(You see what I did there? You could either take it as bleeping out profanity, or take "bleeping" as a stand in for profanity. But if I have to explain it, it's really not clever anymore. DANGIT I RUIN EVERYTHING.)
Recently in USA Today a researcher from my Alma Mater was discussing the problem of profanity in YA literature and suggesting a ratings system for books, so that parents know what their kids are reading.
And then Gayle Forman, whom I adore so much it borders on the absurd, wrote this lovely piece (which, you have been warned, contains profanity).
I thought, being an author who is sort of known for avoiding profanity in clever and not so clever ways, I would address the same topic. That way you get it from an author (Gayle Forman) who embraces whatever words she wants to use, and an author (Yours Truly) who has been very careful not to use certain words.
First, a history: I did not know what the "F Word" was until junior high (when I went ahead and asked my older sister just so that I would know in case I ever accidentally came across it). For many years I operated under the assumption that it was a word that begins with F that describes the bodily function of passing gas, which was a very, VERY bad word in our house, and which, to this day, I can neither say nor type out, or even hear without shuddering.
IT WAS THAT BAD, GUYS.
The "Sh" word was shut up. The "C" word was crap. The "B" word was butt. So on. So forth. I remember my parents swearing maybe a total of five times during the course of my childhood and adolescence.
I, myself, have never uttered a swearword.
It's weird. I know. My husband hasn't, either. That's weirder, I'm pretty sure. But it wasn't a part of our families' vocabularies, and it wasn't a part of ours, and neither one of us has ever decided to go ahead and work those expletiving expletives into our daily lives.
And that's fine. Just like it's fine that one of my best friend's favorite word is the F word. (Probably both. But definitely the one that most people consider the actual F word.)
In writing the PARANORMALCY series, it was important to me not to include anything that I would have to apologize to a ten-year-old's mother for. (That was my standard. "If a woman tells me her ten-year-old read my book, will I feel the need to apologize?") I came up with a stand-in for profanity. It worked in context and tone of the book. Taa-daa! No worries.
Here's the thing. As a writer, it's important to me to be honest. And frankly, my characters are not me. I'll repeat that, this time with emphasis: my characters are not me. And, when faced with certain situations, guess what? They want to swear.
Like, they really want to swear. They swear at me for not letting them swear. And here's a little known piece of trivia: All of my first drafts have swear words in them. Yup. Every single one. (I mean, every single first draft. Not every single swear word. I don't know all of them. I still have to look things up every once in a while just so I'm clued in to whether or not something is bad.)
One of these days, I probably won't go back through and grudgingly figure out other ways to say what my character wants to say. And you know what? That will be fine. I'm okay with that. Because here's the thing, the thing that Gayle said so well, the thing that I wish people would understand:
It is not about words, singular. It is about words, collective.
Our teens already know what the F word is, and I'm not talking about my personal F word, which they also already know. They aren't learning anything new by seeing it in a book. They hear it in the PG-13 movies you watch with them. They hear it in the halls at school. Odds are, they use it themselves sometimes.
I would hate for a teen who needs to read Gayle's books, needs to see families portrayed as living, evolving, loving entities, needs to see people make hard choices and then live with those choices, grow into them, decide to be happy regardless of what else they have been handed, teens who need to read Gayle's bleeping amazing writing and her brutally graceful, deeply affecting stories be forced to avoid them because they also include a handful of words that those teens already know but someone has arbitrarily decided qualifies an entire book as "bad."
My stand on book censorship, in any form, is and has always been and will always be this: Read with your children. Read what they are reading. Have an open (sincerely open, not "Here is what you should think about this because I say so") dialog going with them at any and all times, so that when they read something they disagree with, or agree with, or aren't sure whether they agree or disagree with, they have someone to talk with about it. Someone who loves them, and wants them to grow into happy, fully actualized and capable and smart and stable and did we mention happy adults.
Be that person for them. Don't worry so much about a specific word or two (or even twenty). Talk with you teens about the choices the characters make, about the relationships they have, about what you would do when presented with the same scenario. Participate in those collections of words with them. Help them make the choices they need to in order to grow into the people they want to be, and then support them in those choices.
Life? It's kind of rated R. We bleep it out for as long as we can with our children, but in the end, teaching and talking is always better than censoring.
And, in case you were wondering, yes, I let my children use the F-word. Not that one. The other one.
UPDATED: I recognize that there is much more that goes in to a discussion about content in books than the simple matter of profanity. It's just the easiest to identify. "This book had four uses of the F-word!" is much easier than saying, "This book glorified violence without talking about the severe personal and societal repercussions of what so much desensitization will do to us as human beings." Just as, "This book had sex--BAD!" is much easier than saying, "This book didn't have sex on page, but glorified and sensationalized intimate relationships to unreal and dangerous standards, in additional to portraying unhealthy relationships as ideal. This book, however, had a sex scene that included responsible behavior and mature choices--plus the consequences of both, whether good or bad."
See how complicated it is? This is why censorship is the wrong answer. Always.