Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Swearing in YA novels


Swearing in YA books is one of those talking points that never seems to go away. Some publishers have reservations of letting their authors use them in their book. Librarians say that they receive complaints about the ‘coarse’ language in some books supposedly aimed at children. And today, a parent rang to complain that a book her daughter took home had the word ‘fuck’ in it.

Said daughter is in year nine, so she’s 13/14. Said daughter, as it so happens, is someone I told off for swearing in the library once. Now where on earth did she learn such language, do you think? Probably from the morally degenerate books I’ve been stocking in my library, if her mum is to be believed.

The simple fact is: kids swear. Simple as that. And guess what: it’s not just this generation either. My dad told me how he, aged 11, went ‘fucking hell’ in front of his best mate’s mother once. She thought he was such a nice boy! This was in the 1950’s. The reason some parents might not think their little darlings go round swearing, and thus they put all sorts of plans and schemes in place to hermetically seal them away from it, is because their kids are bright enough to know they shouldn’t swear in mummy and daddy’s presence. In the playground, when playing football/watching movies and eating ice cream with their mates (the debate over gender stereotyping is for another blog post), or in any scenario where an adult isn’t present, they use language that would make an Australian marine do a double take.
If we want to get kids reading, we need to give them books they can identify and empathise with. So you have to give them characters that speak and act like they do. I work in a posh all girls independent school, and I’ve overheard a few expletives from them in my time, said in a plummy Surrey accent of course. So why all the fuss? We should be able to trust them to figure out for themselves when bad language is and isn’t appropriate to use. In a YA book, with a  teenage protagonist, it most assuredly is.

Gratuitous swearing for the sake of it is going too far obviously. It loses its impact for one thing. Nor am I saying all YA writers should start having their characters swear. It's up to the judgement call of the writer in question. But when used properly in YA books, it's use is fully justified. I'd even go so far as to say it has literary merit. 

I’ll only do a U turn on this stance if a publisher insists I remove all expletives from my novel before they give me that six figure advance…


  1. Really interesting. I agonised over including swearing in my novel, and indeed one Y9 girl I gave the proofs to said that she found the swearing shocking! (The example she cited was "Oh my God". Hmmm!) However, as a teacher, my experience is that young people swear and therefore to not include it, I felt, would be a betrayal of realism.

  2. Wow...she must be the most, er, virtuous Year 9 girl in the world! Glad you're with me on this one. I hope the teachers at my school will be too...

  3. I'm on Litopia After Dark in September (16th) talking about this very subject. There is a fair amount of swearing in CLASH and that is taught to Y9 and Y8 students in a local secondary school. In that book, I felt the instances were justified and stand by them, but with Arabesque, I did a U-turn and at the very last moment (and not because of any pressure from my editor - she was all for the swearing) I removed the lot. Everything.

    That was my choice, and I have my own reasons for doing it, but I certainly don't go against other authors who want to include strong language. In fact, if it's used carefully and the moment has a purpose then it can be incredibly effective. There are good arguments for strong language, and against.

    Ultimately, it should be up to the author to decide, without feeling pushed one way or the other.

  4. I remember reading CLASH and thinking how brave you were to have two Year 7 (or was it 8?) protagonists in a novel with, as you say, its fair share of bad language. An author friend of mine who used to work in publishing read an early draft of my novel, and advised me to up the MC's age to 16, saying that my probable audience would then be 14 and over, and thus I could keep the f-bombs...

    It's interesting to hear you've excised all swear words from ARABESQUE, and I'm sure your reasons are good ones. I wholeheartedly agree than an author should keep the swear words out if they don't want to use them. But there seems to be a slighty disturbing trend among certain publishers, not to mention parents, thinking that expletives should be stamped out from YA novels. Given that your average 12A movie has swear words these days, it's something that baffles me.

    Look forward to hearing you on Litopia After Dark in a few months! :-)

  5. I so agree. Kids know what they can and can't say at home, in the playground, in front of their teachers - they get the difference and most of them are fine with it. So what's the problem with reflecting that in the books they read.

    (And I bet their ever-so-polite parents have been know to 'fuck' a bit when they drop something on their thumb!)

  6. Great post, Joe, and I completely agree with everything you say. Funnily enough, when I was on the first round of edits on my book, I got told to put a swear word that I'd only implied back into my MS, as it helped to flesh out the main character.

  7. Thanks both.

    Emma - Being TOLD to put a swear word in to your book has to be every YA writer's dream!