Author Guest Post: Zack Smedley On the Use of Profanity in YA Books (Including My Own)

One afternoon towards the end of my eighth grade year, I was standing in the hallway of my Catholic K-8 school chatting with a classmate. He mentioned having to babysit that night or something, and I told him, “That sucks.”

“Hey!” This came from a teacher walking by us. “Watch your language!”

She didn’t even say it sharply, but it was a warning—a shot across the bow. I spent the next few minutes keeping my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t get written up.

Growing up, this is what life looked like for me most of the time. Eventually I graduated from K-8 to a public high school, where I was exhilarated to learn we could now say things like “hell” and “sucks” and even “damn it.” Make no mistake: none of this reshaped my opinion on cursing. But it did profoundly instill the sincere belief that adults—“proper” adults, at least—hardly ever used R-rated language except for the occasional lapse, like the dad fixing that furnace in A Christmas Story.

Certainly it’s good to teach teens to “watch their language.” This is what gives profanity its character, after all—the fact that people aren’t supposed to use it. But there’s a difference between teaching someone to avoid a behavior vs. pretending that no decent person engages in the behavior at all.

The golden question I’m here to discuss, then, is this: what constitutes appropriate profanity usage in YA? If the line does exist, where is it?

Why, I’m so glad you asked.

My book DEPOSING NATHAN comes out in 20 days, and this question has been on my mind a lot. I’ve had many conservative/religious family members and friends say they can’t wait to read my story…especially because it makes the argument for the coexistence of being queer and being religious. This is an incredibly pure, G-rated message—one that I’m desperate to see in the hands of parents and classrooms. And yet, woven within it are nearly 100 uses of “fuck,” 71 uses of “shit,” one word so profane that I’ve never seen it in YA before, and countless innuendos. There’s no question that this language will keep the book out of some classrooms, and it will alienate some otherwise eager readers. The entire thing is pro-Christianity and pro-LGBT, yet on page one alone, the narrator uses “Jesus Christ” as a curse and “faggot” as an insult.

(At least we’re being consistent by stepping on both sets of toes at once.)

And yet, I left the language in there. I did so because of my answer to the golden question above. What constitutes appropriate usage of profanity, you ask? To me, it’s simple: profanity can, and should, be included in YA when it meaningfully contributes to the story being told.

I hate how broad that is, because that can be forged into a shield for just about any author to hide behind. But I think “meaningful contribution,” in this case, can be broken down into two tangible components:

  • Realism

One of an author’s most important jobs is to tell their story in a realistic way. For almost every contemporary YA out there, this inevitably involves the inclusion of cursing. There are ways to dial it back, but if your cast of teens swears at the level of Disney characters, it’s painfully obvious. And much like that uncompromising parent or teacher who refuses to acknowledge the simple fact of “we all curse sometimes,” you’ve now demonstrated you have no grasp of the real world. You lose all credibility in a heartbeat.

But think of the children! Even if they’ve heard that language before, you’re advocating for it!

Due respect, Karen, but if I’m encouraging cursing by writing about it, then my book is also encouraging people to beat each other, use homophobic slurs, neglect & abuse their children, and stab their best friend.

I pray this is not new information, but let me unambiguously state that YA novels are not instruction manuals to teens for how to live their lives. And almost every teenager out there is intelligent enough to know that.

  • Significance to the story

The most egregious use of profanity in my novel is, by far, when a teen girl enters a legal proceeding, greets one of the adults in the room, and calls them a cunt.

Oh, how easy it is to condemn that moment! There’s something we can all get behind, right? What parent in the world—regardless of how open-minded they are—could be blamed for wincing, shaking their head and saying, “okay, the author didn’t need to use this word.” I know, because I myself wince at that part every time. I hate the profanity in my own book as a whole, as a matter of fact. But I would criticize the author who chose to remove it. Because all of it, and I mean all of it, has a purpose.

Those two slurs at the beginning? (“Jesus Christ,” “Fag”). Those are spoken by a boy who’s at the pivotal moment of his two worlds splitting, and these slurs anchor us to this moment. This moment that—no spoilers—takes on an entirely different context when we revisit it during the climax.

But the c-word, Zack? The C-WORD. Really.

Yes. Really. Frankly I’m shocked that my publisher let me keep this in, because—as far as I know—I’ve never seen it used in YA literature before. And yet, at the risk of sounding self-important, you could write an essay on the implications behind this character’s use of the word. I’ll keep things vague to avoid spoilers, but in short, there’s something very serious going on that this character knows about, and—as has been established by her backstory—the way she tries to alert people is through acting out in shocking ways. So that’s what happens—it shocks the reader. It becomes a manifestation of this character’s pain and pleading and JUST LISTEN TO ME! Like before, it anchors the reader to a moment…and once again, it’s a moment that carries some vastly different implications later.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not unaware of how the world works. Have I bottlenecked my potential readership through my artistic stubbornness? Certainly. Does it bother me that some teens may never read this because their parents put it back on the shelf? Profoundly. But I stand by my point. Profanity should be included in YA when it’s necessary. And the thing that gives me peace, that helps me not wince or worry, is because I know that the language in my book is necessary to tell the story I’m trying to share.

Because kids like high school me need to see the G-rated façade stripped away to reveal the imperfect, nuanced layers waiting in the world. And ultimately, my entire book is about inversion of stereotypes: sometimes the adults who seem the most saintlike are the most sinful. Sometimes the people who are easiest to blame, or the stories that are hardest to read, are the ones bursting to pour out their truths. Sometimes the most profane of teenagers are the ones most worth listening to.

Zack Smedley was born and raised in southern Maryland, in an endearing county almost no one has heard of. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering from UMBC and currently works within the field. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. He spends his free time building furniture, baking, tinkering with electronics, and managing his obsession with the works of Aaron Sorkin. DEPOSING NATHAN is his first novel.

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