Fiction School

Fiction School
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Crap and Friggin': The Real Obscenities

I had a professor once who was an extremely controversial writer in his day. His debut was a reportedly autobiographical novel about a young male prostitute, so that gives you some idea of his milieu. It came out in the early sixties, a time when the drag queens and transsexuals he wrote about weren’t pop culture staples like they are now, but super edgy glimpses of subversive fringe culture.

We used to have class in his dining room in LA, even though it was a course offered through a prestigious (and somewhat stuffy) university. That was where he wanted to be, so that’s where we went—he was just like that.

Whenever someone became uncomfortable because of his liberal use of obscenities, my professor used to say in his flamboyant, ecstatic way, “People, language is meant to be free! That’s why I use all of it! Don’t be afraid!” I love this attitude. I know lots of readers are offended when they see certain words on the page, though, which I guess I can understand. If you come from a religious background, especially, it can go against everything you’ve been taught. Still, I long to be as free and unapologetic about language as my professor.

In Young Adult fiction it’s particularly confusing, because the under-twenty lexicon practically revolves around swearing, yet it’s still slightly taboo in print. I guess in part this is because parents flipping through the pages might find it inappropriate and hesitate to fork over bucks for their thirteen-year-old to read language they’re discouraged from ever uttering.

Hence, substitutions like crap and friggin’ now abound, not just in YA but in the majority of commercial fiction, which I find deeply fuddy-duddy and offensive. I mean, if your characters don’t swear, then they don’t swear, but do they have to use those horrible little placeholders?

How do you feel about crap and friggin’? Do they make you want to retch, or am I just totally alone in my abhorrence?