Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters
There exists a new app called Clean Reader.
The function of Clean Reader is to scrub the profanity from e-books.
Their tagline: “Read books. Not profanity.“
You can dial in how much of the profanity you want gone from the books.
Author Joanne Harris has roundly (and to my mind, correctly) condemned the app, and I would recommend you read about her and condemnation. I would further suggest you go on and read the email she received from the Clean Reader people and, more importantly, her response to that email. (Oh, also: check her tweets, too: @JoanneChocolat.)
I am an author where much of my work utilizes profanity. Because fuck yeah, profanity. Profanity is a circus of language. It’s a drunken trapeze act. It’s clowns on fire. And let’s be clear up front: profanity is not separate from language. It is not lazy language. It is language. Just another part of it. Vulgarity has merit. It is expressive. It is emotive. It is metaphor.
So, as someone with a whole pig wagon full of fucks at stake, let be be clear:
Fuck you, Clean Reader.
*cups hand to mouth*
*fuckecho through the canyon of fucks*
Please let me condemn your app in whatever obscene gesture you find most obscene.
Let me unpack this a little.
When I write a book, I write it a certain way. I paint with words. Those words are chosen. They do not happen randomly. The words and sentences and paragraphs are the threads of the story, and when you pluck one thread from the sweater, the whole thing threatens to unravel — or, at least, becomes damaged. You may say, Well, Mister Wendig, surely your books do not require the profanity, to which I say, fuck you for thinking that they don’t. If I chose it, and the editor and I agree to keep it, then damn right it’s required. It’s no less required than a line of dialogue, or a scene of action, or a description of a goddamn motherfucking lamp. Sure, my book could exist without that dialogue, that action, that goddamn motherfucking lamp.
But I don’t want it to. That’s your book, not my book.
My consent matters when it comes to the book.
If changes are necessary to the book — then I consent to making them.
An editor sends me edits, I can say whether those edits fly or not.
Just as the publisher can consent to the book they publish.
That’s the deal. That’s how this works.
And here you may say:
But what of the consent of the reader?
To which I respond:
Your consent as a reader is being able to pick up the book or not. Your consent as a reader comes into play as to whether or not you put down that book at some point throughout because something within it was objectionable: bad story, unlikeable protagonist, toxic ideas, or even yes, crass and septic vulgarity. That’s the contract the reader and the author share, and this is true with books and movies and comics and really all stories. You consent to buying the ticket. I consent to taking you on the ride. Neither of us get to modify that contract halfway in. We don’t get to change the experience unless somehow the engine of change is built into the content (as with many games). You can’t change the story. I can’t steal your book.
(Here I’ll note that on an individual level, if you really want to go through my book and hand-edit out the profanity, fine. Thing is, you still have to read the profanity to do that — and that means not relying on an app to categorically and programmatically make edits to the text.)
You may say, But I want to read your books, just without all that nasty business.
To which I say, then I don’t want you reading my books. Nothing personal, but I wrote the thing the way I wrote the thing. If that troubles you, then I don’t want you reading it. No harm, no foul. Surely there are other sanitized, anesthetized stories that will grant you greater comfort. But don’t sanitize mine. Don’t anesthetize my work or the work of any author. Do not take that consent away from us. It is immoral. Is it illegal? That, I don’t know, but honestly, I’m hoping it turns out to be true (as honestly, I’d want this thing shut down).
I’m not a fan of slippery slopes, but programmatically removing or changing information from a book? It’s bad shenanigans. Given that this app seems custom-made to serve Christian ideals (see: replacing “bitch” with “witch”) where does it stop? Cutting out an abortion scene and replacing it with a scene where the child survives? Moving a sex scene and replacing it with a scene where the young couple sits and quietly reads the Bible? If a character is objectionable, will you replace it with a goddamn motherfucking lamp so that it doth not offend?
(Sorry, I mean, “Gosh-darn Monday-through-Friday lamp.”)
Look at their website, where on their blog they note that author Mark Henshaw “…makes it a point to write well enough that he doesn’t need to include profanity in his writing.”
Oh, no you didn’t.
Conflating quality with a lack of profanity?
*vomits up a whole bag of middle fingers and dumps them into your lap*
In another blog post, they talk of this like you’re just someone ordering food at a restaurant: oh, ha ha, I don’t like blue cheese so I just order my food without it, and this is exactly like that. Except yeah, no, it’s not. Never mind the problem with conflating food you buy and books you read, let’s instead assume that if you find blue cheese so categorically offensive that you shouldn’t order food with blue cheese in it. Chefs fucking hate when you order food with inane substitutions. Instead of viewing our books like customizable meals, let’s instead pretend like our words are the ingredients list on a procured food product — just because you don’t like maltodextrin doesn’t mean I can whimsically pluck it out without the chemical composition of the food product falling apart. It’s in there. Too late. Don’t like it, don’t buy it.
Their purpose in creating the app was:
“One day our oldest child came home from school and she was a little sad. We asked her what was wrong and she said she had been reading a book during library time and it had a few swear words in it. She really liked the book but not the swear words. We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with. To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this. The more we thought about this idea the more we wanted it to be a reality. Eventually we decided we would do all we could to bring Clean Reader to the world. We’ve been putting as much time and money into it as we could over the last few years and we’re excited to see it launch soon!”
Hey, listen, I have a kid. He’s not even four. I don’t edit the material that reaches his eyes. I control the flow of that information and when something lands in front of him that’s deep or confusing or in conflict to my beliefs, I don’t water it down. We talk about it. My son isn’t even four and we can have conversations about it. That discussion is meaningful. Far, far more meaningful than if I had simply edited out unlikable material and replaced it with something more comfortable. (You’d be surprised how often this happens even with kids books — children’s books are surprisingly judgeypants toward obesity, and as such, requires some discussion with the boy.) What books are these people letting their fourth grader read? “This book, Requiem for a Dream, sounded so polite. I mean, requiems! And dreams! But it wasn’t! No, sir, it wasn’t! What poppycock! Wait, is poppycock profane? There’s that word, ‘cock’ and so we must create an app to find all the ‘cocks’ and replace them with pictures of happy chickens. Chickens can’t be offensive! Especially because they’re so delicious, at least when nobody has put that blasphemous blue cheese all over them ha ha ha condemn Satan praise God burn foul-mouthed witches.”)
Education isn’t about concealment of information. It isn’t about the eradication or modification of offensive language, or ideas, or information. It’s about presenting truth when a child or an adult are ready to hear it, and then talking about it. Anything else is how you get Jesus riding dinosaurs, or a loss of climate change, or the eradication of women or people of color from the pages of history, all because it doesn’t line up with preconceived notions and pre-existing comfort levels.
Stories aren’t bulletin boards. You don’t pull down thumbtacked bits and replace them with your own. And that’s what this app does — it doesn’t merely censor. It edits. It changes. You can’t do that. Changes cascade. It’s like stepping on a butterfly in the past and waking up to a future where a T-Rex is your accountant. Stories aren’t echo chambers. They’re wild, untamed, unkempt territory. You don’t get to prune it into a bonsai shape that you prefer.
Authors write the books they want to write.
And you can read them as they are written.
That’s it. Game over.
You want differently?
Go buy Mad Libs. They let you insert whatever fucking words you like.