To *$@! or not to *#@!

I’m currently reading John Green’s Looking For Alaska, which was the winner of the Silver Inky award for 2007 (and numerous other prizes). I thoroughly recommend it.

Among other things, this boarding school story contains images of teenagers smoking and drinking to excess – partly to be cool and rebellious and partly to disconnect themselves from consciousness of various events in the characters’ lives. (Apologies if I’m being vague but I hate spoilers.) The teens also use colourful language.

My favourite YA book from 2007 is Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the tale of an impetuous, passion-fuelled night in New York. I really enjoyed this novel but, initially at least, found the profanity-laden language used by the characters to be a distraction. As the story progressed, I become hardened to this and didn’t even notice the swearing any more.

Now I’m reworking the dialogue in my manuscript and my wife has suggested I need to consider unleashing the wolves in my characters’ speech. I’m (they’re?) being too polite, she reckons.

It’s a vexed issue for me. I listen to how teens talk and try to bring a realistic version of their speech to my characters. And many teens swear so often it loses its shock value. It’s almost comical how rude words are abused in every conversational context.

In Game as Ned, which was set in the 1970s, I kept the swearing under control and limited it to words such as the Great Australian Adjective ‘bloody’. My current story is far more contemporary. If I’m going to hold a recorder up to current teen speech, I should be using words much stronger than ‘bloody’.

But for some reason I’m reluctant to linguistically go all the way. Maybe it’s because I wouldn’t want my kids talking that way or because I know there are loyal older readers who enjoyed my first book and would be offended by such language. Maybe I’d like to believe fiction can paint a picture without the colours having to be as brutally vivid as in real life. And that a book can be cool without dropping the f-bomb.

Whatever the case, it’s something I’m tossing around at present. Any thoughts / arguments from readers would be welcome. As a librarian said to me this morning: “If it’s full of swearing the library probably wouldn’t buy a copy … but if the kids think it’s banned from school they’ll all buy their own, which might be better for you”. Hmmm.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to meet Nick & Norah’s co-author Rachel Cohn during the Melbourne Writers’ Festival this year. She asked her audience for permission to read from the novel uncensored. Everyone present agreed. BTW, Nick & Norah is coming out as a movie around Boxing Day, starring Michael Cera from Superbad and Juno. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the story transfers to the big screen.

You can check out the trailer here.

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