Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books Week: I Censor Myself, so You Don't Have To

So, my daughter's high school is getting into the censorship act.  Recently they had a pep rally before their big football game against their cross-town rivals.  The students had a cheer that ended, "Hell, yes!"  Administration--who are also getting a bit bolshie about dress code, IMHO--disliked the word "hell," and so urged the students to say, "Oh, yes!"  And when it came time for the cheer, the entire senior class stood up and roared, "FUCK, yes!"

Score one for freedom of expression.

Look, everyone, they're words.  Some of them are stronger or more repugnant than others.  But still just words.

And yet.  I write mostly for middle school students, and that means I censor myself.  If I wrote for high school I could maybe get away with the odd obscenity--but I don't, so I can't.  Exercising my right of free expression by putting an F-bomb in the middle of one of my books would keep my books out of every school in the country and therefore limit sales.

Just ask Polly Horvarth, the author of The Pepins and their Problems, Everything on a Waffle, and several other deliciously quirky middle-grades books.  She's got one called The Canning Season that I particularly like, and that no middle-school teacher I've ever met has even heard of.  Right in the middle of it,  an F-bomb goes off like a hand grenade.  I say so because the word does seem superfluous to me.  I think Polly could have edited it out without changing the meaning of the paragraph, much less the book.  I almost wonder if she put it in as a sort of experiment, to see if that one word would change the life of the book.

I don't have access to her sales figures, but I'd say it has.  I looked the book up on Amazon yesterday.   The editorial reviews rave about it, while all adding in delicate catch-phrases such as "a sprinkling of profanity."  We book reviewers (I am one) try to give book-buyers a gentle warning about bad words, sex, drug use--anything that might set a parent off.  (It never sets the student off.  I have never once heard a child complain that a book had bad words or mature situations.  It's always the parents doing the challenging.)  Meanwhile, the online reader reviews for The Canning Season divide themselves between 4/5 stars, and 1 star, and every single 1-star review gripes about the language.

One F-word, used twice.  Out of perhaps 10,000 words in the novel.  That's 0.02% of the book, and yet--it'll never be used in a middle school classroom.  It'll probably not be carried in a middle school library.  It might not be carried in a public children's library, or a high school one.

I have mixed feelings about this.  I don't think bad words are actually bad.  Lazy, sometimes, but not such a big deal.  But the one time I had a "bad" word--not the F-word, something milder--I ended up taking it out.  It was in my novel Halfway to the Sky, which is a story of family reconciliation along the Appalachian Trail.  It was said by an adult character; it was something she would have said, and it was not really that big of a deal.  But, in the very final round of editing, my editor said, "The word is fine by me, but it'll keep you off the book award lists of every state in the country."

State book award lists are very big for sales.  Make a state list, and nearly every school library in the state will buy multiple copies of your book.  You do understand that writers are paid per copy?  Every book sold mean more money for me.  I knew my editor was right, so I took out the word.  Halfway to the Sky was published in 2001 and is, remarkably, still in print: its very successful run was fueled primarily by school sales, as it's quite often used in classrooms.  Halfway made seven state lists over a span of four years.

A.B. Westrick's novel Brotherhood came out last week.  It's a fascinating account of the early days of the Klu Klux Klan, narrated through the eyes of a young Southern white boy.  Now, it goes without saying that the book doesn't use the word Nigger.  Anne Westrick, like me, is a white woman, and as white writers we don't touch that hate-filled word.  But when I read the book in galleys, it contained a smattering of bad words--not a lot, and not very bad.  (Do you think that the founders of the Klu Klux Klan didn't use bad words?  Really??)  Some of the people who read the galleys thought that the bad words would hinder sales, so Anne took them out.  The only remotely questionable phrase left in the book is "Damn Yankees!"  I don't blame her.  Having read the book, I know she conveyed a remarkable depth of emotion and truth about a difficult subject.  She didn't absolutely need bad words.  But as another writer friend of mine pointed out this week, there's a world of difference between, "Get out of my way," and "Get out of my fucking way."   Want to convey anger mixed with contempt?  That F-word comes in handy.

This isn't a mountain I'm willing to die on.  I'll censor myself for money.  But do regret it a little.  They're just words, and really, the children already know them.