Monday, January 25, 2010

The F Bomb

So I tried a little experiment the other day. I pulled out a popular, commercially successful YA novel which had been published by a reputable house and turned into a successful motion picture and counted the “fucks” on every page.

That got a little boring (there were a lot of them) so I decided to simply check to see if the F Word appeared on every page. That became tedious as well (few pages lacked a “fuck”), especially because I became distracted by all the “shits” and considered tabulating their occurrences, too.

This little experiment actually had a point. I’ve been wondering: if YA dialect is to be authentic, must it necessarily be obscene? And yes, I do mean dialect, not dialogue. Face it, grownups: they speak a version of English more easily translated in the Urban Dictionary than the Oxford English Dictionary. More than occasionally I hear a word emerge from a teenage mouth and I wonder: what the dickens did that mean? For example: rager. Until recently I didn’t know a rager was a big party, and I’m not alone in my ignorance. I was out hiking with moms-of-teenage-kids and I asked the group, “So, who knows what a rager is?” and nary a soul could answer. So, yes, teens speak in dialect.

But, back to the potty mouth. I ask you: really?

Are today’s teenagers swearing to such an extent that a realistic depiction of their conversation translates into an F Bomb or more per page? I consider this just as I complete a scene in my latest novel in which the F Bomb most certainly appears and feels appropriate. The characters’ language is consistent with their behavior and deportment and the choices they make later in the book. Then again … am I just being lazy? Do I hope to find an authentic voice by simply sprinkling the text with a few swears, plus the occasional “dude” and the ever-present “like”? (As in, “It was, like, you know, totally awesome, dude, like, you wouldn’t believe it!”)

My brother and his family recently returned from a trip in Ireland, and my little nephew, all of seven years old, commented, “All the kids are always saying …” He leaned in to whisper: “Fuck!” Yes indeedy the F Bomb is alive and well among Irish youth today … and if you don’t believe my nephew check out Roddy Doyle’s books. I was thumbing through The Barrytown Trilogy and saw more F’s per page than in the aforementioned YA-novel-turned-into-a-successful-motion-picture.

But here’s the deal: Doyle’s dialogue rings true. He knows his characters, this is how they speak to each other, and if it’s a struggle to understand it on the page, try reading it out loud. You hear real people, you get caught up the cadences of their language, and before you know it you are transported into their world.

Author (and newly minted Printz Award winner!) Libba Bray does this very well. Her teenage-boy narrator in Going Bovine, with all his variations on the word “suck” and the proliferation of “dude!” is pure American teen. I believe in this boy and I walk alongside him on his journey. Likewise, the obscenity-free Victorian-era patter of her teenage girls in A Great and Terrible Beauty. Their language, more than anything else, helped place me in a time and space quite different to my own.

I know dang well that a single F-Bomb might keep my book off certain library shelves. But I also know that in my quest for authentic voice, I may have to choose words and language which I personally may not use, but which my characters will use. I guess the challenge is to use the language carefully and not gratuitously. But I guess that can be said for every word on the page. Le mot juste, and all that.


  1. Nope, didn’t know about “ragers,” but that might be because my kids and their friends don’t go to them, at least not yet. What a great word, though!

    My kids swear hardly at all and speak grammatically, even among their friends, although that makes them a bit weird. During our year in the UK, my kids reported that the Brits swear more than Americans, including at school.

    Good point about careful word choice, even beyond swears. Besides, swears lose their impact with overuse. It just becomes noise.

    For the fun of it, I just checked (via “find) my YA manuscript:
    2 F-bombs with due cause
    3 bitches, including one that actually refers to a female dog
    4 damns - one was in a Shakespeare quotation!

  2. In my extended family there are 23 teens, and in their talk there's a lot of 'F this' and 'F that.' They're all about exploring their sexuality at the moment, as well as asserting their exit out of childhood.

  3. I just read this post along with the "Same as Ever Was..." post and am going to comment about both of them here because I think in some ways, you are commenting on the same thing.

    So in "Same that it ever was..." you make the point that the parents should stand their ground. I'm not disagreeing! But I think there is another aspect and that is the role that parents making rules and teenagers breaking rules play in the coming of age process. For some teenagers, this process of transferring from childhood into adulthood is relatively pain free - and we adults judge them as being "mature" since there is seemingly little to no rebellion against the adult rules. (I would argue that is it lack of adult knowledge, not lack of rebelling, that leads us to this judgment.) Other teenagers are wired to rebel, to push back, to create their own form of society through their actions and yes, language (F-bomb or not).

    Mind you, I am talking as a YA lit critic, not as an author or mother. If authenticity in language and, shall we say, situations is what you are after, then thinking as a rebellious teenager is a must. And all teenagers are rebellious - it's just to what level? Or maybe it is to what definition? What do you consider "rebelling" to be? Does breaking little rules (akin to telling "white lies") count as rebelling? I would say Tess is rebelling - but I would also say that dropping the F-bomb is a form of rebelling since it goes against society's rules of etiquette, etc. The very fact that children whisper the world tells you it is rebellion.

    So how do you write about young adults? Ha ha - I am a critic, not an author and I happily leave the hard work to you! But I know the books I enjoy show the nuances of what it means to be a teenager. The little rebellions and the big ones. The choice to use specific words or not. (Side note here: the f-word is more common in certain areas than others and has become "accepted" but until I hear the Queen/President use the f-word in a speech and not for some shock value, then it is still a means of rebellion.) I think in some ways John Green's *Looking for Alaska* is successful in showing big and little moments of rebellion - and language choice in different registers as well. Of course the danger with dialect is that if it is too authentic, you can be accused of stereotyping or be out of date in a matter of moments. The nature of changing language isn't always a great thing!

    Did I make a point? I think I might have somewhere in there but had best end the comment before I become accused of blogging on your blog! ;)