Why I recommend books that use the f-word.

Why I recommend books that use the f-word.

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.

(When I asked this question on facebook and twitter, some readers defined “clean” negatively, saying a clean book is one that isn’t challenging, that’s been artificially sanitized.)

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.

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84 comments

  1. Hannah says:

    For me, it’s important that a book a leave me better than it found me–more thoughtful, more committed to my values, more able to appreciate nuance, etc. If it does, I can overlook some profanity and violence (though I draw the line at explicit sex scenes because I find them gratuitous 99.9% of the time). If a disturbing scene causes me to look closer at something true that I was trying to avoid, I might muscle my way through it because it might help me, say, be more compassionate than I was before.

    In other words, the key for me is, Is a scene redemptive, enlightening, worth it? Does it make me better? If I can’t say ‘yes’ to those questions, I skip it. No book is worth feeling awful for days, unless it’s teaching me something important. If the answer is yes, I decide if now is a good time to wade in deep waters. And if I feel I can handle it, I go for it.

  2. Beth says:

    Spot on about The Thirteenth Tale. I’m hesitant to recommend it to some people because of one short scene. I’m not too easily put off of a book that isn’t “clean” in whatever definition we’re using, but I like to be very conscious of objectionable content when I’m recommending a book. I always give disclaimers with recommendations if there is a hint of anything that might be disturbing to another reader.

  3. brianna says:

    This is a great post. I think in some areas of discomfort it’s great to push boundaries especially when it’s well done. I remember wanting to like Eleanor and Park but I just couldn’t get past the f bombs and decided to skip it. Go ask Alice is a book that I read as a teen that pushed major boundaries and made me uncomfortable. It’s also a book I’ll be getting my daughters to read wen they are mature enough to handle it. I am also highly sensitive so I can’t handle vulgarity, sexual violence of any kind, and for some reason am very sensitive to adultery. Thanks for writing this thought provoking post!! I may tackle a well written book on divorce to confront that “fear”

    • 'Becca says:

      Why do you want your daughters to read Go Ask Alice? It’s a pretty dreadful book. It’s not a real diary (as early editions claimed) but a work of fiction by a questionable author who wrote several horror stories of scandalous teenaged behavior. I didn’t feel there was any value to having read it.

  4. Jess Townes says:

    I read and recommend a lot of children’s literature and I struggle with how to answer questions about appropriateness too. Different families take widely different approaches and the word appropriate remains, at some level, subjective. When friends ask me about certain books, I try to share the content that might raise an eyebrow but in a way that doesn’t turn them away from the book. It’s tricky and I don’t have it down yet!

  5. Dawn Reiss says:

    I totally understand why you abandoned Bloodroot. It was relentlessly sad, and I don’t recall the ending being anything redemptive. (If I recall correctly, I stuck with it bc the writing was beautiful.)

  6. Courtney says:

    Thank you for addressing this. I think it’s really interesting to read about where different people draw lines on content, and I’m probably more or less the same about these topics as you. A little of each is fine, but nothing too graphic or prolonged. I also definitely judge a book by whether these sorts of topics are necessary for the book or are just shock value. For instance, I consider “Interview with a Vampire” to be quite erotic, but there’s never any actual sex in the book. I found it very tastefully done.

    On the other hand, I avoid books or movies that have infidelity, which has a lot to do with how it’s portrayed. I’ve noticed that, to make room for the new lover, the current boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse always ends up being a jerk or a coward or otherwise undeserving of the love interest. The infidelity is essentially “justified” by the writer(s) by showing that the person’s current lover is undeserving of their affections, while the new lover promises them excitement or adventure or True Love (c). They’d be a fool not to cheat, right? Not only is that boring and trite, it’s unrealistic, and quite insulting to people who have been cheated on.

    Rather than hope that it’s done “right,” I just avoid the topic altogether.

  7. kimmie says:

    I was reading Because of Winn Dixie to 3rd graders last year and hit one of “those” words. As a substitute teacher, I honestly did not know what to do!!!!! I read it fast and then had to do the “Ok ok….that’s enough! Do you want me to read or not?” LOL

  8. Jeanne says:

    This is quite an interesting topic for me, because I’ve really never ever thought about it, but I am very liberally minded – as a South African I tend to experience some Americans as extremely conservative (no offence intended). It may be because as a nation we live in such a cosmopolitan society (11 official languages!), with such a fantastic Constitution in terms of human rights etc, that we have our boundaries pushed every day, whether we like it or not!

    I read anything and everything.

  9. I still remember being in 9th grade and discovering that I could not just pick a book up at random from the library. I had transitioned from the kids section to the adult section via Christian Romance. I knew that those paperbacks with a couple embracing in silk nightgowns half falling off were off limits, but I didn’t know that I couldn’t just pick up a historical fiction hardback from the shelves and be alright. I got about a quarter of the way through the book (something about a transatlantic voyage in late Victorian England) and most of the way through a racy adultery scene before I realized that I probably needed to stop reading the book. I did. I returned it. But those images stayed with me. I hadn’t seen a lot of R rated movies, and that book was definitely more than R rated. I think I’m still sensitive to that content, even though I have a much vaster library of images and experiences to make sense of books than I did what I was 14. But the power of images, and sexuality has stayed with me. I’m picky about the books I read, and I want to be sensitive to young readers too. (I had a 17 year old the other day tell me she read 50 Shades and I wanted to scream, I was so upset for her to be exposed to that so young.) On the flip side, the staying power of romance and sexuality it books can be a wonderful thing, a way to empower people with a catalog of good and right ways of thinking about the body and love. I really like the way that you let us know what’s in the book and if it’s worth the potential trigger.

  10. Linda D. says:

    Great post! My kids know what language is acceptable in everyday conversation and what isn’t, so if they’re reading a book that has “unacceptable” language, it needs to be in context. Likewise, I would probably lose respect for a writer who inserted gratuitous language, violence, or sex into a book. As a mother and an HSP, I have a hard time reading books in which there are graphic descriptions of harm to children. I just can’t do it.
    We allow our boys (ages 13 and 10.5) to read just about anything. If something is too advanced, they will figure it out for themselves in short order. I’m not concerned about the subject matter because we can talk about it with them. The only thing we’ve said no to yet is Mein Kampf, which our older son wanted to read when he was 12. We suggested he read some biographies of Churchill first.

  11. Polly says:

    Personally when I’m reading language doesn’t bother me, descriptions of sex don’t bother me. Occasionally violence will be too much for me but I find it easier to read a violent scene than to watch one in a movie or tv show.

    Most of the time these things just feel realistic- part of the mirror that the author is holding up to the world. I used to work in a bookstore in an urban mostly gay neighborhood and while I did qualify my recommendations (not every book is for every person) “clean” isn’t something I’ve thought about too much in terms of reading.

  12. Robin says:

    I appreciate your recommendations and descriptions of those books. I think you do a great job! I read The Rosie Project and loved it in spite of the language. I liked the Outlander story, but found it too graphic and wish I hadn’t read some parts of it. I haven’t been interested in any more of the series.

  13. Ana says:

    I don’t have any issues whatsoever with language. Gratuitous sex scenes seem cheesy and boring to me, very predictable in most cases—I may just skim over them if its not well done. Violence is what gets me, especially sexual violence and violence involving children. I also have this gross spot in my mind I can’t wash out from “The Thirteenth Tale”. I love Wally Lamb, but “We are Water” should have a huge trigger warning stamped on the front. There were parts of that book I loved and am glad I read but there are parts I really really wish were not in that book, I’m not sure what they added, I don’t WANT to emphasize with certain people or hear their side of the story. You have to draw a line SOMEWHERE.

  14. Tuija says:

    Thanks for this post, Anne. It’s such a good issue to think about, and people are so different, there must be quite a variety of opinions and approaches.

    Profanity bothers me, especially if there’s lots of it and it seems gratuitous. (Like you said, just for shock value.) However, it does not affect me so much in English. It’s a much bigger ‘jolt’ in my mother tongue. I guess the reason I’d rather not read profanity is that I don’t want it to become the language in which I think. What I read influences me, and if I read a lot of crude stuff those words seem to creep into my thinking at least, if not out of my mouth. And I don’t want them in my head 🙂

    And the other issues, too, sex and violence: I prefer it not to be graphic and gratuitous. I don’t want to read about them for the sake of entertainment. I’ll skim those if the book has other redeeming qualities. Like you, I find that some scenes stick into my mind even if really don’t want them there.

    What I like about your book reviews (and in general, I like when book reviews do this): if there’s content you know someone might want to avoid, you’ll warn us, but you’ll also tell about any redeeming qualities, so we can make our own choices based on where our tolerance levels are. Thanks for doing that.

  15. Katia says:

    As an HSP, I’m very sensitive to any material that contains violence and especially anything that depicts harm done to children. I strictly avoid those movies and books. As for coarse language and a bit of sex/erotica, I don’t mind it if it contributes to the overall plot. It has to be strategic and certainly not the central theme of the story.

  16. Suzanne Watkins says:

    Thanks for your post. Lately, I’m just becoming very bored of the f-bomb particularly, and profanity in general. Sparse profanity can be artistic and literary in the sense you described in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I’m not seein it used that way in a lot of contemporary fiction. And, honestly, the f-bomb is the most overused, nonsensically placed adjective, verb, interjection, etc. maybe it’s from reading Gone Girl, Sea of Tranquility, and The Rosie Project. I literally just wanted to scream at the editor for not redlining and requiring the author to go back and use a brain cell to come up with an appropriate word. In college, my prof called it “excellent word choice” and he was right. I don’t want to read page after page of not “excellent word choice.” The same philosophy goes for sex, adultery, violence, and the like. Truthfully, I’m not ever likely to pick up Gillian Flynn, Katja Millay or Graeme Simsion again. There are just too many books out there, and a great story really does require more eloquent use of language to make me want to give up my time to read it.

  17. Janet says:

    I can only deal with small bits of sex and violence in books. If it gets too graphic I skip it. Too much sex just gets boring. I love the Outlander series but get tired of the sex. Language doesn’t bother me as much, they’re just words, used well sometimes and sometimes not.

    • liz n. says:

      With “Outlander,” I agree, and that’s really my only complaint with the series. Around the third or fourth book, it felt formulaic and unnecessary to the point of, “Oh, it’s been X number of pages, time for Claire and Jamie to get down, here are the details.”

  18. Anne says:

    “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.” Yes! I appreciate your post, Anne.

  19. Kayris says:

    I too had a teacher read out loud in class and not flinch at a curse word. And I’ve found myself editing words when reading aloud to my children sometimes. If a book uses the word “pussycat,” I can’t say it. Change it to kitty cat.

    Language doesn’t bother me. Eleanor and Park had a lot of cursing but it was also REAL. Having spent time around teenagers, I found it utterly realistic. Sometimes a LACK of realism gets to me though. I’ve read some Christian novels or series, the one that comes to mind most strongly was the Matched trilogy. These characters are so in love and fearful for their lives and futures and we are supposed to believe all they get up to is a couple of chaste kisses?

    Sex scenes only bother me if they are twisted. I don’t like twisted. Hated Gone Girl, and declined to read 50 Shades. There’s enough real twisted stuff in this world without getting entertainment from it too.

  20. Sue Stokke says:

    I’m glad you’re talking about this. I was put off by all the f bombs in “Silkworm” and disappointed because I thouget she was a better writer than that. I’m not a prude but I don’t swear much. And because I don’t, when I drop an f bomb, people notice. They know I’m really pissed or really upset or really passionate. It’s effective! On the flip side, I really enjoyed the Fifty Shades trilogy and get tired of being shamed for reading it.

  21. Sue Stokke says:

    I’m glad you’re talking about this. I was put off by all the f bombs in “Cuckoo’s Calling” and disappointed because I thouget she was a better writer than that. I’m not a prude but I don’t swear much. And because I don’t, when I drop an f bomb, people notice. They know I’m really pissed or really upset or really passionate. It’s effective! On the flip side, I really enjoyed the Fifty Shades trilogy and get tired of being shamed for reading it.

    • Terri T says:

      It’s funny because I read Cuckoo’s Calling just last month and I don’t remember the cursing at all. I guess it just seemed naturally correct language at the time. Interesting how much it depends on our own thresholds.

      I do agree with everyone who mentioned Thirteenth Tale however. I really liked the book but I was hesitant to recommend it.

  22. Sarah M says:

    I’ve honestly never thought of *not* reading a book because of language or content other than the 50 Shades of Gray books. I have no desire to read those, and there is so little time! so many books! 😉
    Some of my favorite books are anti-utopian or heavy books ( Brave New World, The Bell Jar) and have dark content. I will be choosy about WHO I would recommend books to, I suppose. For example, my mom would never remotely like either of those books, so I’d recommend something else. I think it helps that I’ve always been able to filter out a lot and apply worldviews easily to literature to understand themes, so reading those things myself doesn’t bother me. Watching violence or sex on film or TV shows, that’s another story!
    Sarah M

  23. Candice says:

    I like the way you unpacked this. Sometimes with sex scenes or whatever I just need to know that it happened to see how it will effect the rest of the plot and such, but other times it seems like it is just in there to raunchy it up, in which case I usually quit the book.

  24. Karen says:

    MMD, I agree with you completely. I have read so many of the books you mentioned and loved them but could not read the graphic violence, sexual vilolence, or harm to animals. I couldn’t have that picture in my mind to see again and again. I’ve done as you, just skipped the pages until I felt I was home free.
    I hate the f -bomb, but there is no getting around it in books today. It’s there because someone thinks it adds to the plot. Even Nevada Barr’s park ranger Anna Pigeon has jumped on the f-bomb band wagon.
    All of IT is here to say. We read the sex scenes, skip the horrid violence . Underneath is a moving and meaningful story…hopefully.

  25. Karen says:

    MMD, I agree with you completely. I have read so many of the books you mentioned and loved them but could not read the graphic violence, sexual vilolence, or harm to animals. I couldn’t have that picture in my mind to see again and again. I’ve done as you, just skipped the pages until I felt I was home free.
    I hate the f -bomb, but there is no getting around it in books today. It’s there because someone thinks it adds to the plot. Even Nevada Barr’s park ranger Anna Pigeon has jumped on the f-bomb band wagon.
    All of IT is here to stay .We read the sex scenes, skip the horrid violence . Underneath is a moving and meaningful story…hopefully.

  26. Sarah R says:

    I have no problem with reading bad language, although I don’t use bad words in my day to day life. I was initially surprised at the number of f-bombs in The Sea of Tranquility, but then I thought about it, and realized that the book is in the words of two teenagers who both had endured horrible circumstances, and realistically, probably WOULD swear a lot.

    Sex scenes also don’t bother me as long as it’s part of an overall plot (again, like The Sea of Tranquility). I didn’t read 50 Shades of Gray because I had read that there wasn’t much in the way of plot.

    Like you, I do skim (or purposefully NOT read) books where there is harm to children or animals. My heart can’t handle that. I had a hard time with certain pages in The Sea of Tranquility because of that.

  27. Grace says:

    Very thought provoking. I’ve quit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and House of Leaves for these reasons, but I know both those books are fantastic works of literature, and I would like to try returning to them. I find I have this issue even more so with movies, which I think a lot of people are quicker to rule out as well. I suppose it’s the ability to take a break or skim when reading as you’ve mentioned above that makes it sometimes seem less threatening in a book.

  28. Phaedra says:

    I am not overly sensitive about F-bombs, or any other swear words, if they seem natural to the story and don’t take me out of the reading experience. What I’ve become sensitive to, more and more so after becoming a mother myself, is any sort of sexual violence and/or abuse of children . It was never easy for me and now it can be a deal breaker in the choice to read or finish a book.
    What a thoughtful post today. I love that you opened this up for discussion and it’s a great reminder when we recommend books to think about who will be reading the material. Nice to give a heads up on basic content along with the ‘this is a great mystery/love story/historical fiction’ tag.

  29. Sloan says:

    Hmmm. I haven’t thought about this as much in terms of books. Personally, I think it’s more of an issue in movies. But warning: DO NOT read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really enjoyed the books, but the sexual violence gave me nightmares. I will skim a sex scene, just because I get the picture. 🙂

    • liz n. says:

      I stopped reading soon after that first scene. It was too well-written (if that makes sense), and, while not gratuitous, is one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read. It did everything it was supposed to as far as advancing plot and revealing character, but it was too much for me to handle…and I’m not at all overly-sensitive to language or violence in books!

      • Phaedra says:

        Oh that scene! I finished that book, but that scene! It’s stuck with me forever. I agree to it being one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read!

  30. Amy Caroline says:

    I agree with you 100 %. I have never read Outlander because of some of the things I heard and knew it would not be good for my sensibilities. I would never get it out of my head. One of the reasons I threw Time Traveler’s Wife across the room was for one disgusting comment in the book that literally gave me nightmares and made me sick to my stomach. I tried to read another of her books and again, one perverted thing and I am all twisted up and a mess. A few cuss words and even sex don’t bother me and if it goes too long or graphic I just pass over it, as long as it is not perverted!! I am want too HSP for that. lol

  31. Amanda says:

    What I prefer to read depends a lot on how the author uses the sex, violence and language. F-bombs bother me the most, because actual words themselves stay in my head more than images do (I think in words, not pictures). the s-word and a-word don’t bother me as much, but again, if the author liberally sprinkles profanity throughout the whole book, then I’m turned off.

    Because of the whole words/not pictures way of thinking… the majority of sex scenes don’t bother me. Again, if it’s pointless to the plot, or very gratuitous, I’ll skip over it, but I find I can handle a lot of it’s part of the plot. For example… Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn really didn’t bother me at all, as far as sex scenes go. I thought it was a very disturbing and dark book, but in a way that made me think and feel pity for the characters. I started to skim through Game of Thrones though once…and the brief passages I skimmed just seemed so vulgar, and needlessly so.

    The books of Jodi Piccoult have become recent favorites of mine. Her content matter can be very heavy (child abuse, murder/suicide pacts, kidnapping, the death penalty) but she handles it in a very sensitive way by giving you just enough information, and not going into overboard “Here! Graphic descriptions galore!” She uses profanity very sparingly – it’s usually character specific, or plot driven – and her books do have sex in them, but again it is very delicately and tastefully handled, and only a few sentences – a paragraph at the most. If I have to put her books down at all, it’s only for a few hours because my mind is overloaded with processing her plots and the subject matter.

  32. Becky says:

    You’re so right, everyone is unique and will have widely varying views on what is or isn’t appropriate.

    Personally I had zero interest in continuing the Outlander series after reading book 1, mainly because of the sex scenes (too frequent, graphic and/or sadistic). For me the characters and writing style weren’t engaging enough to put myself through reading (or skipping) those scenes thorough the rest of the series. If I had known more details about Outlander beforehand I would’ve avoided it.

    Bad language won’t keep me from reading a book but it is annoying when overdone (I just finished The Rosie Project and I think it’s a prime example of that). I read Eleanor & Park a year ago and enjoyed it…totally forgot it was full of bad language until you just mentioned it 🙂

    I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale and can’t recall being disturbed by anything in it when I read it last summer. I don’t have a high tolerance for graphic violence (especially cruel, twisted, torture, directed at children/animals) and avoid it like the plague when it comes to movies. So I typically steer clear of books if I know they might be violent.

  33. Katherine S. says:

    Very interesting post; I have been thinking about what makes a book “clean” since you asked the question on facebook a few days ago, and came to many of the same conclusions. In the case of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, she was a very morally upright writer, but her works are full of scenes of violence, some sexual encounters, and some language. Every word and scene that she wrote were included for a purpose, often even for the personal redemption of the characters, but many of them are very hard to read (at least for this HSP). In the end, I would not call her works “clean,” but I do consider them very much worth reading (at least in small doses at a time), and even very Christian in their presentation.

  34. Mary says:

    When I am reading fiction, I am reading (usually) for fun & relaxation, and fun & relaxing to me doesn’t include reading about really awful things (torture, whether physical or mental; blood and guts; sexual violence) people do to one another. It’s not that I am being a Pollyanna, but if I am reading to relax, then reading awful stuff doesn’t cut it. I get how conflict drives a story but some of the best writers (ones whose writing has truly stood the test of time) didn’t need to resort to graphic violence. And I am a skimmer when I am reading a good book that dives off into graphic violence. Yes, I know all those horrible violent acts are real life—but if I want to hear about that, I can just watch the local news. Maybe writers use the graphic violence (in some cases) not because it is really necessary to the story but because they really aren’t very good writers. Something to think about. This is just my opinion—& I know everyone won’t agree. That’s Ok because it would be very boring if we all agreed on everything, wouldn’t it?

  35. Vanessa says:

    Nothing offends me in books. I could read about anything, pretty much. The only thing I do not like is when an author is intentionally trying to manipulate my emotions by killing off a child or a pet or an old person — especially when it doesn’t further the plot. That’s my big “ugh” moment. It needs to be subtle. Just tell the story and let me come to my own conclusions, you know?

  36. Sarah says:

    For me, as a reader, I separate what greater truths or insights about human life that the author is trying to get at through fiction from the morality or the characters. Life isn’t sanitized, so I don’t think that fiction should be, either. Of course, I wouldn’t hand it to a child, but fiction meant for adults is meant to get at higher truths, and like you said, push you outside of your comfortzone. Good fiction can give you a new look at the world, even if it isn’t a worldview that you don’t agree with after reading the novel. At least you were challenged–maybe you know more about why you believe what you believe.
    I do think there is a line between good literature that pushes boundaries and smut, but that’s also a line that everyone has to chose for themselves.

  37. Teresa Simmons says:

    For me, language isn’t an issue as long as it’s true to character. The same goes for sexual content, although I appreciate when an author can write those scenes with a subtle hand. The sexual violence in the last chapters of Outlander were way over the top for me, personally, and were what kept me from continuing the series. But this is such an interesting topic and one I was discussing, with a slight twist, yesterday with a neighbor. We were talking over the logistics of setting up a little, free library on our street, but got bogged down in the details. I had just read an article about people who were, sadly, being forced to remove these from their front lawns, and it brought up a whole array of potential problems — mostly with parents who might not approve of the children’s books we would offer. I like to think I’m fairly open minded about what I’ll let my kids read, but then my fifteen year old son informed me that several girls in his class had read the 50 Shades books and I didn’t know whether to rage or cry.

    • liz n. says:

      Our neighbors were forced to remove their gorgeous free library because the Historical Society did not approve it to be “historically accurate to the neighborhood.”

      As for people approving or disapproving of books you would offer, choosing to borrow and lend is voluntary. The books would not be forced on anyone. If you can manage to set up a free library, I say go for it!

  38. Teresa says:

    When a book’s use of the f-word is frequent or the author seems to like to use those words that are only used to demean women, I stop reading. Occasional or appropriate-to-the-character swearing is not a problem for me. As my kids entered the teen years, we discussed the appropriateness of individual books. I would tell them that they must wait until they were a certain age for some books, and others I would say, “I think you won’t like this because there is a lot of swearing (or violence)” or “He uses the f-word a couple of times, but you might like the book. It’s up to you.”

    This opened up a lot of discussions about what was and wasn’t objectionable–Terry Pratchett’s sometimes vulgar jokes were ok, the Twilight series obsessive love relationships were really troubling. Since I so rarely said a blanket “no” to a book, they respected it when that was my response. At least I think they did and they tend to avoid the trash out there. 🙂

  39. Anna says:

    I can’t think of any blanket content I absolutely will not read, although I am also very picky and refuse to read a lot of stuff because of the content. I know that sounds contradictory but it’s all about how it’s written, why it’s in there, and sometimes what season of life I’m in. I would rather read something with language and violence and some sex that was really important and valuable than a novel full of some simpering, but “clean”, love story. Language, violence, and sex are a real part of life and I want to read things about life. But I also almost came undone by the short scene in the workhouse in the Invention of Wings where the baby gets hurt. It made me physically ill and I had to stop reading for awhile. I haven’t always liked your recommendations (You Before Me – the ending!!! Ack!!!), but I always appreciate them and hold them in high esteem because I know you have good taste.

  40. Des says:

    I love to know what I’m in for in a book when it comes to sex, violence, language, theme. I want to be able to make a good decision for me whether I want to read all of that. I appreciate your reviews and sensitivity to these things. One site I use all the time, especially when it comes to new books for my teens, http://www.compassbookratings.com/ . Whether the reviewer liked the book or not you know exactly how many swear words, sexual content etc, is involved.

  41. 'Becca says:

    The f-word doesn’t bother me, but there are two crude terms for female genitalia that bother me very much, whether used with that meaning or used as insults, so I can’t handle a book that throws those words around casually.

    Nonviolent sex between consenting adults (or older teens) doesn’t bother me–in fact, I sometimes wish descriptions were MORE detailed–but sexual violence is not fun to read about. I’m not a fan of other violence, either, but can tolerate some when it’s part of a good story. I’ve read the entire Outlander series, despite scenes that upset me.

    The thing that most turns me off a book is when all of the viewpoint characters are unlikeable and/or badly dysfunctional. A flawed person needs to have at least one trait that makes me feel “on her side” for me to be interested in her story rather than repelled by it.

    A few weeks ago I commented on one of your posts that Jennifer Weiner has written some very good books and some not so great. Yesterday I started to read In Her Shoes but gave up after 30 pages because I disliked both of the sisters and their screwed-up relationship, and they were doing nothing to relieve the first impression given by the disgusting opening scene of bad sex plus vomiting. So, I don’t recommend that one!!

  42. Erin says:

    Language doesn’t bother me as long as it serves a purpose. Gratuitous f-bombs are just lazy! I shy away from grit and violence, which is why I could only read one Tana French book – gripping story, and so well-written, but I didn’t think I could stomach another. I’m torn with J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith books for the same reason! She’s a master at characterization, but….wow.

    Sex scenes seem to function either as the whole point (I skip those books), or are inserted because maybe it’s expected. I really enjoyed 11/22/63 but the few sex scenes just seemed to be there to….be there. For me, the sex scenes in Outlander (mostly) don’t carry the same kind of ick factor, and seem to have found the elusive third function, which is genuinely being part of the story. Maybe because the main characters are married – and I don’t mean that in a splitting hairs or prudish way. It’s just the whole point of the series (I’m only halfway done…so…maybe?) seems to be this epic portrait of a marriage, of which sex is a sacramental part. But…sometimes I skim them!

  43. Erin says:

    This made me laugh a little b/c I’m the reader who always wants to know if a book is too religious! So I guess I’m the other end of the spectrum. I read and enjoyed The Rosie Project, and I definitely don’t remember any profanity. So, yeah, put me in the “if it’s TOO clean I may not like it” box.

  44. Rebecca says:

    Hmm. I tend to think of “clean” as a bad thing when it comes to books. Usually they’re not interesting or realistic to me. That being said, my husband recommended a book to me (Old Man’s War, terrific SciFi) and I was under the impression he had also recommended it to my mother. I was a bit alarmed because there are two chapters devoted to wild sex (completely makes sense in the story). Lo and behold it turns out my mom was the one who recommended it to him! She even told me to stop being a prude! Haha.

  45. Jenn says:

    Such an excellent post, Anne, with good things to think about. I love how you laid it all out.

    I can actually tolerate a fair amount IF I think it adds to the story and IF I think the story itself has value. If it feels gratuitous or as though it’s just there for shock value (loved your example from To Kill A Mockingbird), I have very little patience for it.

    I am often hesitant to recommend books containing sex or violence or excessive language to others for fear they’ll judge me for where I place my boundaries. I love your last line – I need to remember this, and incorporate this kind of thinking into how/when I review books.

  46. Jules says:

    I get the feeling reading some comments that it’s almost competitive how `sensitive’ one is and how long is the list of things one cannot tolerate! I do find, generally, Americans more likely to get upset about sex and profanity than those of us from British descent. While I do not enjoy either violence upsets me more but one of the things I love most about reading is the control I have over how long I spend on a passage/chapter/book and how I imagine it to be acted out. Watching a movie I am at the mercy of the film maker but with a book I can skip or play it down. One’s life experience perhaps is an unmentioned factor in defining sensitivities. I worked from many years for a daily newspaper reporting on the cases from the local court system. After hearing, daily, the dreadful things humans can do to each other my shock detector is perhaps different to others? I did choose not to read 50 Shades of Grey on the basis I have yet to see a review lauding the writing and the whole subject and premise is one I have no interest in reading about. However, the Outlander series just enthralled me years ago when it was first publish. Yes, there is plenty to upset people in there if they want but it was also a sweeping historical saga covering time periods I knew little about. To each their own I guess but I am a but surprised at the way some people select their reading material. So many wonderful stories dismissed in such a blanket fashion.

    • 'Becca says:

      Yes, working in crime research–where I’ve had to read not only news articles but autopsy reports–makes it easier for me to cope with grim details in, for instance, Tana French’s mysteries. It’s violent ACTION sequences that are more of a problem for me. Even there, I think my job has taught me how to scan for the important details (at work, that’s so that I can code data about the incident; reading a mystery, it’s looking for clues) without getting too emotionally caught up in it, and how to put it all out of my mind when I want to.

  47. I find cursing more easily forgivable than explicit sex. I know the latter is a trigger for me and cannot be erased, so I try not to read books with it. I guess mostly I find cursing realistic, because even if I don’t use that language, I think probably a majority of people do. The one that threw me was Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan. I really loved it other than the language. But it was high school boys. And I live with high school boys (in a dorm). I am pretty sure a lot of them overuse profanity. (WHY? I don’t know.) I actually find violence easier to read than watch – I generally avoid movies that are R, because there’s probably something in there that I am not going to want to tolerate.

  48. sherah says:

    What we are sensitive to tends to vary from person to person. I’m highly sensitive and can’t watch anything violent and stay away from violent books. I do this for self-preservation. Language doesn’t bother me at all. I think people just need to know what they are sensitive to and work to stay away from it. Just because it does or doesn’t bother you doesn’t mean it will be the same for the next person and therefore we should just live according to our own sensitivities and realize the sensitivities of our neighbors may not be the same.

  49. Kelli says:

    I don’t have a problem at all with language, unless it has no purpose. Then it still doesn’t bother me, it just becomes tiresome. Graphic violence, especially to animals, is definitely off limits, but if it’s limited at least I can skip over it in a book (a movie would be too visual and give me nightmares). I don’t have a problem with sex scenes, unless they include some sort of non-consensual violence (which then isn’t sex anyway, it’s violence). I have no desire to read 50 Shades, but I did read 9 1/2 Weeks when I was about 14 and even that was ok. But even if it’s not graphic violence, it can still be written in such as way as to creep me out. I read The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian and it was an odd theme but what came out at the very end really weirded me out even though it wasn’t graphic, and I still feel strange about it.

    I am curious about The Thirteenth Tale – it’s on my To Read list, so I wonder what type of scene it was that got to so many people. I’m thankful to the person who said they don’t remember anything noticeable from when they read it, since I may fall into that group also 🙂

  50. Michelle L says:

    What a great, thought-provoking post, as evidenced by so many comments. I am a high school English teacher and so choosing which books to recommend to which kids, knowing that some contain questionable language or themes, is a challenge I face regularly. I find it difficult because so much of what I find disturbing does not make sense at a logical level, and must be so tightly bound into context. For instance, I loved Eleanor and Park and didn’t even recall that there was a lot of swearing until you and some commenters mentioned it. I often quite enjoy novels set in war time, but found the violence in Outlander (called ‘Cross Stitch in Australia) disturbing. Also, a student recommended ‘Shatter Me’ to me, and I found it (and ‘Divergent’) quite confronting in their sensuality and implied physicality, even though nothing really actually happens. I hesitate to recommend books that deal with overt racism, mental illness and suicide, (to adults as well as teenagers) as I think they can be much more confronting than a few swear words. I think I am more comfortable with swearing, violence, sexuality etc that is integral to the plot and in line with the characters, and yet those are the things that normalise it, which in itself can make it disturbing and leads to a whole other set of questions for me – why is violence/swearing okay for me sometimes, but not at other times….

    • Melanie says:

      I appreciated and related so much to what you posted. It is reassuring that there are still English teachers who are thoughtful and open minded in their stance on this topic. However, on a side note I think it might be a great idea to leave mental illness on the table for your young readers. To do otherwise is an unequivocal stigmatization. There is nothing to be feared from learning about mental illness, and furthermore, youth in this era might be helped by what they read. If they are drawn to such books, perhaps there is a reason and they need to not be ashamed, and to know they are not alone.

      • Michelle L says:

        Yes yes yes – absolutely! For me it’s ‘still on the table’, sorry if I was unclear on that – hard when you’re still sorting through your ideas as you’re writing. In retrospect I shouldn’t have put mental illness in the same category as those others. Domestic violence, extreme bullying, eating disorders are other topics for teenagers I’m cautious about, although also they’re never ‘off the table’, they just are recommended more carefully and with a warning. I agree that books are what can normalise things in which we can otherwise feel alone. Kids (and adults) who feel like they are in the minority due to health issues, religion, sexuality, family situation etc can benefit enormously from reading about characters in the same situation, and kids who are very mainstream also benefit from knowing that not everyone in the world is like them. I guess it’s just that the overall theme or message of a book is something I consider more when making recommendations, rather than some isolated incidents of swearing.

        PS Do you have any YA recommendations books dealing with mental illness? Thinking this through has made me realise I should read wider on this issue to have some titles up my sleeve!!

        • Melanie says:

          I’d say, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini, “Marcelo in the Real World” by Francisco Stork, “Cut” by Patricia McCormick, “Dr Birds Advice for Sad Poets” by Evan Roskos and “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. Note .. The last book is adult fiction. I remember it as handling the topic of mental illness in an honest way, and as presenting optimism in the face of what some might view as a hopeless situation. However I was not reading that one with teens in mind, so you’d probably want to check it out further. It is a fantastic work of literature, though.

  51. Byrd says:

    Hahaha, I do a lot of skimming too, to ‘adjust’ my experience of a book. I LOVED Devil in the White City but didn’t read any of the serial killer chapters (after the first couple). I thought it was a great book about history and engineering!!

  52. Deanna says:

    Very little bothers me–sexual or physical abuse scenes involving children, unless integral to the plot (and even then, it has to be a REALLY well-written, thoughtful book), are a deal-breaker for me. I don’t care at all about cursing or sex or violence. Early-era Stephen King (‘Salem’s Lot to maybe around Needful Things in 1991) is one of my guilty pleasures. 😀 This may sound odd, but I would be completely OK with my daughters reading 50 Shades of Grey as teenagers, as long as I knew about it and could read it with them. The idea of them being exposed to the sexual content doesn’t bother me, because I REALLY want to unpack with them what the red flags for an emotionally abusive relationship are and how to see if someone is grooming you for emotional manipulation. In my opinion, that book is a textbook manual of how an abuser systematically lowered all of the victim’s emotional defenses. I’d also like them to see how even though you may physically enjoy the act of sex, the emotional complexity of some situations just aren’t worth the few minutes of enjoyment. To me, the exposure to the content is sometimes worth the lesson.

  53. Melanie says:

    I think, as a reader, I am a witness. I read, I learn, I form an opinion about the book. I recommend what I like, regardless. If someone asks me for recommendations, as they sometimes do, I don’t qualify or censor. Just because bad things exist in the world and you read about it, it doesn’t make you a bad person!!
    Keep your mind open. Your morals apply to how you live your life..but if you are too fragile, morally or otherwise, to be exposed to things that you don’t necessarily agree with, it doesn’t seem your foundation is very solid to begin with.

  54. Lisa says:

    As a school librarian who previously worked at a Christian school, this is a topic I had to deal with often. I wrote my school’s collection development policy and stated that we chose our books based on their ability to spark conversations with students about the school’s values. A book wasn’t automatically discarded or not considered for purchase just because of some language, violence, or sex. If we felt we could use those passage to spark dialogue or as a teachable moment, then we purchased them. Eleanor and Park is a great example of this. Of course, we always told parents who objected that they had every right to monitor & control what their child read, but we as a school could not impose the same control over all of our students. This policy was far from perfect, and it created some tense, awkward moments with parents and other faculty. But in general, it was something I felt good about. Thanks for writing this great post.

  55. Paula Nix says:

    I had the exact same experience with In the Woods! That alone has kept me from reading anything else by French. That said, some of the best books I have read of late have the occasional f-bomb or graphic scene (All the Light We Cannot See) and I would read them again in a heartbeat. I think that graphic content in art should be used in context and to move the story along or develop the characters, instead of just being there for the sake of making the reader gasp or blush. When the point is sex, violence, or swearing, it’s cheap and offensive, but when the sex, violence, or swearing serves the story, it serves the reader.

  56. Jennifer says:

    I was a bit prudish before reading The Handmaid’s Tale but that was the first time the f-word made sense. When she said, “He is f-ing me,” she meant it in the truest saddest most broken sense. The word was clear and nothing else could replace it. Since then I agree that if words/meanings/storylines fit and need to be told, they need to be told.

  57. Jenn Warren says:

    You all are such thoughtful readers, and you inspire me! These days I’m focused on what is “appropriate” for my 9 year old daughter who reads at a 6th grade level to read. I know that “appropriate” is relative to each judging individual, but I can’t possibly pre-read most of what she reads. I’m looking for any good resources. I often use Common Sense Media, but older books haven’t been reviewed there. I did have a librarian friend recommend using the main character’s age as an indicator…good for kids within a year of two of the main character. Ideas?

    • Anne says:

      I really like your librarian friend’s idea. I have a librarian friend who swears by the lexile score, but I haven’t found that to be particularly useful for emotional content. Word of mouth has been most useful for me in figuring out what’s (probably) appropriate for my kids. I can’t read everything first, but I have a lot of friends who also read a lot, and I’m always asking them for their feedback on what their kids are reading.

    • 'Becca says:

      Here are some books I read *to* my son when he was 3 and 4 years old, many of which are written at about 6th grade reading level:
      http://articles.earthlingshandbook.org/2009/09/09/great-chapter-books-for-kids/
      The Melendy books and Miss Osbourne-the-Mop certainly would be appreciated by a 9-year-old; my son is 10 now and has read all of those to himself and still loves them.

      The original Oz books, the Moffat series by Eleanor Estes, and The Chronicles of Narnia are excellent.

      Here are some other books my son enjoyed recently:
      http://articles.earthlingshandbook.org/2015/01/15/books-ive-been-sharing-with-my-10-year-old/
      Think twice about Treasure Island and So You Want to Be a Wizard if your daughter is sensitive to violence and scariness.

  58. Zoya says:

    I don’t agree with books using the F word or any use of profanity. The question is why is it necessary to make a good story or a best seller? Classics like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma didn’t use profanity and it is still so popular today.

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