I get emails and blog comments all the time that ask: Is that book clean? (Occasional variants on this email: Why did you recommended that dirty book? or Is this book appropriate for my x-year-old?)
I can’t answer this question with an easy “yes” or “no,” because even readers who care deeply about reading “clean” books don’t agree on what that looks like.
How do you define “clean?”
It might mean not too many f-bombs, or none at all, or no profanity of any kind. It might mean that no sex is hinted at, or no sex is described in detail, or no infidelity takes place. To some it means no violence, or no alcohol abuse, or no alcohol; no bullying, or kids who don’t obey their parents.
By any of these standards, I read many books that wouldn’t be considered “clean.”
Profanity in fiction
Despite this, I’m choosy about what I read. I don’t usually rule out books because of the language, although I’m unlikely to read a book that has heaps of it. (There are exceptions: Eleanor & Park, The Likeness.)
In the hands of a lesser writer, profanity is a shortcut—an easy way to provoke a reaction from the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout picks up a few curse words at school, she busts out with “Pass the damn ham, please” at the dinner table. That’s shock value profanity, not a strategic use of language, and that’s exactly what too many authors do. (Scout’s uncle Jack sets her straight, saying words like “damn” and “hell” are only for instances of extreme provocation.)
When an author drops an f-bomb, I don’t shut the book. Instead, I want to know why the author chose that language.What’s the emotional content of the passage? Is she using profanity strategically or for shock value? (The former, I’ll keep reading. The latter, I might not.)
I remember the first time a teacher swore in the classroom. It was 9th grade English. Our teacher—a sweet and gentle woman about my grandmother’s age—was reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud. It’s Halloween night, Scout and Jem were just attacked, Sheriff Tate is telling Atticus that “Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” Atticus doesn’t understand; he thinks Tate is trying to protect Jem—it never occurs to him Boo Radley could have done it—and he’s not having it. My fellow students, seeing the curse words coming up in the text, shoot nervous glances at each other, wondering will-she-or-won’t-she?
She kept reading (which surprised us, even in public school) and it made a deep impression on us all—not just about our teacher, but about an author’s work. Harper Lee wasn’t messing around when she chose her words: she told a hard story, but she told it respectfully, and realistically. She chose her words carefully, and her story supported their weight.
Sex and violence in fiction
I don’t necessarily rule out books because of sexual content or violence (like Outlander), though I can handle more of the former than the latter. If I don’t shut the book forever, I often skim—sometimes at lightning speed—through disturbing content. (Massive disclaimer here: I’m an HSP, and very sensitive about graphic content.)
If given a second chance, I would skip some books entirely, like In the Woods. (More on that here.) There are books that I loved but had a single short scene I wish I could scrub from my mind, and wasn’t truly necessary to the plot. (The Thirteenth Tale). There are books that profoundly disturbed me but whose messages have lingered, in a good way, maybe even a life-changing one. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
There are books I enjoyed but skipped giant chunks of—like, ten pages at a time—because I couldn’t handle the violence or didn’t want to read the racy stuff. (Outlander.) There was one short but awful scene in Americanah (which I loved) that made me sick to my stomach, but the plot turned on that scene. The author didn’t include it for shock value; she included it because it was essential to the story.
(I’ve also read books that would be considered “clean” by many readers’ standards, but that were nearly unreadable for me because of the gritty, emotional content. I just abandoned Bloodroot for this reason.)
Conflict drives the plot forward
In fiction, conflict moves the plot forward: characters are plunged into messy situations of (to borrow Uncle Jack’s term) extreme provocation and forced to find a way out (or sometimes not).
Books with lots of profanity, (or sex, or violence) are outside my comfort zone. This includes Tana French and Outlander, and also Crime and Punishment and Tom Sawyer. (To see some seriously disturbing fiction, try the original Snow White or Cinderella, which I had to read in college. In German.)
Good fiction challenges you; it pushes your boundaries. A great book pushes you outside your comfort zone and forces you to re-think your assumptions.
I can’t set your boundaries for you, but I can try to give you the information you need to decide which books are the right books for you.
This is a conversation starter, not the final word. I’d love to hear your thoughts, your personal guidelines for choosing books, and the best books you’ve read that have pushed your boundaries.