Saturday 25 February 2012

Swearing in YA fiction

Does strong language have an impact on the commercial success of a book?
There is a big difference between dialogue and transcribed speech. When people talk, in the right environment, every other word can be expletive and no one cares. Usually, this is because the swearing in speech is often used as a wild-card adjective to save having to think of anything more suitable. With teens, there is the added whammy that bad language can define independence. It becomes such a prominent part of their language that some kids can speak in nothing other than swear words and still get their point across.
In a book, that would be awkward to read and ultimately dull. Some writers of adult fiction suffer from this; their novels are so peppered with profanity that you end up having to skim through repetitive crap to get to the story. That bugs the hell out of me and usually puts me off.
So when is it appropriate?
A carefully placed f-bomb can have real impact in certain situations. Rather than just anger, attitude or strength, they can define a specific turning point for a character, their failure, or sudden confidence. There are only a few instances in Clash, and I battled with each one, deciding whether they were justified. If not, they went.
The alternative use of bad language is to show realism - because in the real world, villains tend to swear. The problem with this is that if you have villains in several scenes, you need to be consistent in their language. The single f-bomb no longer works, because that first instance wasn't a revelation; it wasn't a surprise. So if your baddy swears in chapter two, you need to follow through wherever else they appear. If you do that, the f-count rockets up and you end up wondering if this is going to cause a problem. Book sellers can refuse to stock it if they don't consider it suitable for teens, as can libraries and schools, parents...
But can you have a strong, violent thriller without bad language?
Two writers come immediately to mind. Suzanne Collins and Lee Child.
Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, a book that’s chock-a-block with childhood violence and murder, but has no bad language. Is that because it’s a children’s novel? Maybe, but it doesn’t stop it selling to adults. The three books in the trilogy top the ebook charts as well as paperback sales. Does a lack of bad language hamper the story? Well... in places I can’t help thinking Katniss would react a bit more strongly.
But Lee Child is something else. Lee Child writes commercial thrillers for adults. His books are violent, include murder, imprisonment, brutality, violence, rape and paedophilia with a main character who is strong, moody, and at times explosive. But no bad language. Nothing. I actually reached the end of the first novel (actually, I read #11 first) before realising. So in that case, it worked perfectly well.
But why? Do these authors feel like I do, that too much bad language is repetitive and boring, or that too little makes it obvious that it has been toned down? Or is it a commercial strategy? It might not make a difference with adult thrillers, but I can't help wondering if the Hunger Games was splattered with swear words, would it still be the massive success it is?
I don’t know. All I do know is that Arabesque goes to proof in a couple of weeks... and I need to decide if the strong language I've got so far is essential to plot, or a bullet in the foot.
What do you think? Should YA novels have strong language, or can you maintain the illusion without?


  1. My YA novel has very little swearing - certainly far less than I hear (and indeed use) in real life. There's one use of sh*t (used descriptively rather than as a curse), b*st*rd and a couple of bl**dies. So not much at all, and all are used where - in my opinion - they are appropriate. The agent has made no mention at all of them. A publisher might - I don't know because I haven't reached that stage yet. They'd be easy enough to change, if necessary, though I'd prefer not to because I've used those words at those points in my novel for good reasons, and not gratuitously or even in pursuit of realism. I've used them cf. your fourth para on your blog - because they are blunt and brutal, perhaps more so precisely because I've used them so sparingly.

  2. My feeling is that it's generally not neccessary, and it will make life harder for you in America, where librarians tend to be very fussy about bad language. But if it's the only word that will do, then use it.

  3. I'm still wavering over this, because if you're going to use a term like Young Adult to describe the fiction, then you should treat the readers as young adults, and not old kids. If you censor bad language because the book is in the children's market, then the Young Adult term becomes a joke. It's hitting that fine line where strong language is used appropriately, but not gratuitously.

    I'm doing an event on Thursday, and I'm going to bring it up there and see how teens feel about this.

  4. I write SF so I generally get away with swearing by making up my own words that are similar enough to be understood as place holders for the f, c, d, b real world variations without causing offense.

    Writing a more contemporary YA at the moment is proving tricky though. First draft is full of swearing, second draft will have to be more refined while staying true to characters. It's a balancing act.

  5. Clever. Reminds me of Red Dwarf when they used "smeg" for everything.

    In the end, based on some of the comments I got at my Library event at Shiney Row, I decided to remove all the bad language to see if it was still realistic. A few scenes proved a little tricky, but I managed it - without having to rely on tacky alternatives such as "he swore", "he cursed" etc. I just alternative ways to show anger, threats etc.


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