I write fiction. My fiction includes characters who are just as emotional, flawed, and complicated as anyone in real life. And people in real life curse.
The subject of swear words in writing came up recently at my Rowan University Seminar class. My classmates and I are making preparations to go to the graduate symposium, where we will be giving presentations based on our Master’s in Writing thesis projects. For most of us, these projects are novels and memoirs (except Steve, cause he’s a rebel like that). As part of these presentations, we’ll be reading some of our work out loud. And some of our work has curses in it.
After a brief discussion, we seemed to reach a general consensus that reading a chapter that contains cursing in front of the audience is fine, as long as it’s not like a scene from the South Park movie.
In the last few days, I’ve also seen some people tweeting about this subject, asking questions like, “Is it okay to write curses in a YA fantasy novel?” Answers tend to vary, though what I most commonly hear is something along the lines of, “Yes, if it’s in character for that person to curse, and it’s not excessive.”
Fuck that, and here’s why.
I’m not going to talk at all about censorship, about the infamous Clean Reader app, or about the distinction between the target audience in a Young Adult vs New Adult vs Adult book. Instead, I’m going to talk about death.
No, no, bear with me!
I’m a fan of the webcomic Erfworld (stick around, I’m going somewhere with this). I’ve been reading it almost since the day it launched, back when it was hosted on the Order of the Stick website. Erfworld is a world filled with magic, where many things are puns or cute, child-like interpretations of normally serious things. For example, there are giant stuffed animal “cloth golems” and dragons that spit bubble gum. And in keeping with this cute, child-like theme, there’s a magical effect across the whole world that prevents people from cursing. If you try to curse, you’re booped out, just like on cable TV. The very gods of this world prevent foul language.
Throughout the course of the comic, the gods DO allow a lot of other things: war, death, destruction, betrayal, scheming, manipulation, and KISS impersonations. They don’t censor any of that. They don’t save people from being killed, even when it’s by being eaten by a dwagon, being torn in half, having your head blown off, or being caught in a volcanic eruption. A lot of people die in this comic. By the thousands.
At the end of the first book, the main character, Parson Glotti, gives a speech about the hypocrisy of this, shouting his protests up to the skies in the hopes that Erfworld’s gods will hear him. He finishes with a big hearty “FUCK YOU!”
And, of course, people complained.
At least one very vocal reader pitched a huge fit on the Giant in the Playground forums (since Erfworld was still hosted there at that time). They said that it was very inappropriate to say the word “fuck” in a comic, particularly in one that is geared towards younger readers (mostly teenagers, I imagine). The response to this complaint basically said that it’s ridiculous to be angry over a bad word being used when you just finished reading a comic where the climax involved thousands of people being killed in a magically-induced massive volcanic eruption. Nobody complained when Parson Gotti ordered the spellcasters under his command to commit mass-murder. But they complained when he said the word “Fuck.”
And, ironically, Parson’s speech to the gods at the end addressed exactly that same point: that it’s hypocritical for them to censor his language, when they allowed the real obscenity of war and death to go on.
This is why I’ll never censor any of my language. My novel, Manifestation, contains two uses of the word “bitch,” eleven of the word “damn,” seven of “shit,” and thirty-six uses of various forms of “fuck” (including one use of “fuck-buddy”). That’s a total of fifty-six uses of the most common curse words in a 240 page novel. And it contains 76 uses of various forms of “die,” “died,” “dead,” and “death.” A lot of people die tragic deaths, and every once in awhile, one of the survivors curses.
Which of those things do you think has more meaning and impact? Which would you not want your children to repeat? If your answer is “the cursing,” then, well, I think you should consider what that says about you.
Death appears in literature because we all, as mortal humans, need to come to terms with it. Sometimes we experience it in real life, when a friend or family member is tragically taken from us. Other times, we see it in movies, TV shows, and books. When that happens, it gives us the chance to think about the meaning of life, about how much our loved ones mean to us, about the importance of holding on to the connections you make in life, and about how to cope with the horrors of war, murder, and disaster. We think about how we would react in the same situation, when we see a family member die right in front of us, or we witness a fatal car crash, or our homes are attacked by terrorists. It brings up a lot of emotion.
And I think it’s perfectly natural for someone in that situation, whether it’s a real person or a fictional character, when faced with something they don’t know how to handle, to stare death in the face and say, “Fuck you.”
and in ebook format through: