If you asked a random person if they know what Tourette's Syndrome is I'd bet the common consensus would be something akin to, "Oh, it's those people who swear and shout offensive things at strangers on the street, isn't it?" Of course, what they'd unconsciously be talking about is corprolalia, a symptom which only 10-15 percent of Tourette's sufferers endure. The medical definition of corprolalia states that it is the excessive and uncontrollable use of foul or obscene language. The significant word here is uncontrollable.
The main character in my new YA novel, When Mr. Dog Bites, is a sixteen year-old boy called Dylan Mint. He's a great wee guy. Funny, warm, kind-hearted, sensitive, angsty and clever; just your average everyday teenager I suppose. Well, not really, you see Dylan has Tourette's Syndrome and is one of 10-15 percenters who suffer from corprolalia.
Needless to say throughout the book Dylan uses foul language. A LOT. He doesn't want to; in fact he chastises himself when he does. When Dylan's under stress those subconscious and taboo words raise their ugly head, he then blurts them out. Remember, his actions are involuntary and uncontrollable. Unfortunately, this is an ongoing battle for many with Tourette's. However, other teenage characters, who don't have Tourette's, swear in my book also.
Recently, The Telegraph newspaper in the UK sparked an online debate when it published an article entitled "Should potty-mouthed children's books come with a PG certificate?" This article was pertinent to myself because The Telegraph's Online Culture Editor used When Mr. Dog Bites to ignite the debate and add weight to his argument. I hold my hands up, the editor was spot on: the characters in my book do use bad language. They do use profanities and they do use some objectionable words and phrases. Guilty as charged. The question posed to me at the time, and even now, is why? Why, especially in YA fiction is it necessary to litter it with coarse language? Good question. My answer never wavers:
Aside from the issue of Dylan Mint's Tourette's, I wanted to portray accurately and honestly the teenage voice in the town where When Mr Dog Bites is set. This is a setting I know extremely well. I lived there. I worked there and I spent my teenage years there. My family and friends still live there. So, to present a sanitised version of the characters' parlance would have been inaccurate, dishonest and misrepresentative on my part. It would have been a fraudulent portrayal at best.
I also believe that teenagers have had enough of adults speaking on their behalf -- I do get the irony of what I'm writing by the way -- thinking they know what they need and what's good for them. People have to acknowledge the different social and cultural climate we now live in and stop thinking they know what's best for our youth. If we seriously wish to create the informed, impassioned and insightful minds of the future then let's not begin by hijacking their voices. Let the youth decide what to read. Let them be the ones to complain if something is unpalatable. Let them be the ones to voice an individual or collective "NO." The amazing thing about bookshops and libraries is that people are not frogmarched inside and forced to read any particular book; they can opt out and choose whatever they want. Everyone has a choice, parents included.
The content of When Mr. Dog Bites resurfaced discussions I'd been having for over a decade in my capacity as a secondary school English teacher. I spent everyday of my working life with teenagers; hearing their conversations and idle chat and listening to a discourse that was littered with swear words: words used to express humor, anger, emphasis, frustration, opinion, objection, foible, etc... sure, we all do it, don't we? It's the reality of how language functions in my part of the world, I'm afraid. Surely we don't want to create a Nanny State whereby depictions of reality within some of our books is frowned upon by those who don't understand, or haven't experienced, such reality, do we? In an ever-increasing world of reluctant readers and ailing literacy levels, I for one would be celebrating the fact that children, teenagers and young adults are actually engaging in the act of reading before I'd censor their material. If publishers start putting a succession of *&@£$* symbols into books instead of letters then we're all doomed. It would be counter-intuitive in any case; all we would be doing is placing the word inside the readers' head: reinforcing it, cementing it, making them say it. Thus, absolving the publisher and the writer from their responsibility. No, these words in When Mr. Dog Bites are all my creation; I'm the one who's accountable for them.
President Putin passed a law recently that will require books containing swearing to be sold in sealed packages with explicit-language warnings covering them. Perhaps in Russia the packaging for When Mr. Dog Bites will have to be surgically removed before the opening sentence can be read. Let's face facts: language exists, it evolves, it grows, it's the only weapon of the sub-cultures, the working classes, the ghettoized; the majority. If we start to control and impose authority over what we say and create the next thing to go will be our thoughts. Think about that.
Or then again!
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