Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Oh no. It's discussing swear words time again. Earlier this year it was Dan Tunstall's Big and Clever - the publisher, the agent and the author sitting down at a high powered meeting discussing whether and how often we can use the word "fuck", and all the rest. The book is set among football hooligans, a group rarely known for their use of phrases like "you are a rotter" or "oh dearie me". So the dialogue had to be realistic, but not so realistic as school libraries would refuse to stock the book. Apparently the "c word" is not really acceptable, but what about the answering chant on the terraces to "KIDDerminster" - apparently opposing fans regularly reply with the "c word". What if we spelt it with a "k"?

It felt like a game of cards - I'll swap you one shagging if you take out one, well, you get the drift.

And now, working on a forthcoming young adult fiction book it is back to the same issue. With added complications - can we really have an underage driver, who is something of a hero in the book, and what about the two main characters not wearing a seatbelt?

And then there's drugs and underage drinking.

What is our responsibility here? To the author, to the integrity of the book or to a mythical school librarian poring over every word, or to an outraged parent?

Five Leaves is hardly the first publisher to be faced with these problems, but it doesn't make it any easier knowing that.


David Belbin said...

I saw 'The Fantastic Mr Fox' yesterday, in which all the cuss words are wittily replaced with the word 'cuss' (you'll have to believe me, George Clooney makes it funny). Wasn't it Alex Cox's 'Repo Man' that coined 'frig', overusing it so much that it became both funnier and more offensive than the word it replaced? Made-up cusses can be funny.
Otherwise, less is more. I've got away with everything but the c word in my recent novels, but the first time I used 'fuck' (twice, with the editor's approval) the novel was censored after the proof stage, and I haven't written another novel for that publisher since (more my loss than theirs, of course). It isn't big, and it isn't clever, but sometimes swearing is necessary for effect and for verisimilitude. Of course you can always get around it by writing 'he swore' or 'she called him the most vile word she could think of and he called her an even nastier one back' which might excite the reader's imagination more than the actual words ever would.

Anonymous said...

A Ross Bradshaw blog? Good lord! Next thing you know you will be levering traffic to your posts via Twitter.

Maxine said...

I've just started reading Black Rabbit Summer, by Kevin Brooks.
"It's a world of casual sex, text messaging, random violence and drinking till you puke." Guardian review.

"Deals with murder, drugs, drink and sexual themes so definitely a teenage read." Amazon review.
And s*** appears twice in the first two chapters...

It is strange when you're writing for an audience who won't turn at hair at any of these things, but have to censor because it won't be them who's buying the book, it will be their parents and other people who know what's good for them!

But I guess it's just the conservative world we're living in...

Claire T said...

The odd swear word here and there has more impact than a stream of it, and is sometimes necessary to portray real life.

As far as responsibility goes, kids are growing up faster these days, and it’s a darker world out there. Showing the consequences of a negative action can go a long way, and if the story's strong enough, the message will come through without it appearing preachy. I think it’s the writer’s responsibility to encourage readers to decide for themselves what’s right, what’s wrong and when there’s an exception to the rule.