First, please don’t say “fuck” so often. It kind of loses its impact that way.
– Andy Borman, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine
It’s been a dilemma in Young Adult literature for decades: to ‘fuck’ or not to ‘fuck.’
No, not whether or not to have sex scenes. That’s an even thornier debate and one that cannot be done justice in a blog entry. What I’m talking about is the debate over the use of “foul language” in Young Adult literature with an emphasis on the word “fuck.”
No “bad words!” Bad thoughts! Bad intentions! And words.
– George Carlin
“Fuck” is probably a thorny word because of its many different connotations. It’s always been considered vulgar. It’s extremely aggressive; “fuck you!” can actually be seen as wishing rape upon someone. And probably worst of all in the eyes of parents, “to fuck” literally means to have sex.
The dilemma over the word in YA is rooted in two facts that some people don’t want to accept. Teenagers say ‘fuck,’ and teenagers do fuck.
In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine, I used the word “fuck” (and varaitions on it like “fucked” and “fucker”) 55 times. One out of every 914 words in the book was a variation of “fuck.” This might seem excessive to some people, and it probably is, but there were reasons for it. First off, I wrote Columbine for adults, not “young” adults. It only got classified as YA because of the industry’s need to ghettoize anything with protagonists under 25 as “for kids.” Second, my narrator and his friends are angry, bitter boys and their anger manifested itself in their word use.
Perhaps in overreaction, I took a different tack in Go To Hell. In the entire book, the f word is only used three times, in very specific context. Two of them are from one of the book’s primary antagonists, who is a very unsavory character and uses the word in unsavory circumstances. When my hero, Ryan, turns around and uses it, it’s meant to show that he’s sinking to the bad guy’s level. Plus, he’s despondent and angry and less likely to censor himself at that point.
When the time came to write Sidekick,I made a vow to myself. I was going to watch my characters’ language. Since the story is set in, essentially, a comic-book universe modeled after the old DC multiverse under the Comics Code Authority a plethora of “fucks” would have seemed out of place. I still used the “s” word because I wanted my kids to sound somewhat authentic (one of my favorite lines is still “because she’s all supernatural and shit”) but limited the number of its appearances. One of my critique partners actually said they thought Bobby was too much of a goody-goody because he didn’t use profanity that often!
Still, Sidekick found a publisher where Go To Hell and Columbine had to be self-published for Kindle, so the lesson is not entirely lost on me.
834,620 x 375,002 = who really gives a fuck
– Will Grayson #2, Will Grayson Will Grayson
One major issue in the question of whether or not to use the word “fuck” has to come down to whether it fits the character and the plot. A great example is Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. In Green’s chapters, the straight Will Grayson and his friends use the F word, but sparingly. Some of the places where another character would be called a “fucker” instead use the running gag of “bitchsquealer.” (I won’t ruin the running gag for you by explaining it here, but the more it gets used, the funnier it becomes). In Levithan’s chapters, however, the gay Will Grayson uses it constantly to the point of almost being annoying. But it’s appropriate for Will #2. The anger and resentment he feels, augmented by his clinical depression, are better expressed with vulgar and aggressive language. It feels right, and draws a distinction between the two Wills.
Another one is to what effect is the word used? Is there a purpose to it? In Will Grayson Will Grayson it defines the difference between the two characters, so even if some of it is gratuitous it is there for a reason. Another great example is Dale Peck’s Sprout, where the lack of profanity and teases at the seven deadly words becomes a running gag. It keeps up until Sprout finally uses the F word at exactly the wrong moment and in the wrong circumstances. I really don’t want to go into too much detail over the use of the word because I think everyone should read the book and the use of the word is key to the climax. Suffice it to say that I think it was the most effective use of “fuck” in literature and no other word would ever do.
But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.
– Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
One of my major problems with The Catcher in the Rye (as I once expounded upon at length elsewhere) is how the book’s use of language makes it archaic. Part of that is probably due to the fact that in respectable books back then the word just was not used. The same case can be made for Robert Cormier’s outstanding The Chocolate War, the book that (along with Judy Blume) really defined the genre of Young Adult as it was coming into being. Cormier’s kids can sound like goody-goodies to today’s readers because of a relative lack of profanity, but his bad guys are some of the most disgusting people in the literary universe. The book is full of violence, sex, and bad intentions, and yet it can come across as overly santized to today’s kids.
If characters in YA don’t act like “real” teenagers do today, they’re going to come across as fake and unbelievable. It’s the same thing with the way characters sound. When adults aren’t listening (and sometimes when they are), kids use profanity. They hear it from others all the time so it feels natural to them. And the “forbidden fruit” aspects of those words make them even more appealing. When a teenager tells his friend to “fuck off,” there’s a thrill of using a word he is “not supposed to” use. It’s a tiny little form of rebellion, and rebellion is the entire underpinning of adolescence. To avoid the word entirely is unnatural.
“Did I just write that? So much for this book ending up in a high school library.”
– Sprout Bradford, Sprout
I think that some of the resistance to the use of the word “fuck” in YA has come from the fear that it will lead to the book being “banned” from schools. But let’s face it, what high school kid actually uses a high school library for anything other than schoolwork? They know that the stuff they find there is going to be Sanitized For Your Protection™. If they want to read something for pleasure they are going to (a) buy the book, (b) borrow the book from a friend who read it, (c) go to the “real” municipal or county library, or increasingly (d) download a PDF or audiobook of it through Bittorrent. At the YA level (compared to the Middle-Grade or younger levels) the school library isn’t really the factor it once was.
In the end, it comes down to the story, the characters, and the way the words are used. If “fuck” is thrown around gratuitously it loses its effectiveness and becomes a distraction. If a character is perfectly straight laced (and nowadays that would have to either be a supporting character or central to the plot) it seems unnatural and would be inappropriate. But if one of your teen characters occasionally drops the F-bomb at appropriate points and uses it in the proper context, it can probably help a certain number of your readers identify with the kids they are reading about.
So if you think it’s right for you, go ahead and “fuck” your readers.