USians sometimes talk about the “f-bomb”. A euphemism I heard for the very first time last year from a librarian whose full time job is to fight censorship. We were on a panel (at WisCon) discussing book banning and censorship in front of an audience of adults. I was the moderator and in my introduction I used quite a few of the words that are likely to cause a book aimed at teenagers to run into trouble. It didn’t occur to me not to given that the panel started at 10PM and was in front of an audience of adults.
For less than a second all the air went out of the room.
And then the librarian laughed and said as how she had been tiptoeing around those words for so long that she could no longer say them out loud. Everyone else laughed too.
You’ll notice I’m not using any of them in this post either. That’s because I happen to know that some of the readers of this blog would be offended and I do not wish to offend them.
Chris Crutcher in his keynote speech at the Humble Teen Literature Festival last February eloquently defended his use of “cuss words” (tee hee! Sorry, it just makes me giggle) in his books without using any, but making it clear which ones he was talking about. It made me wonder what the difference is between making it clear what the word you’re not saying is and simply saying that word. It’s obviously a huge one because I’m pretty certain that if Chris Crutcher deployed any of those words in his speeches he would not get as many speaking gigs as he gets and he would lessen his power in the fight against censorship.
I happen to like swearing. Some of my favourite words are offensive to many people. And so are those of Chris Crutcher and Holly Black. The enjoyment comes not from the shock value. Frankly, none of my friends or family are offended by swearing. The pleasure is from—to borrow a term from the land of wine and food lovers—the mouth feel.
I love the way many rude words feel in my mouth. I love their explosiveness. I love to use them as punctuation, as intensifiers, as poetry, as song.
I love getting creative with my swearing. I love using old standards. I love the age of these words. The majority of the rudest words in English go back to the beginnings of the language. I love that feeling of longevity. Words like these have been exploding out of people’s mouths for centuries.
I would love to write a book for teens that used the kind of language that I hear them use every day. That I use every day. I would love to capture those rhythms and cadences. But such a book would probably not get published.
I’d also love to write a book that did everything I want it to: was exciting, dramatic, moving, fun, and populated with recognisably teen characters but also managed to not offend anyone. What would such a book look like?
There would be no swear words in it. Everyone would speak uncolloquially and without grammatical errors. Characters would only fall in love with people of the opposite sex and same race and religion, yet they would not have sex. They would not smoke or lie or cheat.
But I know people who are offended by books that create worlds in which the ten per cent of the population that isn’t heterosexual do not exist.
I’m not sure a book that offends no one is possible. After all, I’m deeply offended by unicorns and by books in which the heroine keeps falling over and has to be rescued by the big handsome hero. That’s right, passive heroines drive me spare. But lots of other people just gobble them up.
I do not wish to have those books banned. I just wish people wouldn’t gobble them up. I also wish never to be subjected to the foul smells of coffee, petrol and perfume ever again, but I don’t fancy my chances.
I don’t want to offend anyone but as long as I’m writing books I don’t see how I can avoid it.