What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding “you’ll like it; there’s swearing in it.” (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the “swearing” bit because when I had read it I didn’t even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be “appropriate” for our nation’s youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it’s discussed – on the whole – far less. I should mention that when I talk about “colorful” language in books, I’m not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it’s appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript – one that I was excited to begin – and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn’t know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a “bitch,” as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn’t ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don’t have to worry about that as much. (If you’re familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren’t writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don’t have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader – especially if you’re writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you’re establishing your main character’s voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they’re forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I’m just being prudish about “the devil’s words,” I’ll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet “motherfucker!” when they stub their toe. It’s natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you’re writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’re being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I’m of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you whether your story needs carry it.

Gateway Books

As an agent, I represent both YA and adult fiction because as a reader, I love both equally. Admittedly, I read a lot more YA than adult, especially since I became an agent, because that’s what’s sent to me most often. (Note: this is not a complaint!) It’s my job to keep up with the markets I’m specializing in, so even in those rare moments of free time, I read YA.

However, in the same way I can’t read too many books within any specific genre in a row, I find that too much YA leaves me craving something more grown up, something written with absolutely no regard for a younger audience. The language gets denser, the characters are closer to my age, and the situations are more relevant to my life. As complex and literary and wonderful as YA can be, the whole point of it is to speak to the teenage experience. I don’t think I’m alone here when I say that remaining in high school forever feels like a cruel joke. Much like in my actual teen years, sometimes all I want to do is graduate and embrace the adult experience.

There are many other readers out there who manage to strike this same balance between YA and adult fiction. But, there are others who are clearly in one camp or the other. I’ve met readers (and writers) who barely know any modern adult fiction titles because they only follow the YA community. Likewise (as we read about way more often than we should), adult fiction readers, of both commercial and literary tastes, tend to either a) think of YA as “kid stuff,” which to them includes teens, or b) don’t understand what YA is and don’t enough care to find out.

Neither side here is right, and in their own way, neither side is really wrong. As long as one refrains from bashing the other, it all comes down to personal preference. But if you’re one of those readers who spends way too much time reading one vs. the other; or you want to try YA, but you’re hung up on the stigma of shopping in the “teen” section; or you’re waiting for an adult novel to speak to you as much as YA has, then might I suggest a few gateway titles that will make the transition easier:

1. Election by Tom Perrotta: Ah, Tracy Flick. The original Hermione Granger, minus the ability to conjure spells. All Tracy conjured was an immediate sense of annoyance and disdain… but who also had an odd likability. She wants to be president of her high school and one day conquer the world, but her teacher, Mr. M, would rather that didn’t happen. The novel takes place in high school and only has one real adult protagonist (if you want to call him that) in the mix of teenagers. Yet it’s a deeply rich satire about politics and scandal. If you’ve seen the equally brilliant film version, then you know this isn’t meant to speak directly to the teenage experience, but it features teens we all know, even sometimes love.

2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss: I read this book in a class called “Young Adult as the Narrator” when I was getting my MFA and couldn’t understand why this book was even on the course list. It had nothing to do with young adult fiction, or so I thought. Which I guess was the point of the class. Told from the alternating perspectives of 14-year-old Alma and 90-year-old Leo, it’s a story about family and survival and self-discovery. While no one could accidentally misplace this in the YA section like they could with Election, The History of Love is a novel teenagers would enjoy because its core themes transcend age, like all good novels should. But with a young narrator, it makes the crossover appeal that much easier to take in.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Published in the late 1940s, this novel also features a teenage narrator whose focus is on her family. It’s hard for me not to compare this novel to Jane Austen – wise-beyond-her-years young woman sees herself as an outsider in her formerly prominent family, who is dealing with the changing times in the English countryside. Then, to shake things up, handsome (American!) young men move in next door and matchmaking ensues… It’s all there, but 17-year-old Cassandra Morton’s family are no Bennetts. They are dysfunctional and broken and wildly eccentric – and Cassandra’s sharp eye and wit is there to capture it all.

4. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito: The subtitle for this book is “A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater” and I picked it up in the bookstore for that reason. I was 20 when I read it, and having been a proud member of my high school’s drama club, a book about “play people” (as they’re called in the book) who drink, have sex, and go on madcap adventures to New York City was appealing. This book would probably be more for adult readers who want to segue into YA, but honestly even knowing what I know now about the industry, I’m not sure where I’d categorize this. I bought it in the regular fiction section, but it could very easily fit in on a YA shelf next to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or Youth in Revolt. It’s a crazy book and laugh-out-loud funny (a phrase I do not use lightly!). Basically every age group should read it, even if you weren’t a play person.

5. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: This is an easy, if not obvious, pick coming from me. Not only does it introduce reluctant YA readers to a younger character, but it introduces sci-fi skeptics to a world where battling aliens is just as important as the literary writing style and richly developed characters. The thing about Ender is that he is very young, not even a teenager. So while the overarching plot is pure sci-fi territory, the readers get to see a very simple coming of age story. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it. I’ve also just noticed Orson Scott Card’s original dedication as I leafed through my copy – “For Geoffrey, who makes me remember how young and how old children can be.” It can’t really be said better than that, can it?

Reading the above-mentioned titles will not only convert reluctant readers on both sides, but they will also help any of you writers out there who are thinking crossing age lines. You may have noticed that several adult authors are tackling YA these days (Grisham and Patterson among the larger names). You may have also noticed it’s not a matter of simply “dumbing down” prose and making a few characters younger. It’s writing with an entirely different viewpoint in mind, one that most adults have not considered in quite a while. Tapping into a part of your brain that hasn’t been used in decades is not easy. Oh no, how do teens think? Will they understand if I use this literary device? Do they modern-day teens even care about this anymore? It’s easy to get yourself worked up over whether your audience will “get” you if you are trying something completely new. Same goes for YA authors trying adult for the first time. I find that if I read too many YA voices in a row, the switch to an adult perspective can be jarring. Switching your brain in order to write it is even more of a challenge. Even though the adult voice is the writer’s own voice, it is still a daunting task. That’s where crossover titles – Gateway Books – come in. They exist in the middle, and writers can pick and choose what they need to take from them.

If you’re wondering why I left out the more obvious titles of To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, or Huck Finn, it’s because you already read them. Also, with the exception of Dodie Smith, the above titles are for the more contemporary reader. I find “classics” to be classics for a reason; people of all age groups have accepted them as “great” or are being told they’re great high school. Contemporary fiction is still divided. You either “like that kind of thing” or don’t. Not enough time has passed to see where they’ll fall in the literary spectrum.

Whether you’re on Team YA or Team Adult, I guarantee reading the above-mentioned titles (in no particular order) will help you find value in both styles of writing – one way or the other. Unfortunately, this is not a money-back-guarantee, so in case I’m proven wrong please accept the following song as a consolation.

(But I doubt I’ll be proven wrong. You will love them and learn from them!)

Have a good weekend, everyone.