Tuesday, 12 May 2009

When Swearing is Worse Than Violent Death - Nicola Morgan

As all writers for young people know, we not only have to get our books to our intended readers: we have to get past the gate-keepers - adults. Now, adults are some of my favourite people but let me have a little rant about certain members of that group, specifically certain parents. I am a parent myself, so I know how parenty brains work and I’m sympathetic, but sometimes … HONESTLY.

Yes, I know there’s some pretty tough stuff goes on in my teenage books. I’m up front about that and I would totally understand if a parent of a 10 year old (eg) got a bit cautious about some of it. (Though I still think they should worry less about reading choices and more about some other things - like whether their child is reading at all ...) But anyway, I just had a librarian say that she wouldn’t stock Mondays are Red “because of the swearing” and she’d had a parent complain when a book had a rude word in it. Well, I didn’t remember any swearing in Mondays are Red until it occurred to me that I did say “Piss off!” once, when a character was really really really really ANGRY. Frankly, I think piss off was pretty restrained in the circs. And it was a teenage book and a teenage character. And the character didn’t say it to an adult or anything really terrible like that …

OK, I respect people’s views and I hate bad language myself - only ever use it when I’m bloody furious - but let’s see things in context here. Tell me how it’s fine that my books contain a mastectomy without anaesthetic in front of an audience of men (Fleshmarket opening chapter), death by blood-poisoning, trepanning (when a drill is twisted through someone’s skull), drowning, stabbing, snake-bite and the subsequent cutting of the flesh above the bite, a throat being cut, drinks being spiked, a massacre, drug use (without condoning it, btw), a horse being shot … I could go on but I’m actually starting to feel quite bad about all this. Am I really a horrible and dangerous person? No, I write stories, stories that aim to challenge and grip and provide a safe environment for fictional danger and risk.

Anyway, my point is, I can do all that death and worse, but I can’t say piss off? When I’m really really really angry? And when children and teenagers hear far worse every day in the playground and on TV and the cinema? (Which is not to say it's right, but then nor are half the other horrible things about the real world.) So, I should perhaps have had my teenage character say, “O bother!” Yeah, right. That’s really going to work.

Parents need to understand about fiction and its ability to prepare kids in the best possible way for the real world. They need, frankly, to get a bit real and decide which things are really worth protecting them from. Either that, or wrap their offspring in cotton wool, don’t allow them to go to school / watch TV / travel /go to the cinema / go on the internet / phone their friends, or read anything other than Enid Blyton. Oh, except that if they read EB, they’ll learn that girls are pathetic and boys are just the greatest leaders and that taking boats on stormy water across a sea with no adults is an OK thing to do.

Compared with which, the odd piss off seems like a very small risk to take.

12 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

Couldn't agree more. But - maybe? - it's that p-word? Somewhere near the mid-point of 'Dark Angels' I wrote: 'The stables smelled of sweet straw and sour horse-piss.' It got cut as too rude.

adele said...

I completely second both Nicola and Kath. I had a 'bullshit' once in Pictures of the Night but this was in the early 1990s and no one batted an eyelid. I know a Sassie who had objections to her description of school dinner macaroni cheese looking like vomit. You just have to write what you like and hope that your editor will be sensible and support you when this kind of thing arises. Unlike Kath's, evidently....how ridiculous it all is.

Anne Cassidy said...

As a parent I can understand the thing about swearing. When my son was in his teens there was so much stuff going on that was beyond my control. Before that he had been my little boy(albeit spirited) but once he became a teen it was as though I was only seeing a tiny fraction of the 'real' him. His life didn't belong to me any more. He was like this stranger that breezed in and out of my house making demands (Alison Lurie in one of her novels calls them 'Monstrous Lodgers'). I used to make rules but really it all a bit of a facade, me keeping face against enormous changes that were going on underneath as my little boy became a man. The only thing i seemed to have any power over was the swearing. Don't say that! I would say. Like using a whip against a small army!
As a writer I don't use certain words because if I did, I would feel it only proper that i used them to reflect the 'real' sound of teenage talk which would mean my pages would be littered with them. So I don't use them at all.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anne - I know what you mean about reflecting the "real" sound of any type of talk (teenage or not) but if you think about it we don't do that as writers anyway, otherwise our writing would be littered with um and er and lots of unfinished sentences and very boring things!

But I do totally understand about the anxiety that parents feel as they lose control - just that i think a) the anxiety is often about the wrong things and b) we NEED to lose control, even if gradually and possibly kicking and screaming. The fact that it's hard to do, doesn't make it something to avoid.

Katherine Langrish said...

Mind you - looking at my stable-y sentence again - perhaps the 'piss' was being taken (out) because of all those sibilent 's' sounds - like a snake hissing. I guess it wasn't such a loss after all!

Gillian Philip said...

Oh, totally agree with you Nicola. We're hung up about the wrong things. I was lucky - my editor was quite liberal and understanding with me. What matters more - the fact that my hero swears a bit, or the fact that he kicks, ahem, seven bells out of somebody?
Where I used to live Abroad, sex and swearing were closely censored. I always remember watching a movie trailer where a guy was cut in half by machine gun fire. Lovingly, in slow motion... censorship of that? Not even considered.

Elen Caldecott said...

I often think about our news reports when this subject comes up. In Spain, or France, coverage of war routinely shows close ups of dead and maimed bodies. Here, we pan across dusty streets with perhaps a shoe or a doll left behind.
The Brits seem delighted with fictional violence, but show us the real affects of war then we cover our eyes.

Lee said...

So just to show that things aint always so simple: I swear lots & lots - and my teenage daughter gets a pained expression on her face and says, 'Mum, stop using that language. You're a writer, can't you think of a better way to put it?'

Anne Rooney said...

I so agree Nicola. There are circumstances in which it's impossible to make something sound real without a bit of bad language and I *really* can't see how it's worse than the violence.

Frankie Anon said...

When I was a child, my parents allowed me to read anything I wanted. I read "Manchild in the Promised Land" in 5th grade. That book is what made me want to be a writer. It was the first time I had ever seen the "f-word" in print. No, that word wasn't what made me want to write, but it does exemplify the authenticity this book conveyed. It put me smack in a rough, raw world I had never seen before. I wanted that kind of power. So, I say, let kids read whatever they'd like. They are more discerning and resilient than we might think.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I think there are cases where a bit of mild bad language can't be avoided if you're going to be remotely realistic. I don't like books littered with swear words - anyway, they are much more effective used sparingly. They allow the word 'crap' in U films these days (eg Scooby Doo), 'piss' in PGs (Mathilda)and pretty much anything in 12s - so why not in teen books?

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