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!”

  1. I love this blog post. I always find it strange the conclusions people can draw about a writer based on his/her fiction. Honestly, though I myself never cuss, I’ve found that I hardly notice it at all. I didn’t even realize IF I STAY had cursing in it.

    …maybe I need pay more attention, but it just never really catches my attention.

  2. Here’s my beef with reviews like that — teenagers curse. Some curse rarely, some curse a little, some curse a lot. If we want YA fiction to feel real and truly represent the youth of today, then it will contain cursing.

    I feel the same about sex in YA.

  3. Teens curse! You have use the right language for the character. I totally agree and I cannot wait to read from Adam’s point of view!

  4. ahaha, today there is a rager going on in the comments on my Tablet column because i used the word “jerkwad.” in an essay aimed at ADULTS.

    next time i’m using “douchenozzle.”

  5. Another fucking great post.

    Thank you, Gayle. I am so thankful for writers like you.

  6. Stephanie’s comment was perfect.
    Write the way the way you feel is right. What is right for you and your characters will be right for the readers.
    I didn’t even notice the language much in If I Stay. I still loved the book.
    And I still love you. :]

  7. What f***ing bad language????? Its all relative!


  8. I say screw ’em. (Not literally, but you get the idea.) The characters are the characters. They have their views and personalities. They say what they feel like saying because they’re like regular people. Growing up in South Florida has gotten me in places I don’t like to go, but I understand when a good curse word needs to be said. More often than not over here, trust me. I absolutely love your book and am currently lending my copy to a friend. Guess what? She LOVES it, too. I say don’t give in to your readers negativity and don’t change a DAMN thing in Where She Went just to satisfy them.

  9. I’m with you all the way!

    And no one should say shit OR fiddlesticks “when a toe is stubbed.” Science has proved that, at such times, we’re all supposed to yell, “FUCK!”,8599,1910691,00.html

    P.S. Side note: just as you’re frustrated that people would associate swearing with a lack of moral character, I find it equally frustrating that anyone would being a Atheist or Liberal implies a lack of moral character.

  10. WOW ~ I for one can not give enough praise on if I stay. It was one of the few reviews that I have written on goodreads. And don’t you dare change a thing with “where she went” because of a few people and their sensitivity! We love the way you write Gayle!

  11. This is a GREAT post! I curse like a sailor myself… actually, I’ve made several sailors blush… no, really, my brother in-law is a sailor…

    That said, I think it’s very very strange what people take offense to. I curse like a sailor, but I’m a virgin. I don’t have any problems with OTHER people having sex though. And I don’t have a problem reading about sex in a YA because, gosh darn it, sex happens. So does cussing.

    In a different-but-on-topic vein, I’ve had several people remark that I’m too graphic in my own writing when it comes to peeing and periods. This stems from the fact that the dystopian YA I’m peddling to agents opens with a girl peeing and subsequently finding out that she’s gotten her period. This is an important thing. She lives in a world where bleeding attracts things that want to eat you, and where women are cherished if they can have children. No agent has ever had a problem with the opening. But several non-professional people have asked me if I could ‘allude’ to the character’s condition by merely dropping hints. And if I could leave out anything at all regarding cramps and how they might hinder her. Seriously? Cramps are too much for the public to read about? Not to mention the novel is written in first person, and who thinks about their period in peripheral hints?

  12. “Maybe some people really did grow up in households where they said “Oh, fiddlesticks,” instead of “Oh, shit.”… ”
    ^That cracked me up! XD

  13. That is fascinating! I had no idea. Now I feel vindicated for howling (or muttering, these days) swear words whenever I bang into something. Which is often. In addition to being a potty mouth, I am a klutz. Thanks for sharing the link, Phoebe!

  14. Great post. And I didn’t even notice the cussing either. I myself hardly cuss (which is how my friends know when I’m REALLY upset), but I don’t mind cussing in books. If that’s how the character talks, then that’s how they talk. No worries.

  15. I love this description:

    “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.”

    You are fucking fabulous!

  16. Great post! I’m reading this book right now and don’t find the language a turn-off or even excessive. It’s used appropriately in my opinion. With that said, I do swear like a sailor most of the time.
    Btw, off subject, your characters filled my dreams last night. This would make a great movie, imo.
    And I do agree, you fucking rock!

  17. To me, as a teenager, swearing in a YA book is very realistic….Just like underage drinking, teenage sex among other activities that for some reason a lot of adults choose to ignore in real life and then shun a book because it talks about this sort of stuff. Because to me, that is what teenagers are exposed to, or take part in anyways.

    Even going to a Catholic school, it is very unlikely you are going to be walking down the hall in between class change to hear someone bellow “Oh,for fuck sake!” I personally don’t swear that much myself, (because I don’t see it’s necessary) but many people do – one of the best teachers I ever had, my religion teacher, by chance, saw no problem in swear, and was notorious for telling a student that their excuse was shit. He was also a huge supporter of our moral responsibility, to help others, taking us into the city to feed the homeless.

    Personally, it is one of my biggest pet peeves when while on Amazon, to find comments on books – amazing books – where adults feel the need to take away from an incredible YA book just because of sex or drinking or swearing or doing drugs. I can understand this, slightly, if a younger child picked up that book and read it. But realistically, a teenager is exposed to that on a daily basis. I know I am, without a doubt.
    Just because a book has some ‘inappropriate’ content does not give a person the right to let it take away from the book.

    Books are great for being able to talk about issues that most people wouldn’t want to talk about with their parents – Sarah Dessen’s “Someone Like You” and teen pregnancy. Ellen Hopkins book’s and the many issues they bring up. The Sky is everywhere and grief. If I Stay and death – to me, this make the most valuable books, for educating us about something we may not have experienced yet.
    And if telling a story about teens includes swearing, then so be it.
    If you have a problem with the content, in my opinion, DON’T READ THE DAMNED BOOK!

  18. Love love love this effing post! Oh and yes there are a few F-bombs in my novel because that’s how some teens talk!

  19. Now, I need to go read it.

    The truth is, I don’t notice the cussing, until it’s coming at you sailor strength, every other word.

    Btw, damn is still considered a cussword? WHo knew?

  20. Ooh, now I have to read your book. It sounds fucking awesome.

  21. Girl, you know I’m on the same page. When my characters want to curse, I just write down what they fucking say.



  22. heyyyy i love the book if i stay!! all the books i read has no foul lang unless one or two words, but i think it makes you different from most writers who dont. I think it is your opinion that matters in your books not other peoples. Although I say keep the lang and your books how you like them.

  23. Haha. I think that’s great! I didnt notice thaat much swearing in the swedish version, but maybe it’s because it’s not such a big deal here in sweden.. or at least for me, i guess.
    I really hope you dont let the critics and stuff get to you. The stories should be told as they are! As they are in your head. End of discussion!

  24. Wow this post has a lot of comments.. and here is another… )/)%*(%@

  25. Wow this post has a lot of comments..and here is another…If I Stay is one of my all time favorite books, I love the characters and the plot! This post is the reason I read your blog; I love your view of life and all that comes with it…. The people that complain about language in the book, that’s just part of life, you cant go most places without hearing a curse word or foul language…..There are more pressing issues in the world to be concerned about..Its kind of ironic that people are more concerned about language rather than sex…hope i used that in the right context…lol.. The way you write your characters makes them seem more real!Welp I’m done with my ramblings….Thanks Gayle for your insight and your blogging! ~Peace~

  26. This is Gayle’s older brother.

    The longer I am married to someone who was raised with a proper “Main Line” upbringing, the more remarkable I find our upbringing. We really did live in a household that was very accepting of teenage sexuality and cursing like a sailor while believing that stability and responsibility were to be expected. In my mind there is no cognitive dissonance between being randy or cursing and being responsible and stable. I doubt one American in 100 has a similar upbringing.

  27. This is true, Greg. Maybe it’s our parents’ age. A little too old to be hippies, a little too young to be traditional 1950s parents, so they kind of took the best of both. I don’t know, but they were/are a rare mix. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

  28. I rarely, if ever, swear now, and I hardly ever swore growing up. But it never even occurred to me to be offended by anything in IF I STAY, and it’s on my list of favorite books. I am looking forward to buying WHERE SHE WENT more than any other book!

  29. I find this post very refreshing. I consider my swearing kind of like an accent. I don’t talk that way all the time but it is my original dialect, one I fall back on in comfortable settings or times of stress. I curb it big time in front of my kids, one day they will be very surprised when I finally let it fly.

    I am about to start If I Stay. I won it on Courtney’s blog. Can’t wait to dive in.

  30. Well said, pretty much summed up my feelings on the subject. My little guy will also not hear the F-word from me, but you can bet your ass everyone else around me does.

    Fourth graders know this stuff, we’re not protecting anyone’s innocence. Particularly when you consider that all those replacement words and euphemisms serve the same purpose. I like to imagine that the religious and cultural dictates against swearing are getting at the INTENT of swearing, not the language used. If you really want to be “moral” you should curse at all. Not even fiddle-dee-dee, because you’re still “cursing” the person or the object of your ire. It’s not the words, people.

    Thanks, Gayle.

    – Liz

  31. You know what I find funny about people getting offended at curse words? THEY’RE JUST WORDS. We gave them a meaning and could have chosen the word banana to use instead of shit. It’s just a word.

  32. *raises hand* I’m 18 and I say darn. I’ve actually been trying to cut out “frig” because I don’t like saying it around kids so I end up saying, “Frig, shoot, darn” a lot.

    But I’m weird. And I work with kids, baby-sitting an 8 year old 50-60 hours a month and doing Storytime at my library, but I’ve never been one to curse. I just don’t.

    However, my mother curses like a truck driver and I have NO problems with it in books. (One of my favourite things about If I Stay WAS the language, because it was real.) (Also the whole incredible, amazing, made-me-cry thing.) And in the books I write, people swear. I have a character whose favourite word is the F-word, but that’s who she is and that’s what the book is and I really hope that I can have the same bad-@$$ed attitude you do :D

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