Yes, of course it’s NSFW; it’s about swearing, by all that’s grokely*.
In the coming semester, “my” students in the Becoming a Reader** module for Brookes will meet books I have labelled unsuitable. They include texts from another age with explicit racism in them right through to innocuous books of poor quality, and the questions will be around what we might construe as suitability and the judgement of suitability. I have sometimes used Mansbach and Cortes’ Go the Fuck to Sleep, too (the video is here) – I see there is now a boxed set of books – to look at where this is a sort of in-joke, where we all know when a book is not for children. And then we can ask “unsuitable for whom?” and “what makes this unsuitable?” The joke in Go the Fuck to Sleep is in the dislocation between the format – text and illustration – where on the one hand we expect a children’s book and yet we see a text full of irritation, even anger, and one of the “worst” examples of bad language in current English. It’s funny because as a children’s book it is impossible. I am reminded of the apophasis in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes were Goldilock’s swearing is so disgusting as to be considered unacceptable:
I dare not write it, even hint it
Nobody would ever print itDahl, R: Goldilocks
…or the places where the taste for the tasteless is tickled in Raymond Briggs’ depiction of his eponymous hero Fungus reading John Dung (read: Donne). The omissions make the mind boggle – although the original*** too seems to me to be deliberately transgressive.
As a quick sideline, please note that the title of this post refers not to this comic circumlocution or even the earthy originals, but back to the noxious Miss Hardcastle in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, whose use of “bucking” seems a substitute for “fucking.” She is not alone in using the word – but in Lewis’ 1945 text (thirteen years after Lady Chatterley) I feel it is Lewis controlling the swearing, letting his readers in on what she must have said really. We are discomforted by the ways the bad guys and their associates swear even if we don’t see it in front of us baldly.
But what about the discomfort that we find in YA literature? Where does verisimilitude clash with the gatekeepers – and are they the publishers? Or book buyers? Who makes the decisions?
More Heartstopper, I’m afraid, as the lens through which to look at an aspect of children’s/YA literature. And while I am advertising in the sub-heading above that some of the language and concepts might be NSFW this is in the context of trying to make sense of swearing and not-swearing and a sort of in-between phenomenon that is hinted at in the title. As not-so-much-a reference-list-more-an-indication-of-where-I-went, I’d refer you, for starters, to
- Michael Adams’ 2016 In Praise of Profanity
- Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s 2006 Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language
- Tony McEnery’s 2005 Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present
…which really only indicates that I have dipped into this complex world in which we might see the discourse of purity, with McEnery, as a discourse of power. Who controls “bad language”(McEnery’s term) in children’s books? To what extent is it controlled? For whom is it controlled? Is the bigger question about whether language alone can denote a book as unsuitable just too big? And if language is a small, measurable aspect of suitability, how is it measured?
I came up with the spectrum below in an attempt to get somewhere with what kind of language might be subject to control. To make it I drew heavily on McEnery’s book, and became engrossed in tables 2.1 and 2.4, which set out the uses of various swear words. It follows my own gut instinct, but draws on the scale of offence (see below). For “religious” I would go for “God,” “Jesus,” &c.; for “body shaming” I would go with “fat” and other similar terms, but also drawing attention to body parts – hence body part 2 . I decided the best way to look at body function was to divide “pee” from “piss,” “poo” from “shit,” but then “bum” and “arse” aren’t so clearly distinguished – except that a child might say they fell in the playground and their supervisor might accept “It hurt my bum” but would raise an eyebrow at “It hurt my arse.” Allen and Burridge have a table (p32, Table 2.1) of orthophemisms (e.g. “toilet”) with an accompanying euphemism (“loo”) and dysphemism (“shithouse”) which reminded me of a child I once taught whose everyday use was what Allen and Burridge classify as dysphemisms. He would, without any sense of incongruity or transgression, tell me he was “just off for a crap,” when a “poo” was the usual word. With the rise in books which discuss poo but don’t explore dysphemisms, at this point I have to say that there looks like a really good study somewhere for someone attempting to regularise a spectrum such as this, and to reconcile it with uses among readers and the texts they encounter…
But other configurations would be possible, and a scale of offence would need to take into account adult ears, context, class. Sampling texts would be a problem, but could be taken historically: the spectrum above would look different in 1973 (“The Dark Is Rising“), different again in 1950 (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe“).
It is interesting to note that while the language in Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper world is closer to a recognisable language of secondary boys, the Netflix version has the swearing pruned: no fucks. In one scene, Charlie is being attacked by Ben, a boy with clear sexual intent, and is rescued by Nick; it is a pivotal scene, where Nick’s physicality is matched by the anger in his language. This suggests to me that as with many things to do with language, context is everything, and with this comes what McEnery’s scale of offence (table 2.12) where “prick” is seen as a moderate word, but “fucking” is strong. Ben is dismissed with a push and told to “fuck off;” Netflix has Nick say “piss off.” And off Ben pisses (or, if you’re reading the online version, fucks): at any rate he leaves.
Perhaps most relevant is McEnery’s discussion of age (p38, with table 2.1), which identifies the under 15s and under 25s as having the highest frequency of bad language words per million words. In other words, the consumers of YA literature seem to swear the most. It seems to me that the gatekeepers of YA texts shy away from allowing a real set of bad language usage. Does this have implications for young teen readers? Hmmm: perhaps I would have said so before I watched my granddaughters launch into Manga, even into the school romance of Heartstopper. I wish I were looking at boys of the same age and their reading. I have a sneaky feeling that while Manga and fantasy graphic novels might well be there, Heartstopper would not. Perhaps this is a shame; perhaps I am wrong anyway.
*The irate Edward the Booble swears like this in the Exploits (Memoirs) of Moominpapa. Given the force for depression that the Groke embodies, and her role as symbol of loneliness in Tove Jansson’s work, “grokely” is not really a way of sidestepping swearing but bad language wholly consistent with the world Jansson has created.
**In case anyone wants to have a hissy fit about this blog being me wasting taxpayers’ money, well, I’m afraid most of the swearing &c won’t be in the taught class. Sorry to disappoint.
***Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils. https://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/elegy8.htm