Profanity: the Gateway to Evil in YA Lit?

I’m all for profanity in books when it suits the characters and the situation.  Most of the teens I know employ a range of swear words and use them flexibly for humor, sarcasm, and rage in real life, so when I encounter teens in books who use obscenities, it doesn’t faze me much.  It seems real.

So why don’t I use obscenities in the Birthmarked trilogy, and isn’t it inconsistent to be prudish about language when I’m writing about edgy concepts, like childbirth, hanging pregnant women, torture, murder, and abortion?

It makes me wonder how often we mentally lump together foul language with adult concepts.  We presume a book with swear words is likely to contain sexual or violent content or both.  Since a film can be rated PG-13 due to its language, sexual content or violence, we’re conditioned to assume the three go together and all are equally objectionable for impressionable minds.  We assume someone is “mature” only after they can handle all three.

But guess what?  I happen to like books that deal with edgy concepts and for my purposes, it works better artistically to write about them without profanity.  My trilogy is in third person, and it is futuristic rather than contemporary, so I don’t have the challenge of trying to create a believable interior voice of a teenager today.  In the dialogue, my teen characters have a degree of formality that fits the oppressive society that governs them.  As they get to know and trust each other, their language relaxes, too, and I liked playing with that.

From a practical standpoint, I happen to use swear words sparingly in my own life, so I didn’t have to cut back much for the book, but there were definitely places when a character could have naturally said “Oh, my God!”  In those cases, I deliberately edited to avoid even that mild curse, because, in fact, the societies in my novels are so devoid of traditional religions that the characters never mention God.

Curiously, I think the lack of obscenity is allowing my work to fly under the radar of some parents who use the degree of profanity as a guideline for what is acceptable for their kids to read, especially for younger readers.  Such parents may hope to protect their kids by preventing them from reading books with obscene language, as if profanity were the gateway to worse evils.  I have personally watched a mother flip through a novel, searching for “s—” and “f—” to rule out the book as a gift for her young daughter, yet my books would pass her test, and the girl would inadvertently be exposed to some intense passages.  Other readers have mentioned a distinct preference for no obscenity.  In fact, this blog was inspired in part by one who recently wrote to me:  “Also thank you so much for not ruining your story with profanity. I hate reading a book with a good plot but lots of language because I have to stop reading it.”

I guess I’m glad my book without profanity isn’t being rejected by readers who don’t like swear words, if you can follow my logic of negatives.  A little subversive side of me wonders if I’m sneaking evil to them in the guise of a clean read. Yet I’m also wary, because I think the 12+ rating of my books is actually an invitation to advanced readers as young as 10, and I’d be careful of which kids that young are mature enough for the concepts.  Most of all, I’m interested in this place where profanity and edgy concepts diverge.  I’m intrigued when we can use civil language to encounter and discuss horrific ideas.  I love that this can happen in YA literature.

2 Responses to Profanity: the Gateway to Evil in YA Lit?

  • I was always taught that while swearing can help emphasize anger or other strong emotions, there’s always a more intelligent way to express your point.

    So I agree, it has it’s place and even enhances some characters by making them more “realistic”, but it’s nice reading intelligent writing.

  • Valerie ~ The only snag is that some of us have a hard time being intelligent when we’re angry. My guess is that’s how we came up with our swear words in the first place. Fortunately, we tend to be fairly calm when revising fiction (writing in journals is another matter), so we can make rational decisions for our characters. Thanks for your observation!
    All best,

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