(This is one in a series of blogs on frequently asked question that I posted on MySpace when I began that blog. I’m guessing most of my visitors to this site have not seen them.)
I've just come back from four author visits to towns that have used Pay It Forward for their One Book, One Community reads. Two were in Indiana and two in Illinois. I got an interesting question from a young gentleman at one of the local high schools. He wanted to know if, given the chance to go back and do it over again, I would write that book any differently.
Generally I'm a big fan of letting my older works stand. If I think I'm a better writer than I used to be (and I certainly hope I am, though better is in the eye of the beholder) I tend to want to weave those improvements into new novels. The older ones can remain as a snapshot of where my craft stood at the time.
But in the case of Pay It Forward, here is my answer:
I wrote that book for an adult audience. I had no idea that the ALA would put it on its Best Books for Young Adults list. I had no idea that there would later be controversy regarding whether or not the book is suitable for middle school. At issue are a couple of instances of premarital sex (not graphic in any way) and some adult language (which does not, by the way, ever include "the F word"). If I had it to do over again, I might tone down the language, in the interest of getting the book into more classrooms.
And yet a nagging doubt remains in my mind as to whether that would have been the right thing to do.
I have gotten quite a bit of blowback about the language in that book (always from adults, never from youth). Almost none of it has been said to my face. For example, at one of these town in IN, I was told that the school had received phone calls from parents troubled about a handful of words. But when I speak, and open for questions, it's very rare for anyone to bring it up directly. I wish they would. I have opinions on the subject, and I'd like to have an open discussion.
I guess that's what blogs are for.
So here are my opinions:
I have never understood, and will probably never understand, the sensitivity to about seven words (at least, traditionally, there used to be seven that the FCC would "bleep" if used on the air) that our society defines as "swearing." What is the deal with those words? Why do they create such a knee-jerk response of outrage and offense? I'm told they are rude, but why are they rude? Why are they different from similar words? If I use a "swear word" to describe a body part, or human waste, why are there dozens of synonyms that mean exactly the same thing but are not "swearing"? The whole thing is beyond me, and strikes me as a bit silly. It also makes me wonder if we ever rethink such things, or if we just march down the road of life without ever reexamining our old decisions.
For those who would make the argument that words are powerful, and can hurt, I could not agree with you more. But, now, here's my question: Are you sure that those seven words are the hurtful ones? Are you sure there aren't far more powerful and far more damaging words that fall into the category of socially acceptable?
Here is a partial list of words I think should be considered "swear words." If it were up to me, no one would use them in decent company: Stupid. Worthless. Pathetic. Ugly.
So, here's the current arrangement as I see it: If I say that someone is stupid, a waste of oxygen, will never amount to anything, and should probably just die, I'm being acceptable and polite. If I say this is a dumb-ass system of doing things, I've just cussed and offended someone.
Next time I get to the Q&A part of a speech, maybe I'll get to ask some questions