Or should I say, Is it better to be obscene or profane?
One of my listservs has been having a discussion of "cursing and YA books." This began with a question about whether cursing among teenagers is common everywhere. I think that's a legitimate and interesting question. The language in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which is always brought up when cursin' and cussin' are discussed) reflects a certain sophisticated urban lifestyle. But will kids all over the country recognize it as their own? In spite of the way TV, movies, advertising, and books tend to create a uniform culture, this is still a big country. Buy a local newspaper when you're traveling, and you'll see that people in different parts of the U.S. have different concerns. Are we all the same?
Well, to get on with the subject at hand, only recently in the listserv's discussion has anyone brought up the point that obscenity and profanity are different things. Obscenity is, for example, that word both Nick and Norah used nearly every sentence. Profanity is breaking the...uh...uh...oh, the third commandment--"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain."
Which is more acceptable? In particular, which is more acceptable in a children's book?
This question is weighing on my mind right now, because I've realized that the adults in The Durand Cousins are not the types to say, "Oh, fudge" when they need to unburden themselves of angst or frustration. And they have plenty to be angsty and frustrated about. Would they lean toward expressing themselves with vulgarities or with rants to God?
In my own experience as a child and teenager, the adults in my family used just the most basic garden variety obscenities. Many of them, though,"spoke" with Jesus requently. In fact, they were on such close terms that they knew that his middle name began with H. My cousin used to say that he wasn't swearing, he was asking the Lord for help. And when I was growing up in Vermont, we all said Jeezum Crow. (You really need to draw out the vowels in that expression.) I was in college or older before I found out what that was a stand-in for.
I had to deal with the profanity issue once before while writing The Hero of Ticonderoga. Ethan Allen figured prominently in that book. His use of profanity was (and is) legendary and well documented. Before I began writing the book, I e-mailed my editor and asked, "Just how many times can you use 'god damn' in a kids' book?" (Three times in my case.)
Determining whether to go with obscenity or profanity--jeezum crow, what a thing to be spending my time on, eh?