what the $%*!
March 22nd, 2010
When I was writing If I Stay, there were a couple of things I thought might turn people off: All that death. The fact that Mia and Adam have a pretty racy sex scene on the page, and are implicitly sexually active off the page. I even made a couple of changes to one or two scenes with that in mind—not to censor it, but to make it a bit more readable for a younger audience.
But there is one thing I didn’t give a single thought to and that was foul language.
This might be for a couple of reasons. Number one is that Mia herself hardly curses. She might call herself chickenshit once or twice, but she is mostly not a four-letter-word kind of girl. This was not through any intentional cleaning up on my part. I write my characters as I hear them and Mia I heard as a sort of mature one not prone to the foul language (her mom, on the other hand, different story).
Another reason I might not have given the cursing much though is that I do curse. A lot. Well, not such a lot now that I have small kids of my own and am always censoring myself and editing myself. When Willa was little and used to drive me insane I would curse in initials. “Oh, C the F D,” I would tell her as she tantrummed. I take it as a mark of pride that Willa did not utter the F or Sh word until she was 5 and the F word she did not know what it meant or that it was a bad word. Now she does and when she hears other people say it, her eyes go big with the scandal. She has permission to charge me a quarter every time I say it and so far she hasn’t even earned a dollar. She loves to say “What the heck!” or sometimes just “What the….” because she thinks she is committing some huge transgression. Apparently, she has it in the genes, too.
You see, I am the daughter of a cursing mother (and, to lesser degree father) and though they probably kept it in check while I was little, clearly, the sailor tendencies are in our blood.
Which is funny because in so many ways, my family—much like Mia’s—is pretty Cleaveresque. My parents are racing toward their 50 year wedding anniversary. My siblings and I are all married with kids. My parents raised us all with a very strong sense of unconditional love but also a sense of doing what’s right for your family, your community. To me that’s all very Family Values. So to me, clean language and morality have never been remotely connected. In my family, you say fuck. Then you go volunteer at the soup kitchen.
So, it’s kind of a surprise to see a number of people offended by the foul language in If I Stay—namely Adam’s, Mom’s and Henry’s, I guess. They’d be the principal potty mouths. I’ve seen Amazon reviews with headings: “Beautiful Book, Filthy Language.” I’ve seen other reviews deduct stars because of the language. I’ve had a librarian write to me saying she loved the book but regretted that her school would not carry it because of the language and asked me if the profanity was necessary. I’ve seen enough people get upset about this that it has started to penetrate, to make think about bad language as I’m writing my current book.
Which is weird because I never really thought about this before. To me, I just write the characters as I hear them and some of them curse and some of them don’t. And as a writer, it just feels wrong to sub a crap for a shit when shit is the word that sounds right. Or a darn for a damn. I mean, really, darn? What 18-year-old says darn? I am not writing about the Amish.
I’ve had more people complain about the bad language than the sex, which I find bewildering (not that I want people to complain about the sex). I brought up this whole disconnect at a dinner of YA authors recently and someone commented that maybe readers aren’t really upset about the language but the language is just an entry point for a broader issue that’s upsetting them but it’s easier to criticize the specific. And that got me thinking about other things I’ve seen written, assumptions some readers have made about me based upon If I Stay: that I don’t go to church, I’m an atheist, liberal, approve of teenage drinking. To set the record straight, no I don’t go to church—I’m Jewish, I go to temple. Nope, not an atheist. Liberal? More of a centrist pragmatist actually, like the Dutch, and I’ll give my trustworthy teenager wine with dinner, sure, like the French (way lower binge drinking rates, btw) but if I catch her pounding at a kegger, or drinking and driving, she’s busted beyond belief. I’m not my characters, people, and they’re not me. It’s called FICTION.
I don’t know. Maybe my friends at the dinner were right. Maybe some people are freaked out by the cognitive dissonance of a cursing, post-punk Family Values Gen X mom and dad who accept their daughter’s sexuality. Or maybe not. Maybe some people really did grow up in households where they said “Oh, fiddlesticks,” instead of “Oh, shit.” when a toe was stubbed.
In any case, I’m in trouble. Because my next book, Where She Went, is told from Adam’s point of view. And when Adam talks in my head, well, let’s just say he’s not saying “What the heck!”