I've been thinking recently about inappropriate language in books. The protagonist of my current read has used some words that aren't really appropriate, and that can be offensive, and it's made me think.
When inappropriate language is used, is the author simply being true to how their characters might speak, or by using it, are they telling readers it's ok to use such language?
There are definitely times when certain words/terms that are inappropriate are used for the right reasons. Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is one book that comes to mind. Set during intergration of black students into white schools, certain racist language is hurled at the black students. Set in the 1920s, Talley is being true to the behaviour of people back then. Talley is in no way condoning the language, it's being used to show how awful white people were - even if you didn't know this kind of language was not acceptable, you would pick it up from the novel.
From page 24 of Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Don't Let Me Go by J. H. Trumble is another; an LGBTQ novel that deals with homophobic attacks. Using such language in this kind of novel is necessary to show the disgusting attitudes and behaviour of the attackers. Again, it's not condoned, and you're clear that this language is not on.
From page 18 of Don't Let Me Go by J. H. Trumble
But what about books that aren't using language in this way, the books that have their characters use words they probably shouldn't, either in inappropriate ways, or words that are just politically incorrect and offensive? For example, if "gay" was used as a synonym for "stupid", I.E. "That's so gay." Obviously, we all know that's wrong, but ignorant people do say this kind of thing. There are also the words used a while back to describe people with special needs that we all know are seriously offensive, but are hurled by people when someone makes a mistake, or, perhaps, used when someone gets excited.
When authors have their characters use these words in this way in their books are they contributing to the problem, or just representing the language that is used, being true to the character, however wrong the language is?
In the novel I'm currently reading, Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen, there are three instances that I can remember of Melinda using political incorrect words formerly used to describe people with special needs, and they make me wince a little. I can't work out if this is ok because it's representative of who Melinda is, or if it's a unwise decision on Anderson's part. Speak was originally published in 1999, so quite a while back - I don't know if that makes any difference, were we using this kind of language more then and it wasn't seen as so bad? I just don't know.
From page 196 of Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen
So tell me what you think! Is it right for authors to represent the language people use, or are they in the wrong to use such language in their writing at all? Could they be seen as condoning it? Or are they just being true to life?