Books

Why Are There So Many F**king Best-sellers Right Now With F**k in the Title?

Photo illustration of various books with profanity in the title.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Perusing the best-seller list these days is an adults-only experience. The top 25 books on Amazon’s list as of this writing include cookbooks titled What the F*@#k Should I Make for Dinner? and 50 Ways to Eat Cock, as well as a self-help guide called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Two others are adult coloring books—it’s a whole thing—titled Calm the F*ck Down and Go F*ck Yourself, I’m Coloring. What the f*ck is going on?

When the children’s-book parody Go the F**k to Sleep became a best-seller back in 2011, its title received thrilled news coverage before it even hit stores. But now, once-titillating indecency is commonplace. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that profane titles were “flooding bookstores,” and causing dilemmas for booksellers and marketers. And there’s plenty more obscenity in store for 2019, including The F*ck It Diet and I Used To Be a Miserable F*ck: An Everyman’s Guide to a Meaningful Life.

Cursing is inherently a bit aggro; it’s meant to shock. But many of these titles play with the juxtaposition of femininity and profanity. There are cookbooks (Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F*ck), craft books (Subversive Cross Stitch: 50 F*cking Clever Designs for Your Sassy Side), self-help guides (F*ck Feelings; Unf*ck Your Brain), celebrity memoir (Kelly Osbourne’s There Is No F*cking Secret: Letters from a Badass Bitch), journals (Zen as F*ck), “gratitude journals” (Fuck This Shit Show), etiquette guides (Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck) and planners (Another Fucking Shit List). Coloring books are an industry all to themselves, with titles like Fuck That Shit, Eat a Bag of Dicks, and—going all in—F*ckity F*ck F*ck F*ck. If you don’t just like reading, but like to advertise that you like reading, there are passels of tchotchkes emblazoned with the slogan “Fuck off, I’m reading.”

“I think my audience are the people who think they don’t like or need ‘self-help,’ ” said Sarah Knight, the author of a series of profanely titled books. “They come for the swear-y titles and stay for the no-bullshit content.” Knight worked as an editor at several major publishing houses in New York before quitting and writing The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, whose title tweaked Marie Kondo’s blockbuster ode to domestic minimalism. The send-up became a sensation of its own. The fourth book in Knight’s No F*cks Given series, Calm the F*ck Down, will be published later this month.

Part of what’s driving this trend might be that foul-mouthed book titles tend to fare better in online retailers than they do in bookstores. Titles like Knight’s can pose problems for brick-and-mortar bookstores, which are presumed to be family-friendly spaces. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one bookseller who took care to position vulgar titles away from the children’s section, and another who kept Go the F**k to Sleep behind the counter. They’re similarly tricky for newspapers with conservative style guides. On the New York Times best-seller list for advice and how-to books, where The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has spent 105 weeks, the title is represented as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a —————.

Knight said that many booksellers will not stock and display her books without that fig leaf of an asterisk, which almost all these titles employ. Her titles vary slightly in different markets for this reason, with the United States on the more liberal end, requiring only a single star. In the United Kingdom, it’s “F**k,” and a large book-seller in Australia requested a special “F***” cover years after the book became a hit. In the United States, airports and Urban Outfitters were among the toughest markets to crack with her first risqúe title. Knight also said Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter will not let her advertise with either photos or captions that display her book titles. “I went through the rigmarole of setting up ‘No Fucks Given’ accounts all over social media only to be negged every time I tried to pay for ads,” she said. “They won’t even take my fucking money!”

Despite the occasional marketing hurdle, however, clearly these books are selling just fine. That’s the surprising thing about all of these supposedly irreverent titles. The premise of their humor is that they’re shocking, but they’re now so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine being shocked by them. They are “the product of a culture in which transgressing social norms has become an agreed-on social norm,” as essayist Dan Brooks wrote of the “naughty” card game Cards Against Humanity a few years ago. That game has been so successful that G-rated board games like Taboo and Cranium now tout “dark” or “adult” versions for people who enjoy dirty jokes, but can’t conjure them unless they’re printed on a deck of glossy cards. Profanity is now utterly basic.