What is the power and the purpose of profanity?

What difference does it make if the characters in young adult novels swear? From time to time, publishers are contacted by parents or schools who are concerned by the appearance in YA fiction of (to quote an editor of T. S. Eliot) words ending in ‘uck’ or ‘ugger’. Publishers are always keen to hear about reactions that may impact on their books’ reception. They – and we at Fremantle Press – do not take such complaints lightly. But in this age of on-screen profanity, violence and sex, where some YA books feature teens who kill and/or eat one another, we are a little troubled by the censuring of thoughtful books for young people on the basis of them containing the f-word. We got together our own questions about swearing and put them out there, to our authors and colleagues. Here are some of their responses.

Do you have profanity in any of your books?

Of the six authors who responded to this questionnaire, five had used the f-word in at least one of their stories. Why so prevalent? Author Kate McCaffrey, who has been recognised by the Australian Family Therapists’ Award for Children’s Literature twice, says profanity appears in all her novels. ‘As my novels are contemporary realism and set in schools, dealing with current issues, it is important for credibility and currency to use all relevant language. That includes swearing. YA readers know when they are being patronised, and censoring their language is one way of doing that,’ says McCaffrey. Deb Fitzpatrick says her first novel 90 packets of instant noodles was rife with swear words because she was writing about teenage boys playing on the edges of a criminal life. ‘These are boys who have already engaged in petty theft, and then move on to rob a bottleshop … I can’t seriously imagine a book that covers that territory without having some swearing in it – and I don’t mean crap.’

Most authors agree, however, that it’s all about context. AJ Betts says she believes swearing is appropriate if ‘a) a particular character would choose to use it or b) there’s a particular situation in which its use would be expected (e.g. a moment of panic or anger). Interestingly, in Wavelength, the teenage protagonist rarely swears. It’s the adult characters who do, not in anger or frustration but good humour,’ says Betts.

Is the f-word ever appropriate in books for YA readers? If so, when? If not, why not?

Creepy & Maud author Dianne Touchell says ‘yes’ because YA literature should represent and respect its readership, not the gatekeepers. Kate McCaffrey and Carousel author Brendan Ritchie agree. Ritchie points out that the f-word is an undeniable presence in our society. ‘If used sparingly, and within context, I believe the f-word can form part of honest depictions of modern Australian life,’ says Ritchie. McCaffrey says YA readers want to recognise their world and the people in it. ‘Sanitising it makes it unrecognisable. If we want to impart any ideas or understandings we need to provide it in a recognisable way,’ says McCaffrey. However, as Dianne Touchell points out, writers must always be aware of their motives when using swear words. ‘I object to the use of profanity for shock value alone – where it is used in an attempt to gratuitously court controversy rather than represent the characters,’ says Touchell.

What would you say to parents who are concerned about the use of swear words in YA novels? 

Social psychologist and educator Dr Helen Street says parents can rest assured that swearing within a fictional story is unlikely to be psychologically damaging to the reader. ‘It is possible that swearing could actually be supportive of the reader’s wellbeing if it enables them to be more engaged in the realism of the story and message of the text,’ says Dr Street. English teacher Louise Pettigrew says students are aware that the swearing lies within the boundaries of a book or a film. ‘It’s about teaching them where the inappropriate forums are for that language,’ she says.

Deb Fitzpatrick says she always warns her audience that 90 packets of instant noodles has strong language. ‘I’m a parent too and I have kids who read above their ages. But I believe that kids self-censor constantly. I have seen this in my own kids and in others. You know when your kids leave the room because they don’t want to watch a movie they are finding scary or upsetting? They do exactly the same with books: put them down if they can’t handle them,’ says Fitzpatrick. Kate McCaffrey is also a parent. She says; ‘Unfortunately if you want to know the world your child lives in you have to go in with eyes wide open. It might not be pretty, but it’s real.’

What would you say to an editor or publisher who requested that you remove the f-word from your book to make it more appealing to a particular market? 

Deb Fitzpatrick and AJ Betts are keen to point out that, in Fitzpatrick’s words; ‘most writers are incredibly sensitive people who agonise over their writing’. Fitzpatrick says nothing is taken for granted and every decision made on the page is consciously made. ‘A process – of thought, philosophy, or creativity – has been followed to reach the point where the words have been placed in that order, in that way, and then published, shuffled about into probably a new order, a new way, but never without reason,’ says Fitzpatrick. Betts says the use of the f-word should be judicious – just as the use of any word should be judicious. ‘This comes down to good editing, not necessarily a moral stance. I don’t use swearing to be “cool” or provocative, but because I wish to be authentic to my characters and future readers,’ says Betts. Dianne Touchell said she once refused to sign a publishing contract because the publisher told her she could not have the word ‘pubes’ on the first page of her YA novel, but she says that ‘if my editor/publisher advised me that my use of profanity was so extreme that it had lost its effectiveness, I would listen and edit accordingly.’

Do swear words in YA novels encourage swearing? Why/why not? 

The answers to this were divided. Dr Helen Street says it is possible that if a reader strongly identifies with a character they may imitate them to some degree including their use of language. Librarian Joanna Andrew disagrees. ‘Much as reading about violence does not encourage young adults to go out and hunt each other down, reading swear words in a novel is not going to encourage swearing if that person does not agree with it,’ says Andrew. ‘Creative use of language in any form is far more likely to influence young adults’ language – use of the right words in the right order to tell the best story they can will have long lasting influence, and surely that is what we want as adults, who love reading and books, and wish to pass that on.’

Brendan Ritchie points out that the question assumes that swear words are being glorified in YA novels, which is often not the case. Whereas Dianne Touchell says young people curse for many reasons. ‘Firstly they learn it from their parents (What’s your driving language like?), and secondly – profanity has become a peer language most often used when other emotive language is not immediately available to them. They may retrospectively consider other verbal options – we all do! – but in the moment of hurt, confusion and vulnerability, profanity is a powerful thing.’

Does the use of profanity in novels have something to teach kids? If so, what?

English Teacher Louise Pettigrew believes there is value in having discussions about the use of profane language. She says it teaches kids ‘that people swear in real life – they are only words. ‘that people swear in real life – they are only words. But these words can be powerful and can demean or destroy.’ She says YA books can be a way to discuss why language is inappropriate in particular contexts or how it has the ability to empower and disempower. Brendan Ritchie points out that YA books also have the potential to explore really important social issues such as sexuality, identity, death and morality. ‘Packaging these heavy subjects in an accessible and entertaining way is a great challenge for the writer. It would be a real shame if young readers were denied the opportunity to engage with significant social issues due to the occasional presence of expletives in a book. The messages of a book are rarely found on the surface,’ says Ritchie. Librarian Joanna Andrew agrees; ‘it would be a shame if the use of realistic language prevented them from reading wonderful, adventurous, thought provoking books that will stay with them on their journey to adulthood.’

What do you think makes a good YA novel?

We thought we’d end with Tribe series author Ambelin Kwaymullina’s response to this questionnaire, which we feel puts the topic in its broadest context. She says, ‘Here’s what I find to be offensive: life. Poverty offends me, as does violence and discrimination and a lack of equality of opportunity. We have all these things in Australia, and I don’t believe we adults are nearly as outraged as we should be about the conditions in which so many young Australians are living. I would find a body of literature that ignored these realities to be offensive too – but Aussie YA doesn’t. Aussie YA does a terrific job of speaking to the audience for whom it is intended, and yes, sometimes it contains profanity. Because young people swear, and it’s appropriate to the voice of the character. Or because, in the face of an unjust reality, there’s simply nothing else to say.’

Do you have an opinion? Write to us at admin@fremantlepress.com.au with your answers to these questions.

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