I was reading Sarah Dessen's blog--like I do every week day--and I started thinking about something she wrote about on Wednesday. Read the full article here. The main focus of the second part of the posting was her response to an angry email from a parent who was unhappy with Dessen's use of profanity in one of her books. Here is a brief excerpt. The bold texting is highlighting what I think is most important to take away from the whole issue.
In other news, I've spent the last couple of days catching up on my emails, which got entirely backlogged as I went laptop free for the weekend. Among them was one from a very angry mother, whose daughter was apparently reading---and enjoying---my books until she came across a word that offended her (it began with an F, for clarity's sake) at which point she decided to stop reading it. Now, that's her choice, and it's not my place to judge her either way for her decision. The email did not say which book it was, although I have a feeling it might be This Lullaby or even Just Listen. I am not entirely sure, though. But it did say this, in closing:
I was very angry at you and the choice you made by including four-letter words in your “teen”books. Don’t you think these kids are subjected to enough vulgarity in the world today without you adding to it? Shame on you! Ms. Dessen, I don’t know about your household, frankly that’s none of my business, but we don’t use the “f” word EVER. I also don’t understand why you feel the need to use foul language in your books. You may say, “Well,it’s just the times we live in…” I say, whatever excuse you use just doesn’t cut it. We all choose what we say and how we act. You chose incorrectly. We choose now to dispose of your books. Yes, they may have some redeeming value– but at what cost?
Well, this is a good question. I can't begrudge someone for putting my book aside because a word in it offends them, but at the same time I'm not going to change the way I write simply to insure this never happens, because then I'm not writing my books: I'm letting someone else have a say in something that is really very much all my own, and needs to stay that way. I will say that if my editor points out that she thinks something is gratuitious or unnecessary, I have been known to rethink it. But I also believe you get into dangerous territory when you start trying to please EVERYONE, whether it be in life or on the page or anywhere else. It's just not possible. So I have to do the best I can, trust my gut, and write the way I believe I need to write. If that makes someone upset, then I respect that. But I can't change solely because of it. And I guess that reader is the cost that I pay. Which is unfortunate, but that's just how it goes.
On Thursday, Shannon Hale commented on the Higher Power of Lucky controversy highlighting how important word choice is to an author in general. Read her posting here.
Here's what I can't shrug off--the idea that some think Patron included the word in her book for "shock value." Wha....?! I don't know Patron, so I can only think about it from my own perspective as a writer. What a huge waste it would be to put a word in a book that didn't fit character or story just for shock value. I can't imagine any writer worth her salt stooping to such silliness. The only tools we have to tell a story are letters, punctuation, and spaces--odd abstract symbols. No voice inflection, no gestures. Just words. That's a tall order. Why would we waste a single one just to shock and risk ruining the story? Much of the labor of rewriting for me is trying out every single word, checking to see if it's the best one, changing them again and again until I get it just right. The writers I know consider words magical, sacred, powerful. I feel a reverence for the written words that are a storyteller's tools and try not to ever use them lightly.
On Monday, Emily from Whimsy Books posted that she is starting a new blog focusing on 'clean reads' that are free from profanity and sex. She writes, I'm starting a blog in blogger called cleanreads.blogspot.com. (If you visit it now, please understand that it is under construction.) I want it to be a place for teens and adults to come together and recommend/discuss great fiction novels that happen to be clean (mainly free of swearing and sex). And goes on to write, I'm the kind of person that hates conflict. And I'm sure a few of my readers will think this is a bad idea and may even call it a subtle form of censorship. But I'm not starting cleanreads.blogspot.com to keep people from reading anything. It is meant to be a resource for those who choose to read clean books. Her post can be found here and the new blog can be found here.
These three posts (and the ideas therein) have been floating around in my head all week. Some for more obvious reasons. I will be contributing reviews of 'clean books' to the new blog site. I like the idea of creating a resource for family-friendly reads. It does raise a few questions though. It is everyone's right to choose what they read. It can be daunting and overwhelming to find 'clean reads' within the YA genre. You can't always tell by the author's name...or by the cover...or by the publisher...or by the back of the book...if a book is going to be to your liking. If you're easily offended by bad language and sex, then you can get frustrated very quickly. A book can look great. It could have gotten great reviews, but it could have a few scenes that could potentially 'ruin' it in your eyes or opinion. You could get frustrated and overwhelmed and feel like there are no books available out there for you to read. After one or two bad experiences you might give up altogether. You might feel like you'll be stuck reading Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or Great Expectations or Little Women forever because there are no modern-day books out there that are 'good.' Having a resource like http://www.cleanreads.blogspot.com/ available could potentially help a lot of readers. It could provide young readers with a chance to connect with some of today's modern-day greats. It is just getting started, but the potential is there. I see the site as being all about choices. No one is trying to dictate or control what other people are reading, but it is there to help people who do want to find clean, family-friendly titles that they can read and enjoy.
I attended a Christian school k-12. We didn't even have a library at all until I was in fifth grade. But I can tell you this...that library may have been supposed to serve up through twelfth grade...but it had NO young adult books by any of today's standards. It was "Little Women" and "Jane Eyre" or "Charlotte's Web" or "Little House on the Prarie." You either had to read about eight year olds...or read books that were a hundred years old and a little towards the boring side. Although I graduated a year or two before the release of Harry Potter...I have no doubt they would never have made it into the collection. Nothing remotely offensive would have. It was a very sheltered collection of books. It may also be partly why I have come to 'relish' or 'devour' YA books now as a twenty-something. I never had the chance to read them as an actual teen...but I can't get enough of them now.
All that being said, I refuse to judge greatness or quality by the presence or lack of profanity. My site has never focused on providing only'clean reads.' It presents anything and everything. Why? Because I read anything and everything. I enjoy reading books--all kinds of books. I don't need a sanitized or filtered presentation of reality. I want something real. I want something authentic. It doesn't matter to me what is or isn't in them as long as they are written well and are enjoyable. It's the author's choice, the author's voice. They've got to make it work first for themselves and then for other readers. Personally, I think it's sad that people would miss out on a great book solely because of a few words or a few scenes. For example, Looking for Alaska is a great book. One of my favorites. A book I've come to judge other books by. But at the same time, I know that the sex, the drinking, the smoking, the language would make it reprehensible to some folks. It doesn't stop me from loving it. And part of me wishes that they could look past it and see the beauty in it. But that is their choice to make. Not mine.