Why Clean Reader Doesn’t Matter

Unpopular, minority opinion: Clean Reader doesn’t matter. In brief: an app called Clean Reader aimed to remove swear words from books, replacing then with freaking and crap, etc. Cue the outrage of authors who claimed this as censorship. Smashwords and others then removed titles from the app.

To begin, I write books with profanity. I’ve had a number of reviews calling out the profanity, some saying I use it “every other word” (I don’t). My writing never struck me as all that profane, but the profanity had a purpose. Bad words are just words, an arrangement of letters. There’s power in words, of course, but it seems a bit sheltered in 2015 to care so much about language.

But America – for one – is a nation of prudes. To quote George Carlin: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick.”

That said, I think the outcry to the Clean Reader app says more about the new generation of the internet than it does about the app itself. Every day, people seem to look for something new to be outraged about, and then the mob starts to rule.

I don’t agree with Clean Reader, I don’t think it’s a good app. But if someone wants to use it, I don’t particularly care. It’s their prerogative if they want to have a whitewashed life.

This is hardly different than when a movie is being shown on TV that’s been “edited for content.” Which leads to extraordinarily ridiculous moments like this:

It’s stupid that the FCC thinks people need to be sheltered like this, but this doesn’t alter my conception of “Snakes on a Plane.” So this is compelling, but it also seems a bit self-reverential:

Most writers think very hard about the kind of language they use. Some of us are well-nigh obsessive about our choice of words – and those of us who are published in the US often have to fight to retain our British spellings and vocabulary. We do this because we care about books. We care about language. And if we use profanity (which sometimes, we do) it is always for a reason. Sometimes it’s about trying to achieve authenticity in dialogue. Sometimes it’s about making an impact. Either way, good writers do not use words indiscriminately, but choose to use certain words, having thought long and hard about their use. Editors often suggest changes to the text, but no-one, not even the publisher, is allowed to impose changes, or to republish a censored, abridged or altered version of a text without the permission of the author.

Believe me, I slave over what words to choose. Someone told me that they don’t always read a whole book; they skip entire paragraphs. I was appalled, as every paragraph in a book has meaning and purpose.

Even so, if that reader wants to do that, they can. As someone commented on the Guardian article, if someone wants to take a black pen and cross out every word of profanity, they’re free to do that: they own the book. They can even set the book on fire if they want to. That’s horrible, but they have that freedom.

There’s no slippery slope here. If this was a government app, that would be a problem. But it isn’t. It’s a minor app that will likely be used by people who wouldn’t read profane books to begin with. Or maybe they would – maybe it would open up books to a new audience. Sort of like this book does:

Gulliver's Travels abridged

Or worse, this:

Gulliver's Travels Comics

Both are a type of censorship. Both don’t really matter either, so long as the original still exists.

Ebooks are in the wild west. There’s more you can do with a digital file than you can do with a paperback. Who knows, maybe there will be book mashups in the future. Not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but literally hacking together Pride and Prejudice and World War Z, the way people do with songs. For all I know this is already a thing, but when it happens there’s going to be outrage, and it won’t make sense then either.

Books are different now. They’re less sacred, for better or worse. They’re easier to make, they’re easier to alter. But if the original still exists, the abridged version, or the Cliffs Notes, can’t damage a book’s original meaning.

People will always misread you, no matter if the profanity is in place or not. There will always be differing interpretations of a work of art. If someone is so sheltered as to want to shield a word, they were never going to understand how a book was intended. But you’ve got one more reader you may never have gotten otherwise.

  • I think if there was a demand for censored versions of a book, I’d prefer to write my own “mature” and “censored” versions of a title to make sure the intent of my writing wasn’t lost on people… but somehow I don’t think it would play very well. People likely to find the content of a book objectionable won’t put money in your pocket to buy the “clean” copy, because they’d prefer you wouldn’t write the mature version in the first place.

  • Ted Campbell

    This conversation reminds me of the time my parents, who’d joined a church years after I left home, asked if I’d like to attend one of their fund-raising dinners. “Of course” I overheard my Dad discussing with other members if they should have turkey or beef. When he hung up I said. “If this is a fund raiser why not call it a Spaghetti Feed? That’s more profit.” I volunteered to make two large pots of sauce. The night of the event my Dad was aghast as he watched me spice up the first pot. “They won’t like that.” When we served he made two signs. “HOT SAUCE” and “COOL SAUCE. No one wants cold spaghetti, when the first kettle was almost empty & people were coming back for more I took the “COOL” one to the kitchen & up-graded it. It’s now a regular event – with MY original recipe. Words are in the eye of the reader. My main character sleeps with one guy in every novel but I don’t put in the “wet stuff”
    Check Sue out for yourself at http://www.sueellisonmysteries.com