Although I swear infrequently in my personal life, I’ve always believed that curse words have a place in literature, in music, in movies, and even in journalism. Depending on the speaker, there’s always been something significantly more authentic to me about swear-word-laden language than there’s been about the cheesy, G-rated language few people use in real-life situations.
I wrote an expose on a porn theater for my undergraduate senior project. The article was published in a student magazine, and I debated a lot of the article’s language with editors and faculty advisers. To me, vulgar language was central to my article. It made things real. It made my work legitimate. Craigslist posters weren’t inviting strangers to the theater to “service” them, they were inviting them to “suck” their “dicks.” Stating the posts as such felt more honest to me, but I was cognizant that I would have to cave a bit (and finesse a bit) to fit college publication standards. The same give-and-take environments and decisions are common in contemporary novel publishing realms.
Authors, editors, and publishers often self-censor literary materials in an effort to allow the literature to appeal to the broadest audience possible, especially when schools, book clubs, and parents are cautious of what materials they provide to young students. Because of its use of strong language, I don’t think I’d ever have found Snow Crash in my high school’s library, but I may have found it on a local bookstore shelf. In Snow Crash, lines like “Not fuckin’ Hong Kong. That’s for white people who want to be Japs but can’t, didja know that? You don’t wanta be a Jap, do ya?” (pg. 141) made me reconsider the value of swear words in literature — young adult literature, specifically — and the role that similar passages play in contemporary publications. (I’m using “reconsider” in the “consider again” sense, not in the “alter my mindset” sense, and I am not claiming that the language made me change my mind about the role of profanity in print.)
In “The Pottymouth Paradox,” Patty Campbell discusses the paradox that arises when young adult novelists self-censor themselves to appeal to a broad range of audiences, when certain award-winning young adult novels — though not those necessarily “appropriate” for school audiences — are wrought with vulgarity. “Books that have no expectation of school or book club purchase can, and do, reach out freely to all the unlimited possibilities of the English language as it is spoken in many different places and situations,” Campbell wrote, describing young adult publications as a dichotomy between curse-heavy books and squeaky-clean books (p. 313-314). “On the one hand are the ‘fuck-free’ books with potential for book clubs and school libraries, and on the other are the ‘chock-full-o’-fuck’ books more accepted by bookstores and public libraries” (p. 314).
Additionally, Campbell suggests that quality is not a factor between “fuck-free” books and “chock-full-o’-fuck” books. Awards can go to books on both ends of the spectrum. Consumers who want swear-free books can get them. Those who want swear-full books can get them as well. So what’s the issue?
The issue is that novelists who opt for the gritty language will likely have to accept that their works will not be readily available in schools and small libraries, and some parents will prohibit their children from reading these authors’ works. On the other hand, novelists who self-censor their “fucks,” “shits,” and “damns” may risk their works’ lacking in authenticity.
In the editorial column, “Expletive Deleted,” readers of the School Library Journal debated the use of foul language in The Upstairs Room. “Surely life, which is sometimes regrettably shabby, can be truthfully depicted without the use of dirty, irreverent language…” wrote one reader (p. 48). But can it? Campbell disagrees: “Saying ‘Goodness gracious!’ instead of ‘What the fuck?’ is opting for dishonesty” (p. 315).
I guess the only value that matters is personal preference, for the reader, for the writer, and for the book provider. Sure, “What the fuck?” may seem most appropriate in certain situations (like those involving my younger brother), but for some characters — for some people — “What the fuck?” is not the most authentic response, and the “legitimacy” argument is invalid. Some people (like my step-grandmother) really do prefer “Goodness gracious!” to the alternative, and for those characters/people, “What the fuck?” is not authentic. It’s forced for shock value. It’s unnecessary. In these cases, the “fuck-free” books and the “fuck-free” characters (Stop laughing. You know what I mean.) are entirely realistic.
It’s difficult to imagine the development of a character such as a mob boss or a gang member without the use of profanity, but I’m sure it’s possible. Similar to my experience with the porn article, authors who want their works to appeal to the broadest audience possible may be able to finesse their way into publication without the use of profanity.
I understand why certain audiences disregard swear-heavy young adult novels. I would also argue that a solid, accurate, powerful novel can be constructed without the use of profanity. But do I like the edge that profanity brings to literature? Yes. Do I think that, in most cases, profanity is more realistic than non-profanity, and do I think that profanity has a place in literature? You’d better believe it.
Campbell, Patty. “The Pottymouth Paradox.” The Horn Book Magazine (2007): 311-315. Print.
“Expletive Deleted.” School Library Journal (1974): 48-49. Print.
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. 1992.