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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The F***ing Famous Five

I have been reviewing YA (young adult) fiction for about six months now for the Financial Times. One of the main differences between YA fiction and adult fiction is the attitude to bad language. The YA convention is to avoid it where possible, though it can be alluded to: 'Dad dropped the teapot and said a bad word,' in younger teen novels, for example.

It can go a bit further. Here's the protagonist of Paige Harbison's excellent new novel about a female bully's rehabilitation, Here Lies Bridget (Mira Ink).  She's sitting in the school loos, reading the inscriptions on the inside of the cubicle:

'My heart sank as I read. I was a slut, I was a bitch, I was a spoiled brat and I was a lot of other things. I gasped audibly when I saw that someone even called me a c*** [asterisked in book], a word I had completely banned from my vocabulary...'

So far so good. But Lex by James Mylet (Quercus) takes it to the limit. The eponymous protagonist is 17, living in a small town in Ireland and running a pirate radio station from his bedroom in between school commitments. The book is fresh, it's funny, and it contains abundant four-letter words, all of which are justified by the subject. Lex would swear like this, just like any other 17-year-old.

To me, it's primarily a book about adolescence for adults rather than teen fiction per se, but such is Lex's wonderfully funny voice that it would certainly be enjoyed by someone of the hero's own age or a bit younger. Especially winning is his philosophy of life, expounded throughout the book. 'To be interesting and keep being interesting and keep being interested, that is the pinnacle, that's the ultimate goal of man, not to climb a fucking mountain or score a fucking goal,' is a typical pronouncement. He's also very sound on Bono: 'He's Ireland's most famous person globally and he's a total knob.' (U2 are 'shite'.)

I contacted the publishers about the issue, only to receive an airy comment that teenagers are not likely to be offended by bad language these days. No doubt. I still think it's appropriate to mention in a review if a YA novel contains more than a modicum of cursing, for the parents' sake if nothing else. Books don't have to mimic the real world in every detail. In any case, the most burgeoning genre in YA is fantasy, which generally avoids the issue entirely (fairies don't say 'fuck').

Certain words are starting to creep in now: 'piss off' is pretty standard, 'fuck off' can appear maybe once per book for the older age range. But to be honest, I have rather enjoyed roaming this largely F-free zone. Something would definitely be lost if YA novels routinely employed the sort of language you hear down the high street.

I'd be very interested to hear other peoples' views on this, especially parents of teenagers. It's possible I'm entirely out of touch on the subject of bad language - but just consider the writers we love who elegantly expressed all aspects of human emotion without recourse to it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons, which shows a woman in a bonnet facing two gentlemen across a desk. 'It's very good, Miss Austen,' says one, 'but all the effing and blinding will have to go.'


  1. I think it is very difficult to definte what young adult actually means. I have a-nearly 17 year old who reads a lot of adult fiction (Ishiguro, Mieville, McCarthy) but also quite a bit of teen fiction, and a 14 year old who has just read Vernon God Little and loved it. One of the reasons he liked it was that it had such a lot of swearing in it. But also he liked that it was an adult book he was reading and that swearing was somehow more allowed. He's not a boy who swears much himself (his sister agrees with this, it's not just me being an ignorant mother) and I think he would find it uncomfortable if there was a lot of swearing in the Robert Muchamore books he also relishes. He reads a lot of graphic novels and the violence in those worries me a good deal more than the swearing....

  2. My feeling is that while teenagers will not be offended, their parents, teachers, carers and so on will be. They might even take the book away. Now in some cases that will make the kids even more eager to read it, but a lot are just as likely to say "WTF" and go back to the X-box. Which would be a shame. Also, teenage slang changes with the wind, and so do their taboo words. What looks daring and of-the-moment this year may look as dated as Corblimey! or Jeepers! next year.

  3. I don't think my parents knew what I was reading as a teen. Apart from my texts for school/college. I hate the idea of parents policing everything their kids do. But then I am not a parent.

    I am reminded of The History of the Kelly Gang by Carey. The way he alludes to swearing is really clever.

    I don't have it to hand but he says things like

    'you adjectival bastard'...

    And also Carol Ann Duffy in adultery when she said 'What. Didn't you. Fuck. Fuck. No. That was
    the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun.'

    For me it is all about how the language is used. Not what the individual words are.