Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Profanity (Yikes! I mean cursing) in YA

Firstly, Ugh! I just hate that word ‘profanity’ it has a horrible ring to it.  It offends me just to type it here.  It conjures up images of old ladies with corkscrew permed, blue rinsed hair, banging on about how society is wronging the youth of today.
But I encountered the use of this word in a review regarding a few minor curse words used in my book, Carrier of the Mark.  Now I’m not talking the F bomb here, I’m talking the occasional (and I hope I don’t offend anyone reading this blog with these words, I personally don’t find them offensive, so apologies in advance to those of you who do) ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘shite’, and the one that really got up this reviewers nose, ‘god damn’.
In my view, there is a fine line we YA authors thread.  It is our job to write a true representation of YA’s in the world we live in.  In Carrier I'm representing real Irish people, who speak with Irish accents and Irish slang.  People might not like that fact that cursing is part of our lives, but it is, and there is no getting away from it. 
The reviewer loved Carrier and gave it a glowing review saying it was the best book she'd reviewed since she started reviewing, but she had issues with the ‘cussing’ so downgraded her review from a 5 star review to a 3 star review because of one use of ‘god damn’ and several uses of ‘shite’ .  Now I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, and this reviewer is a really nice girl with very strong religious beliefs, which I respect her for. 
So here’s the question I put to you.  Do you believe that books should be penalized for use of elements that you don’t agree with even though the accurately portray the world you're writing about, should reviewers take a broader view?  Or, do you think YA books should be kept clean of any use of cursing and cushion the YA reader from the realities that some might find a little harsh?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please give us your insight, as this is a topic I’m fascinated by.
Have yourselves a good one!


  1. I generally hold my own books to a PG-13 rating in terms of language, but I had a muuuuch dirtier mouth than that when I was a teenager! (I probably couldn't print a lot of the things my friends and I said. We were artsy kids, and therefore unnecessarily "edgy.")

    In any case, I don't think books should be downgraded for the language used. But I do think there's such a thing as going overboard, and there are certain genres where curse words don't fit as well. It definitely doesn't sound like that was the case with your book, though.

  2. Books definitely should not be penalized for this. As a writer you want to write an accurate portrayal of your characters and just because the reader doesn't speak that way doesn't mean that the rest of the world does not either. I write YA and I use profanity (I hate that word too) but it's because teenagers or at least all of the teens I know curse. Heck I cursed more as a teen than I do as an adult. However, with that said I don't believe a writer should add profanity just for the sake of adding it. It needs to reflect your characters personality.

  3. ABSOLUTELY NOT! It is fine to say, "I wish there was less cursing" but to lower it two number like that is outrageous, IMO. It's marking you down for staying TRUE to your characters and who they are or how/where they live. It's like saying because I don't like/do something they shouldn't either, which isn't a review of the book or writing, IMO. Characters are different just like people in the real world. That can't all fit the same mold and by taking away little things that make them who they are, that's what you're doing.

    That doesn't mean every character should curse just for the sake of cursing. It has to fit and be who they are, but as long as it is, to me it shouldn't go into account for the review.

    Sidenote: Have things changed because when I was a teenager almost EVERY person I knew cussed. LOL. I mean, we were running around being foul-mouthed kids, but we used the words.

    In my books, some of the characters cuss and some don't. It depends on WHO they are.

  4. I honestly think that if the cussing is done in a realistic manner then it should be in the book. I mean, if the story calls for it then by all means, I think it should be added. I think there's a way to make cussing in literature appropriate. However, I'm aware that no matter what opinion I have on it, someone else is going to have a completely different one. I would much rather read a book that's 100% raw and true to the storyline than a book that tiptoes around it.

  5. I would personally never lower my opinion of a book because of curse words (themselves). They're a part of a lot of teenager's and adult's vocabularies, it's part of life. I could see how it would be distasteful for some people if there's F-bombs every other sentence or something and it was unnecessary, because I've been on the brink of feeling that way about a book before, but not quite. Then and only then, I think, would my opinion be affected, because if nothing else, that's rather repetitive and probably annoying, in that case. But from what you said is in your book, I definitely wouldn't have a problem with that, not at all, it's realistic, and not everywhere, if that makes any sense.

  6. If cussing suits the scene and is consistent with the character's personality then yes cussing is alright. If it's unnecessary cussing, like if the character says 'bloody' every 2 seconds at every single thing, then it gets annoying. But I do not believe an author should receive a negative review just because the scenes are really graphic or there's a lot of cussing.

  7. Using the Lord's name as/in curse words is very offensive to people who have a personal relationship with Jesus. I know, because I am one of those people and know many others as well. I would not consider any form of using God's name in that manner as a "minor" curse. Perhaps one way to understand this opinion is to think of it in a way that is closer to your own feelings. Would you like it if people used your best friend's name as a curse word--specifically referencing your friend?

    That being said, I understand that this is the world we live in, and Christians are often portrayed as old-fashioned or snobbish. Writers will use swear words, but they do risk offending or losing a small part of their audience. Meanwhile, I don't think it ever offends a reader if the book does not use profanity, right?

    I once took a writing fiction class, and all my classmates put swear words in their stories. My professor did mention that cursing is so mainstream in fiction now that it has lost it's former "power," and now a book is almost more noteworthy if it doesn't rely on curse words.

    Thanks for the post, and I hope this comment gives you a little insight into a different point of view.

  8. Kids swear.

    If you sat outside my house and listened to the MIDDLE SCHOOLERS walking home each day, you would hear things a LOT words than 'shit' and 'god damn.' A LOT worse.

    Of course, not all kids swear. Some swear a lot. Some only swear once in awhile. I didn't as much growing up because someone had once told me "Swearing is for people too stupid to think of a better word to use" and for some reason, that stuck in my head. But now-a-days, I have a bad mouth. ;)

    Anyway. I don't think a book should be based on whether or not it portrays teens using foul language. *I* don't even *notice*. If it's there (unless it's excessive), or if it's not (unless they use 'sugary' words in place of swears), it goes right over my head. A story should be good enough to not need to rely on something as small as swear words to make or break it.


  9. I am not about books that swear constantly Cough*Catcher in the Rye*Cough. but teenagers swear. Not all of them, but some do. In my manuscript I have one character that won't swear but the other, well, it's part of her characterization. I think having a swear word in there when something goes wrong is "real" writing. In real life if I drop something on my foot, I swear. I don't say: Oh Golly.

    Should a book be judged on something like this? No. I think it is an excuse to be critical. If you don't like swearing, that's your choice, no judgement, but not liking a few words in a book of 100,000 should not sway your overall opinion.

    Go team swearing :) OK maybe a bit much

  10. Here's what I think: 1) Writing is personal. 2) Book reviews are biased. Was it fair for her to knock your review down two whole stars? Probably not, but every reader comes into a book with certain biases, prejudices, beliefs, etc. Those are going to color their opinion of the book. As far as cursing in YA literature--that's completely up to the writer. I personally don't curse much and I want my books to be a certain way, so I refrain as much as possible from using foul language in my books. But, that's my right as a writer! Just like it's your right as a writer to put whatever you want in your book, that you feel it needs and that adds to the story. You can't please everyone, you know?

  11. I think it's ok if books have cursing in it. Teenagers swear...a lot. I hear more curse words in an hour of school than reading a YA novel. The cursing or lack of cursing is what makes characters real. Personally, I don't use a lot of cursing in my stories because it makes me feel guilty but I roll my eyes in books where there replace real cusses with the watered down versions.

  12. I think everyone has a right to put what they want in their own books- but you have to be prepared for what people will say. Just like some will criticize f-bombs, others will criticize the watered-down versions like "bull-poopie" (House of Night anyone?).

    Personally, I don't put swear words in my own because I don't want to, I don't like them, and I don't want my kids talking like that when they're older. Just because a lot of teenages swear, doesn't mean they should. In the books I read sometimes I don't notice, other times I cringe.

    I was never much of a swearer growing up, but I had a roommate in college who said (someone mentioned the same thing in a previous comment), swearing just shows your lack of intelligence. I've never said a bad word since.

  13. I think writers have to write from their hearts, and reviewers have to review from their hearts. People are comfortable with different levels of cursing. There are Christian YA books if readers want to be sure not to stumble across something offensive. But there needs to be a wide-span of literature to touch all audiences, and what relates as authentic to one person might be what turns another person off. It's all so subjective.

  14. I think swearing is fine, if it's true to the character. Some teens swear tons, some don't at all, and then there's everything in between, too.

  15. You're right, Wendy. It IS all very subjective.

  16. I'm a big fan of the Precision F-Strike, so my personal stance when writing is swear only when it'll really stand out and get the message across.

    Generally though, swearing doesn't bother me.

  17. I curse. Teens curse. It is not a sin to curse.

    I know there are many different views on cursing, but that is the reader's view and it should in no way effect a review that much. If you liked the story, you liked the story.

    I believe writing curse words in a YA book makes it SO much more real. I love reading books like that. I have read COTM / reviewed it / and LOVED it. I think you wrote it lovely. Don't let one view on curse words get you down. :)

  18. I don't mind it as long as it's not on every single page on the book.

    A good example of having swearing in YA books would be in the Books of Faerie (LAMENT & BALLAD) by Maggie Stiefvater.

    I will admit that the f-bomb is in there, but it's used in a good way (if there is one). Also the swearing isn't really intended. Most of the time the character is really angry or says it by accident--a slip of the tongue.

    So, as long as the characters aren't swearing left, right, and center, I'm okay with it.

    - Megan Conway

  19. Personally, I rate books by how much I enjoyed them. If the swearing takes away from my enjoyment of the book, then I'll lower the rating. I do have a part of my review that lists stuff like sexual content and swearing, though, so people can see how much questionable content there is and what exactly is being said.

    I have rated down books for swearing, like I Am Number Four, which had a ridiculous amount of swearing. However, I five-starred Rival by Sara Bennet Whealer despite the slight swearing (including use of the F-word). I make it very clear that my ratings just cover my enjoyment of the book. In the case of your book, Leigh, I don't think I'd have a problem with the swearing, but in other cases...

    And a question for authors... if the reviewer is quite clear on how much they loved the book and they're only rating it down b/c of a few swear words, why do you care what they rated it? People who read the review can see why they rated it down, so the star rating doesn't even matter.

  20. I remember being in the grocery store a few weeks ago and heard a kid, who was at most nine years old, yelling at his sister. "You're a f**king stupid b**ch, I don't know what the f**k is wrong with you" and so on.

    Children know curse words and use them. I think being criticized for authentically using "profanity" is better than being criticized for being out of touch with your target audience.

    And, Elanor, authors care about the rating because most readers won't look at the review. They have a lot of books to choose from and many just glance at the average rating on a website before making the decision to buy.

  21. I don't even notice swear words when I read anymore--no matter how bad. If they get so that it's every other word, I'll call it uncreative and dull, but I wouldn't downgrade a rating on a book because of a handful of offensive words. (I had a teacher in college point out that all words are morally neutral-how we use them determines their morality.) Sometimes, authors try so hard to avoid offensive words they go to ridiculous extremes--which can be worse for the story.

    That said, I also know there are people in the world who will ALWAYS notice when I use a swear word in my own book--and will judge me and the book harshly because of it. For that reason, I went through on my final edit and removed most of the swear words (and they were REALLY mild). Most of the sentences worked as well or better without them. Others I changed to let my characters express themselves more creatively. Others I left in because the little bit of shock value (heightened because of its rarity) worked for that moment.

    So long as you can justify it, I say you're good--but some people will still be so sensitive their enjoyment will fall. That's okay.

  22. I think it's appalling that someone would downgrade a rating based on something as tiny as swearing. People swear. A lot of people swear. Teenagers swear a lot. If you're going to be true to your characters, you need to let them speak the way they speak.

    In many ways, if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, you're better off. You can create your own profanity to suit your world. But for those of us who write contemporary fiction, we're stuck with the swears that already exist. And I use them. When I need to.

  23. I've got F-bombs and GOD makes an appearance in speech here and there. But I don't drown my ms in profanity. It's realistic for teens to curse and I don't think YA books should be stripped of profanity altogether. Discretion.

  24. I was following a YA series for years back when I was 13 and I clearly remember not finishing the series when hints of intimate scenes between the characters started to appear. I felt uncomfortable because "mature" stuff like those are usually hush-hush in my country who has a very conservative culture. I couldn't accept the image the author had of teenagers because it didn't fit the mindset I've grown up with. Gradually, though, as I grew up, I stepped out of my constricting mindset and started seeing the world in its imperfect glory. Teens do cuss, they engage themselves in intimate relationships, they drink alcohol, they smoke, they get knocked up... teens do things that they aren't expected to do and there is nothing wrong in portraying teens as they are in novels, in tv shows, and etc. Sure, it may sound blasphemous to some but, hey, that's reality. But, I guess, when adding elements such as those in YA lit, you just have to ask yourself: why do you even want to put them in? If it's to flesh out your character more accurately or to send a message to the readers... then go! But if you're just writing cuss words and such just for the heck of it... then I'd suggest you think twice or even thrice. Art doesn't have to be limitless.

  25. I appreciate this post and the responses. (And Carrier of the Mark is at the top of my wish list.) I don't think it's fair to penalize an author for elements that while true to life we don't happen to agree with. I have to give a case in point. I'm African American and don't happen to like a certain "N" word. Well, to Kill a Mockingbird has that word by the score. You know what rating I would give that book? Five out of five. Because it is an excellent book that details a sad part of our history.

    I agree with Mari Gaddi. It's good to evaluate why certain elements are added.

  26. I didn't notice the profanity when I read CARRIER to be honest. Personally I don't use blasphemous swearing in my writing, but I'm okay with dropping the f-bomb if it suits. Forced and unnecessary swearing is not needed.

    I think it's important that writers portray characters realistically for the scenario they're in. Even Ron Weasly swore in HARRY POTTER.

  27. I'm not one to use many swear words myself in conversation, but I don't judge a book more harshly because of its use of language. Sure, I may raise an eyebrow or two if it seems to be more than usual... but hearing swear words is such an everyday thing in real life that it would hardly seem fair for me to dislike a book for that very reason alone.

    Usually, if I feel there's more language than normal, I'll say something in a review I might write in case there are others not comfortable with it...