Thursday, July 24, 2008

More changes to the Look Me in the Eye paperback

The biggest change of all was driven by the kids, moms and teachers in the audience . . . and it caused me to rewrite a significant fraction of the book . . .

I wrote Look Me in the Eye as an adult, and I imagined my readers would be adults, too. The language I used in the book was the language of the places I found myself, twenty or thirty years ago. Back then, I was in some edgy places, with some rough people. And the dialogue reflects that.

I know some of you have spent time in jail, or in the company of outlaw bikers or pool hustlers, pimps, crack dealers, or other lowlifes. You (those in that select group) are no doubt familiar with every term found in my hardcover book, and then some. But to my surprise, a significant fraction of the moms and teachers in this country do not have experience with those environments.

Many readers apparently accepted the dialogue for what it was, but some of you commented. And I listened to what you had to say, and I tried to sort out and analyze your comments. I thought, I’ll keep track of the comments by groups.

This is how I categorized your comments:

1-Son of a bitch! I love it when you swear!

2-Your mother should have washed your mouth out with soap talking like that!

3-I have no comment on your language, but I have to tell you what I thought about xxxxx

4-Greeting, Kind Sir. My late husband was Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria and he was killed . . .

After a few months, the trend was obvious. Category 1 contained no responses. None. Zero. Category 2 contained a fair number, more than #4, the Nigerian Scam. Category 3 was the biggest of all, with 93% of correspondents falling into this group.

Some writers would look at those statistics and say, 93% of your readers don’t care about language. So forget it! You have more people trying to run a Nigerian Con on you than complaining about language!

But I thought about that. And I thought some more. I got the statistics on book sales, and I looked at how many comments I’d gotten. I realized that no more than 2% of my book buyers actually wrote me. And that presented an alarming dilemma.

There is no way to know what the other 98% think.

Perhaps I could lurk outside a bookstore, and catch some, and interrogate them.

Then I started talking to schools. By talking to schools, I mean, I went into schools and talked with teachers and students about Asperger’s, and being different, and growing up, and all that entails. I saw the teachers sharing my stories with eleven and twelve year old kids, and I had this realization . . .

I don’t want kids reading that kind of language from me. You don’t use words like that with kids.
The total absence of comments praising my profanity convinced me it probably didn’t add anything.

And meanwhile, more and more teachers gave my book to more and more kids, and moms did the same.

I thought something should be done. Many people disagreed, saying I was nuts to contemplate changes. My editor said, It’s a bestseller just as it is! No one does that! I posted the dilemma on the Backspace and Absolute Write writer’s forums, and 100+ comments came in, most of which said, “Those are your words. Leave them alone!”

But I have always made my own way. I kept thinking of those kids with my book, and I resolved to change the book for them. I rewrote fifty pages of dialogue, and removed all the profanity. I didn’t change any stories. I just removed the swears. It reads just like it did before, only now, my grandmother would not wash my mouth out with soap if I read it to her.

And yes, that really happened, back in Georgia.

So now, I am proud to say, you can give the paperback Look Me in the Eye to your pre-teen or the kids in your class and there is no bad language in there. Nothing to make you cringe. There are still some bad stories, and some tough times, but real life is like that.

You grownup readers are still going to get exactly the same messages from the book. The absence of shits and damns won’t change the essence of my growing up and making my way, or how I think. And if you disagree, Crown is keeping the hardcover in print, so you can still buy the book in its original profane glory.

I realized I don’t need profanity to tell a story. The story is built upon my thoughts and actions and experiences and feelings . . . and profanity is not an essential part of that. Some of you (plenty of you, and me too) still swear some in real life, but a book like this is better off without it. I am convinced of that.

Time will tell if I made the right decision here. I think I did. What do you think?

54 comments:

Sustenance Scout said...

The right decision for you is the right decision for you, John, if that makes any sense! Congrats on insisting on doing what you believe is right for your young readers. As for me, I'm happy with my signed first edition (woohoo!). Talk about a treasure.

Karen in Denver

Janet said...

Bravo! Many thanks for making it something I can share with my son without worry.

Realmcovet said...

I LOVED the way you used profanity in Look Me In the Eye. It had me giggling like a school girl, especially coming from a fellow profanity user herself. But I have to say that you did the right thing by doing what you did. You had a very important story to tell, one that could involve giving many of the younger kids today a perspective that they never thought they coulda had anywhere else. And that would've been wiped away faster than you could spell f-u-c-k, because parents/teachers wouldn't have approved of what you wrote beforehand. So mad props to you, for doing what YOU felt was right. I wish I had that sort of initiative.

But what did you have to use in place of "Slave/Stupid"???? :)

Kim Stagliano said...

"Greetings sir..." Oh, John, you are a howl! (BTW, mind the coyotes this month!) I think it's a smart idea. Expand your audience. As long as the hardcover has the original verbiage, why not? I editied out a zillion swears in my MS. I ran a "Find" search for the F bomb and was horrified. Bye bye swears!

Pass that soap, will you?

Steph said...

I was not disturbed by the "strong language" in the first book, and I had no qualms about reading it with my Aspergian daughter, who was 13 at the time and letting my 9-year-old son listen in. Your book is one of my daughter's favorites, by the way (and mine, too) I've always felt that language should be appropriate to the situation being portrayed. And your was not even all that strong or pervasive, in my opinion. But that's me. *LOL*

On the other hand, if the changes make the book accessible to more young readers, it is definitely the right move. It's interesting to read how your knowledge of your audience and the impact of your book has evolved through time. I love the fact that you're out there talking to people, continuing to share your stories and listening to theirs.

Stuff said...

I didn't remember any swearing in your book, maybe the odd f**k or something, but overall the story was way too interesting for me to focus on swear words . . .

Melanie Avila said...

I don't recall the language being offensive, but I'm an adult and I suppose I'm used to it. If it's important to YOU to change the dialogue, then I think you made the right decision. You certainly aren't going to LOSE sales because you don't say shit. ;)

bristowmom said...

I am one of the 98% who didn't comment. I did understand that the profanity was part of your experience; however, I have a 12 year old nephew with Asperger Syndrome and when I gave it to his parents I told them they should read it and decide whether or not they wanted their son to read it. The ONLY reason they might not want him to read it was because of the profanity. I know they read it but I do not think they let their son read it. So I am happy to hear that you have a sanitized version comng out. I think 12 year old Aspergian's will benefit greatly from reading your book - I think it will give them hope that they will be okay and that they can be more than okay. But there are still people out here who do their best to keep our kids away from profanity.

Strange Behaviour said...

2 words: APRECIATION & GRATITUDE

I appreciate your selflessness in releasing a revised edition. I am grateful that now my children can share your book too.

Your story remains intact, and is now more relevant to the world because it can be shared without worry. (Or whiteout.)

Strange Behaviour said...

Oh yeah, another thing. "Clean up your language!" Isn't that what moms have taught since the dawn of man? Who doesn't remember the taste of Dove or Irish Spring?

Go Mom!

edenwoman said...
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kim said...

I'm coming out of lurk mode to say, as a parent and swearer -- I love the idea.

kim said...
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Chumplet said...

I wasn't bothered in the least by the language. It was real, and how you remembered it.

Taking out the swearing won't necessarily detract from the effect of the story. I'm glad you stuck to your guns and released the paperback in a form most mothers will allow their kids to read. The more who get the message, the better.

I for one am glad I have the first edition. Someday I hope to have you sign it, if we ever meet. My sister in law who has an autistic son is borrowing it, and she'd better give it back!

Molly said...

I read the book with a bit of an eye for whether or not I would give it to my 12 year old son to read too. All that made me twitch a bit was one small scene where the groupies show up to uh, service the band members. I decided like it or not it's pretty unlikely he has never heard of such a thing somewhere, and it wouldn't have been enough for me to pass up the positive aspects of him reading it (except I lent it to my daughter first and still haven't got it back. LOL) That said, I think it's great you've adapted this version to a younger audience and accepted in a lot of ways you are a role model for our kids, too. Now I'll just pick up the paperback and my son can have his own copy. Thanks

Molly

John Elder Robison said...

Well, Molly, the groupies are still in the paperback. I took out the profanity, not the stories!

And I agree . . . most 12 year olds have heard that stuff already.

But you know, no matter what they've heard about sex or drugs or whatever, the fact is, they will go farther in life if we as adults set a standard and help them clean up their language.

My son has a friend who just lost his job because he started swearing in front of a customer.

I guess that training starts at home, and it's reinforced by books like this and all manner of things in our culture. I guess I'd rather be on the side that helps our kids keep jobs, impress older people, etc. And teaching them to swear won't do that.

Angela Harms said...

Well, I don't know what the right thing is, but I know this. I hadn't bought the book yet, and now I will make sure to get the hardcover. No watering-down for me.

Molly said...

Oops, sorry, I didn't mean to suggest you did or should change the story. Even though that's the only tiny bit I noticed, I still support the changes you've made, for the reasons you've shared with everyone.

kamille said...

I just finished your book and immediately came visit your site.
i had to laugh at the first blog i read, because the copy i read, handed down by my mom, had all the cuss words scribbled out!
I think it is prudent of you to do without them. I will buy a copy for my friend who is the principal of a school.

TheresaC said...

Yes, Mr. Robison, I think you did the right thing. Even though you were perfectly in your right not to change anything, kids need to know that really most conversations they have should not include swear words. And they only learn this by example.

My boys heard many things from as early as kindergarten and first grade from kids in their school that lived in the projects. I told them if they didn't hear me say things like that they should never repeat them. It worked until my oldest went to middle school. They're a lot worse in middle school.

Now I tell them that I can't tell them how they should behave when they are off with their buddies but that they should never use that language when talking to adults or anywhere in public. So far I think that is working.

Anyway, in this day and age when some of the books we read in school are getting banned from some schools, I think it only helps you to expand your audience by exercising a bit of self censorship.

You wrote the book to help people understand Aspergians, and you will do a better job of that if your book gets a wider audience.

The Anti-Wife said...

I think you made the right decision.

Carol Prescott said...

With or without the swear words I loved your book but commend you for making the decision to clean up the language. It will be nicer to share with my respected older relatives and eventually my young Aspergian son. I have read numberous books about autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders and find the ones written by authors having the conditions to be the most insightful. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences! I hope to meet you during your visit to Portsmouth, and now you don't have to interrogate me as to what I think about your book :)
Sincerely
Carol P

aspieprincess said...

I greatly enjoyed your book - and did not mind the profanity, but as you say, I'm an adult. I can't say that I wouldn't have shared the book in its original form with a young aspergian, but having the option of a sanitized version I think is great.

Especially knowing that young aspergians struggle with simple rules such as when to use profanity, I think your course of action may be wise for a younger audience. But, please, keep the original version available!

Lynne Soraya
http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary

Polly Kahl said...

I didn't mind the swearing at all. To me it was much less offensive than the "funny" scene when the guy snorts formica. Fortunately for you he didn't become ill, or worse. (Hopefully he didn't get lung cancer later.) On the other hand, having two versions is great ~ now readers have a choice about the swearing.

ChrisEldin said...

But to my surprise, a significant fraction of the moms and teachers in this country do not have experience with those environments. Cracked me up!!!!

You know, before reading your post, I would've thought that you should keep the words as they were. But I think you'll reach a larger audience with these new edits. I have to say personally, when I gave your book to my sister whose son is an Aspergian, I told her that he shouldn't read it because of the language (he's 12). But now, this is really going to be a good thing!!

Kudos to you for thinking ahead of the curve!!!
(Now, I'm going to buy your edited book.) Thanks!!

:-)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Well, I swear like a sailor, but I never hold it against someone who doesn't.

:)

Amy MacKinnon said...

John, though I admired you greatly before, I must say my respect for you has grown by leaps and bounds. You are a man of honor.

Stacy said...

"Original profane glory" should be added to hardcover dust jackets.

I don't have a problem with preteens reading swear words (I also don't have any preteens of my own), but if it made you uncomfortable, then it's great that you changed it in spite of what others told you to do.

The Muse said...

John,

I think that was a smart marketing decision to clean up the paperback to appeal to a wider audience. I loved the rawness of the original hardcover version; but I must say that I was a little uncomfortable when my son listened to the audiotape...although he just giggled.

Daly said...

I love that you give the option. I loved your original, but yeah, would feel uncomfortable with youngsters reading it!

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

sounds like you made the right decision for you and your audience. Wouldn't work for me, however----I'm a pottymouth who writes X-rated filth, and if I take the swear words out of my writing, I won't have anything left to publish. :)

I'm glad I have the hardcover first edition to preserve your swears for my own pottymouth mind.

Cheryl in Tampa said...

John, I just completed your book. I absolutely loved it. I have had a picture of you in my mind (like a Montagoonian!) from your brother's books for a long time now. It was neat to really gain an understanding of who you are. Your experiences are amazing! Without the profanity, I am able to pass your book onto my son. I think your will to succeed is an awesome message for any teen boy. My favorite trait you share throughout the book is how you name things. So funny!!! Thanks for the great clean read!

kbasinger said...

John,
The profanity did not bother me, but I am glad to have a version that I feel more comfortable allowing my son to read. I know he will not read anything he hasn't heard before, but I believe you will become somewhat of a hero to him. He will identify with so many of your thoughts and feelings, and leaving the profanity out will help him focus on the story. Being an adolescent, he is intrigued by "Cuss words"!haha
Thank you for sharing your life with others...

scrappygal said...

Thanks for visiting my blog..simple pleasures...you made my day :)

As far as the cursing that goes on in your book...it didn't phase me at all. I am a teacher and..let me tell you, many of us curse like sailors.

However as far changing your book to make it socially appropriate for young readers...I can see where you are coming from. I would love for my older son to read this book, so that he could gain some perspective and understand his younger brother a bit more.

Hope to see you in Sept. in LA !

R said...

I am very pleased with this turn of events! I have been having an especially hard time with my Aspergian pre-teen. I feel like I am going to lose my mind. I feel very ill-equipped.

He is a good kid, but it is very difficult.

I will be buying a copy of your revised book.

Linda said...

John,
I love this idea. As a mental health therapist and supervisor, I have shared your book with my staff and others. What I appreciate most about your story (I think) is that you begin sharing your feelings at such a young age--I LOVE the story about petting the girl in kindergarten with the truck. I can't TELL you how many people I've told that to!! It's such a sweet, painful glimpse of your life. (it just makes me want to PET you!!)

So the fact that you were willing to change your original manuscript to make it available to reach a younger and younger audience really touches me. Not everyone would be willing to do that. If you weren't willing to do that, I couldn't say it was the wrong decision, but the fact that you ARE willing...........well........ it just says a lot. (Gee, I'm really a WHIZ with words, aren't I?)

Thanks for making a difference, not just in the lives of Aspergians (love that term), but in the lives/experiences of those that attempt to treat them.

Linda in Okawville, Illinois

Carrie Wilson Link said...

John, I just finished your book, and I, personally, wouldn't change a thing, however, I love that you put that amount of thought and consideration into your decision, and support you 100% for having made it! I wish all authors took their responsibilities so seriously!

Michelle O'Neil said...

I think you are a Sweetie. Another fine example that Aspergians do indeed have empathy.

BTW....it's been a while since I read it, but I don't even recall the swearing in LMITE.

Mary Witzl said...

When I was a kid, I thought damn and hell were as bad as it got. I remember thinking my father was a right old swearer for sparingly using those words. Things are different in my family. My kids know plenty worse, and they are inclined to use these words now that they're teenagers. I've never washed their mouths out with soap, but my feeling is that it's better to keep the F word for a real emergency. What will kids say when they drop a hammer on their toes?

Now I'm pissed off that I didn't buy your revised book for my kids.

And I loved your response to Anti-wife's most recent post.

David Hough said...

030808. Dear John, my daughter gave me a copy of your book two days ago. My 18-year-old g/daughter is an asperger. I write to say a big 'thank you' for the insight's you have given me in trying to understand and relate to her, and the literary skill, honesty and humour with which you have done it.

Jess said...

Son of a bitch, I love it when you swear!

There. That's my .0000001%.

I strongly suggest the lurking, too. Perhaps an interview questionnaire prior to the selling of the book? An application to send in?

Yvonne said...

John, I totally agree with your decision. Yvonne, Editor, Asperger Women Association Magazine


http://www.aspergerwomenassociation.com

Jolene said...

I think you did the right thing, either way.

The version with all its profane glory added a layer/dimension to your personality. We were given a more dynamic and organic character to form with in our (your readers') minds.

In other words, you were colourful.

On the other end of the spectrum, you did the right thing as you recognised that your book was being picked up by young teens/children, and with or without the profanities, they probably would not pick up on the subtleties; that is, I don't think it made a difference as to what dimension it may have added to your personality.

Besides, I guess, children should not be swearing, and I can see where you are coming from by making a decision to omit them.

Not to sound patronising, but you did the right thing, the first time and the second time, so don't worry too much!

P/S: I am 22 and I swear a lot; started a long time ago, but it shouldn't define who I am.

Thank you John.

Best wishes,
Jolene

spacedlaw said...

Well I wasn't shocked by the use of strong language (or which you get far more on TV or any action movie these days), in particular because it fitted perfectly the context. But I am a parentless adult (and French - we do like our swearing) so, of course, my perspective isn't all that typical.

Don't soften it all too much. You can't have bikers and whatnot speak like they are coming straight out of a Jane Austen book.

Yvonne said...

As an artist, mother, and a person who grew up in a very tough neighborhood and worked it the criminal justice system for a decade, I feel profanity is overused and has become trite for those who lack the ability to commuicate deep level emotions in a more effective way.

Just because someone does not use profanity doesn't mean it becomes a Jane Austen book. Its good to give an example to children that communication does not need the "F" word or other profanity. Its not a requirement to make a book interesting or a movie, to have profanity, to be interesting.

As a former college prof, art students who were not quite skilled often resort to shock tactics ,which 90% of the time, made their work weak and trite. Believe me, I have heard and seen it all and I am shock proof.

When we are feeling emotion, we really do not feel the "F' word.. Profanity is only one verbal outcry not what we feel. There are many other choices of words which are equal if not more appropo, to express a feeling, or thought. It takes a good artist whether by pen or paint brush to have such a mastery of their craft.


Profanity,itself, is NOT an emotion. I feel there are better and more interesting ways to describe our feelings , even bikers.. There is too much profanity in the movies as it is. It cheap and easy..that is why its used.

Children need a comfort zone to use their minds not knee jerk reactions involving profanity, which is violence. Profanity is way over used where one can use their intellect to describe any emotion.
Being a painter we don't use profanity as a matter of course to communicate emotion.

As an artist, I feel profanity is a simple way out of someone who lacks more creative abilities to reach communication of emotion.

And I am NOT a Polly Anna myself.. I worked in the criminal justice system for years and it two years to get profanity out of my vocabulary...and I was a better and more intelligent and talented person for getting rid of profanity out of my vocabulary.

Tough and bravery does not mean violent or violence in words like profanity. Brave does not mean potty mouth, more often it means lack of intelligence and bikers are not stupid .

By the same token there is a balance...reality versus promoting an ideology of language. Children love Harry Potter as well as Lemony Snickett.. I love it.... how much profanity are in those films and it had violence and villians.

Just some thoughts.

Lora said...

Glad you made the decision you did and stuck to what you feel is right. Me personally, I would still give this my hardcover version to my son to read, the details and language would keep his attention - lol. but, It will be read by more people because of your changes to the paperback. Thank you....now maybe more people will understand and accept those with Asperger's and those affected by it will understand they are not alone - and their feeling and fears are understood!

Dr. Stan said...

I read your hardcover book and enjoyed it. The swear words don't bother me but I knew I couldn't have my 91 year old Methodist mother read it! I was glad to hear that you made some revisions to the paperback book. I will be buying it for her.

Dr. Stan - the man you encountered in the hall at APA, resulting in purchasing your book.

Laura said...

Does this mean my profanity-containing hardcover will be worth more money? Kidding. I don't recall being offended by the swearing, but as I am another sailor-mouth, I wouldn't be. But, I suppose if my children wanted to read the book, before they were teens, I'd probably get them the paperback, or read it aloud, censoring as I go. Then again, they've heard worse from me on any drive in traffic...

Melly said...

Thank you for this book, John. I couldn't wait to read it, since Augusten is one of my favorite authors and I am a mother of a ten year-old son with Asperger's. He's one of triplet boys and he is even outcast by his brothers much of the time. He's a wonderful, brilliant boy and I can't wait for him to read your book to see that it is possible to "fit in" even with his difficulties.

As a potty-mouth myself (my family has elevated sarcasm and profanity to high arts at family gatherings while playing cards and joking around), my kids have heard the best and most creative use of "blue language" around. Even so, my boys still gasp at the use of "bloody hell" in Harry Potter books and movies. Sweet kids, still. So, now that I know there is an alternative that I can pass on to my son (and suggest to his teachers - I'll hand my hardcover on to our therapist - she'll appreciate it un-scrubbed), I will get the paperback as soon as possible. I've already read him most of the first two chapters and he giggled at recognizing himself in your descriptions.

Normally, the creative in me would say that you should never change your creation to please anyone, however, it is YOUR creation and you should change it anyway that makes you feel comfortable. That you thought about the young audience that will benefit from your story says so much about your character and that being Aspergian IS better than "normal".

Many thank,
Melly

Melly said...

Gah!

That would be "Many THANKS"

Melly

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Kerri said...

I am listening to the book on tape, and vs. reading it... really enjoying it, but the f-word sure does stand out when it is read out loud! I'm hesitant to let my 16 year old (very conservative and naive) aspergian daughter listen to some of the chapters. I am thankful you are editing for language in the next paperback edition, so that more young aspergians may benefit from your stories.