Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Curses!

Sam Riddleburger has a new book coming out next spring. At his blog he wrote about the decision he and his co-author made to eliminate the swearing that appears in the ARC. I don't yet know what language was cut because I haven't yet read my copy. I'm putting it off so I can enjoy the suspense as long as possible.

Those words we lump into the category "swearing" (or what the Gauthier boys used to call "swears") are of of great interest to me. Professionally, of course. Like Sam, I had to deal with the issue of language in a book. In my case, we're talking blasphemy.

Back before I began writing what would become The Hero of Ticonderoga, I wrote my editor to ask how many times a person could use "God damn" in a children's book. I wasn't seriously looking for a specific number, but I was concerned because Ethan Allen was going to figure prominently in the book, and Ethan Allen's use of blasphemy was legendary, in his own lifetime and beyond. It was an expression of his conflict with the late Puritan culture into which he was born. His use of profanity is very well documented. To not include it when writing about him would be so dishonest as to almost mean I wasn't writing about Ethan Allen at all. (I do love that man, in all his unsavory glory.)

Yes, I could have told my readers something like "Ethan Allen took the Lord's name in vain." But I believe I've mentioned my issue with telling instead of showing when writing. So Tess LeClerc, the main character in Hero, uses "God damn" three times. Each time she is paraphrasing Ethan Allen, and each time she is corrected by someone for her language. That was my way of trying to deal with the use of blasphemy in a children's book.

Hero was an ALA Notable Book, and the paperback is still in print. However, I don't know how often it's used in classrooms, and I've always wondered if the language was a stumbling block for schools. I did receive one complaint about the blasphemy. So when Sam says that they made the decision to change their language on the advice of a teacher who felt their book would be more "classroom friendly" without it, I certainly understand what he's talking about.

Language came up with the never-ending book I'm working on now, too, as I explained a year ago. In this case, I decided to go with that old Vermont favorite, Jeezum Crow.

Oddly enough, I've been wondering lately if my characters need expletives, after all. Sam says that in their case, "Using the swear words helped us write the book." But they didn't actually need them once they were done. I may find that to be the case, too.

Especially since I'm imagining a New York City editor going, "Jeezum what?"

3 comments:

Sam said...

fIt is a weird situation, especially when you realize that in a year or two they'll be reading outlandish ribaldry labeled YA, but this year they can't read the word "hell."

Meanwhile, the Internet doesn't even remember that "hell" is a bad word, because it knows so many naughtier ones.

TadMack said...

("outlandish ribaldry labeled YA."
Sam, Sam, Sam.
Even we YA writers like to think we have a little bit of a conscience.)

I wrestle with the swearing thing - and my agent once chided me, "Oh, for God's sake's, just let them swear."

I was raised to think blasphemy and profanity were both wrong and the product of a lazy and uncreative mind. I wear the heck out of "crap" but I've so far resisted. It's hard. And you're right -- the NY editors are like, "What?" when you use some strange folksy thing you grew up saying. I don't know where I'll eventually land on this one, but I'm really holding out as long as I can.

It's a big debate every year at conferences in the YA circle... Chris Crutcher obviously for, Richard Peck firmly against. And so we stand tied...

gail said...

One issue with swearing is that a writer should want her dialogue to be realistic. So do you include swearing because it's realistic, or do you leave it out because you're writing a middle grade novel and there is an improving tradition in kidlit. If you believe that children's literature should teach something, then you're probably going to be concerned about teaching the young to swear.

I don't think writers for adults think about teaching their readers anything at all, let alone foul language.