’s the reality of the commercial marketplace, even for those of us who wish it weren’t so!

  4. Candlemark & Gleam July 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    Already considered that, and the case of teens who are smart enough to go find out what the Mandarin means. At that point, we’re calling it training for a multilingual future. It’s a feature, not a bug!

  5. David Jón Fuller July 18, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    I’m wrestling with this on my WIP, which features 15- and 16-year-olds as main characters and currently I’m erring on the let-’em-swear-as-needed side.  I think bowdlerizing the dialogue would weaken the story (could be a YA or older YA; still working some things through) — BUT, I want every vulgarity, as with any line of dialogue, to really count. So some may come out as I edit.  But overall I am striving for convincing teen voices for the characters … and teens swear.

  6. Candlemark & Gleam July 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

     That’s largely how we feel. Teens DO swear. Yes, you have to presume that kids 2-4 years younger than your intended audience will be reading the book, and yes, you have to take propriety into consideration, so every other word shouldn’t be an f-bomb…but kids swear. Kids hear other kids swearing. And swearing is going to happen in some situations. It just IS. To bowdlerize or to pretend otherwise is dishonest, and readers will pick up on that.

  7. David Jón Fuller July 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

     Especially teens!  They have a high No-BS sensitivity.
    One thing I would add, for greater verisimilitude: teens swear contextually (or, situationally?), as we all do. That is, there are situations, such as when they’re among peers, that they swear more than they normally would, and others (say, at job interviews, or around their grandmothers) when they probably swear LESS than the adults around them would in the same situation.

  8. Candlemark & Gleam July 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Absolutely! And there are definitely situations which call for certain words, and other situations where they might swear conversationally, but less intensely, if that makes any sense.

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