Fiction School

Fiction School
Check out the podcast I host with two other writing professors

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?


Liz said...

I'm not sure where I stand on the words in print -- I'm actually OK with that -- but I frown on my own young adults using the words in my presence. I tell them swearing is simply lazy use of language, which my 20-year-old now agrees with! Time and place for everything, I say. But a book is another world, so I think I'm OK with that. I'm sending my daughter a link to your site, by the way, as she's a writer and wants to do it for a living. I think she'll find your site interesting.

Since I just finished this book, and found IT interesting as well, I wanted to recommend it to you - "Elijah's Coin" by Steve O'Brien. It's got echoes of the pay it forward theme, with a main character who's anti-social, anti- this and anti-that. A mystery figure (that would be Elijah) tries to get Tom on the right path and sends him on a mission (that's where the coins come in) to learn from others and learn to look at the world in a new way. It's really inspirational. THis book is going to all my daughters! Very inspirational and life-changing.

terena said...

Hey woman. Love the new blog.

As the mother of a YA, I understand not wanting swearing in the books she reads, just as I don't want her using that language. However, as a writer, I totally agree with your point. If the character swears, make it a real word, not a placeholder. Sanitizing YA fiction is so condescending to the reader. But then the mom part of me says, "Do you really want you daughter reading this?" I am completely torn! The two sides of my life are just going to have to battle this out for a while, but I have a suspicion that the writer side will win.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I believe real language used in context adds authenticity to the character and the feelings in the scene.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope...
Ch. 1 is online!

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

I'm a fan of swearing when swearing is called for. I'm writing a character now who can't help herself--she's got Sailor mouth, and "fuck" is just in a lot of her sentences...and a real person like this would drive me a little nuts--which she does--but she's entirely true to herself.

I think swearing in YA/Teen stuff has to be there, too, but of course, hopefully there are also interesting new vocabulary words that young readers can go look up for the first time!