I hear the word "gratuitous" bandied around a lot in discussions of YA literature. 

Gratuitous sex scenes.

Gratuitous violence.

Gratuitous language.

People are opposed to seeing ALL THIS GRATUITOUSNESS in books and it makes them mad and and disgusted and possibly not want to read the author who uses said gratuitousness ever again, etc, etc, etc.

Pardon me while I try to grasp what this even means

My dear friend Merriam-Webster defines "gratuitous" thusly:

1 a : given unearned or without recompense b : not involving a return benefit, compensation, or consideration c : costing nothing : free

2: not called for by the circumstances :
unwarranted <gratuitous insolence> <a gratuitous assumption>

I (gratuitously) assume that the second meaning is the one that gets everyone all riled up and making (sometimes) vague references. 

Not called for by the circumstances.  Unwarranted.

So what exactly is "gratuitous language"?  I've heard people say it's when the author could have gotten their point across without using those terms, but chose not to.  (Um, what?)  Or!  When it's used only for shock value.

. . . And now I am sitting here, racking my brain trying to think of ONE SINGLE BOOK I've read in my life where an excellent writer had nothing better to do to spice things up than to throw in some profanity or whatever.  Does this really happen?  And if yes, I beg you to leave me a comment here or email me with specific examples.  Because I really, really, really want to see this for myself.

From what I've observed, it seems to me that most often when someone calls something gratuitous, what they really mean is that they don't like it.

If that were the true definition, here are some things that I would find gratuitous in the world:

  1. The smell and sight of meat, especially bacon. (Damn your gratuitous bacon frying!)
  2. Cats that urinate in places other than their litter boxes or the great outdoors.
  3. Checkstands that have only white or orange Tic-Tacs when clearly the red ones are the best.
  4. The End (a Seattle radio station) playing Sublime on what seems to be an hourly rotation.
  5. People who make blanket statements that profanity in writing is lazy, inappropriate, and/or gratuitous.
Anyway.  My point is.  Gratuitous.  You keep using this word.  I do not think it means what you think it means. 

And also?  If something jumps out at you while you're reading, if it feels "gratuitous," is it really?  Or it is perhaps a) not to your taste or b) really poor writing?


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