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*

Fuuuuuuck. Yoooooooou.

*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.

481 comments

    • Well, now they’ve lost all their books, maybe Rick Scott will hire them to work for Florida on their ‘language’ problem.

    • As a Florida resident, I would say WHAT MORON? and have my response go downhill from there, but after reading the article I see that question has been answered. I categorically and emphatically state that I voted against him. So I will just go all Brooklyn and say, “What a maroon!”

      JEESH.

  • If the app-makers are editing books and selling them directly, then I can see the legal no-no regarding licensing and publishing variant editions without contracting with the author. But if readers are legally buying a book and THEN using an app to modify the text on their own device… who cares? Folks are going to read/interpret a text how they want regardless of how hard you try to control the experience. That’s the nature of reading.

    I’m a rude speed reader and don’t read every word of every book. I skim boring passages and POV chapters about lame non-central plot lines.

    If I unexpectedly hit certain types of violent scenes, I jump ahead a few pages. I’m a wimp, so sue me.

    When I was in junior high I would read books to my little brother and skip the sex/excessively violent passages. He wouldn’t have been allowed to read them yet, otherwise.

    I know somebody who flips to the end of suspense novels to see if her favorite characters survive, thus violating the intended plot progression laid out by the author. (A travesty to me: I hate spoilers!!)

    Which is all just to say: once somebody buys a book you can’t force them to read every word of it– you can’t even force them to read it in order!

    • Not reading it “right” isn’t really the same thing as having a machine go through and change a string of letters. Grapes become gsin. An app doesn’t know why a word was chosen or understand context. This affects the way a reader is able to read the story, or affects the actual words on the page. Which also affects how a person would describe the book to a friend. Which affects potential readers.

  • Okay, listen. We were all children. There’s NO WAY that kid came home “sad” because they liked the book but the swears were bumming them out. Never happened. That’s glurgy bullshit. At least have enough faith (heh) in your position you they can defend it without making shit up to gratify the pearl-clutchers who’ll be buying this app.

  • I know, I already commented once, but I just gotta leap on this one last time.

    I grew up on Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Dean Koontz. These were violent, dark, horrific books which I totally loved. I probably would not let my own children read the books I read at their age, I mean, look how I turned out.

    The Great and Secret Show. Weaveworld. Cabal. The Shining. The Stars My Destination. These books were in my school libraries.

    I can’t even imagine what those novels would be like if they were censored-edited by an app designed to ‘cleanse’ my reading. There’s something visceral, gritty and vital missing from the experience of growing up when kids are sheltered by an app like this.

    I loved dark fiction and dark films, since I could remember. Those fiction novels made me the depraved man I am today.

    My cartoons were Thundarr, He-man, GI-Joe and Thundercats. Every one of those cartoons has graphic violence, monstrous-freakish creatures, and dark, wickedness. And sex? Have you seen She-Ra? Have you seen Cheetara? Those chicks are hot! Don’t get me started on Evil-lyn, I wanted to take that girl straight to the dungeon.

    I got off-point again.

    Here’s what I’m saying: in the nasty business of censoring curse words with software to bleeps, blurs and replaces something, where do you draw the line? Before you know it, someone will have an app that censors-edits cartoons, films, and TV shows, so nothing dark or offensive or sensual is ever allowed. “Read-no-evil” is only a mouse-click away from see-no-evil and hear-no-evil. Imagine every swear word and dark, wicked scene on television being blurred and bleeped out of existence.

    What would be the point of having a film ratings system? Aren’t book retailers adopting content ratings systems for books? I thought that was already decided and in the works.

    I survived the 80’s as a child. If I can do that, and still be marginally functional, then who needs clean reading? Give it to me dirty, raw, uncut, and visceral, as intended. I’ll decide what my kids can read, and I’ll be the one to have to explain things when they figure out a way around my limits, or happen to pick up a book I was reading, like I picked up my mother’s novels when I was young and impressionable.

    🙂

  • I’d like an app that adds profanity to some books. Having just finished Gone and Hunger by Michael Grant, I’m shocked by the lack of profanity in those two books.

    Maybe Michael Grant was home schooled by a nun?

  • If people don’t want to read a enovel with swear words in them, go buy early years childrens ebooks. Swearing is around in the community. Get used to it! Oh, better still, go and buy a ebook Holy Bible… Oh, whoops… They talk about whores in that ‘good’ book! Oh, quick… Block me! I used the ‘W’ bomb! LOL!

  • Hollywood/TV Land has been doing what Clean Reader does for years. Nobody gives a shit about that though? Or not enough to force a change else they’ll drop the adaptation and the author loses money.

    Stephen King wrote a letter a couple of years ago http://stephenking.com/promo/utd_on_tv/letter.html related to the considerable changes made in the tv version of Under the Dome. He rolled over and was ok with it. Saying something like the book is still the same blah blah bollocksing cop out. I don’t buy that.

    They’ll do the same when they film your Miriam books Chuck, you know that right?

  • I have to agree with Travis Luedke. Give it to me dirty, raw, uncut, and visceral, as intended.

    I mentioned in an earlier post that at a fairly young age–maybe 7 or 8? –I read Peyton Place. I also read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath when my older brother had it for classwork. My mother cringed, but never stopped me reading them (Peyton Place was hers, remember!). My parents sheltered me about finances, one reason I am hopeless with money now, but not from the real world. I grew up under the shadow of The Bomb and the Vietnam War, and I still flinch when I see pictures of Charles Manson. But books? It was open season.

    I read all the Godfather series, too. And those dark books educated me. Because they showed me the real world wasn’t fair, it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t a fairy-tale world out there.

    Those gritty novels only made me want more of the same.

    And I read Tolkien, who taught me that even in the darkest times there could still be hope. And I wanted more.

    I went to an all-girl Catholic high school, and let me tell you that will do a number on your mental equilibrium, especially about sexuality and gender preference and identification. So I read Robert Heinlein, and his open-mindedness kept me sane and balanced.

    I write what I know, and I write what I’ve learned. And that means that one of my characters curses like a gang-banger, because that’s what he is. And another character undergoes not one but multiple rapes. And not one of those rapes includes one swear word, or one reference to any body parts. It’s all about the presentation and the WHY of what I’m writing. But if you take out one swear word of Danny’s, or ‘clean up’ one of Ari’s rapes, you lose the entire point of their character arcs. And THAT emasculates my entire story. (Is “emasculate” one of the words they’d change?) And if you do that, I will hunt you down and gut you with a dull plastic knife.

    Let me tell the story the way I need to tell it. There’s a reason for every word I choose. If you don’t like those words, don’t read my story. If you need it told a different way, you can damn well write it yourself. But then it won’t be the same story, will it?

  • I would just love to add that if a child is (truly) “sad” over swear words they’ve read, the writer didn’t do this; The parents did.

    Though I suspect the child’s sadness may be more of a fictitious sub-plot since piety has often been justified ‘for the sake of the children.’

  • You know what? Fuck these people. Fuck anyone who uses this app. And fuck anyone who defends its very existence.

  • So, Inkterra has pulled its library from Clean Reader. Now the app is claiming you can read any book with it, but I can’t see how that works (I was willing to download the app to look for my books and others, but not to sign up for an account).

    A partial victory in that at least they aren’t making a profit off in-app purchases.

  • Yep. If you can’t handle any kind of offensiveness in your books, you’re not doing the critical thinking part of reading. And if you’re not doing the critical thinking part of reading … well, why are you reading?

  • Totally agree! Art is art; you don’t have to like it…

    When I first became serious about writing books, I would give chapters to my mother, who hates any sort of profanity. “Oh, dear. Does it really have to have all those nasty words?” So I substituted all the “nasty words” for her using global search and replace.

    When reading through the result, the first time I came across ‘”Fishing bastard!” he shouted’, I burst out laughing. This is simply not going to work. Sorry, Mum!

  • First off: Flaming clowns! Fuck yeah! Secondly, I would suggest a compromise: offer to print your books in a redacted version and sell them for three times the amount of the book with its original content. Let’s see exactly how many people really want to pay for the privilege of dictating their moral choices to authors.

    • Yeah, we do. Unfortunately they are in the majority in the US, and they are a very vocal majority. I have never yet heard any request to censor, sanitize or homogenize speech or the written word from a pagan or a Muslim.

      So unfortunately, there we are.

      • An artistic depiction of the prophet would be considered “speech” in the sense of the First Amendment, so the response to South Park’s use of such imagery should qualify. (In Islamic society, censorship is (historically) much more prevalent than pretty much anywhere in the modern Western world. For instance, consider the OIC’s global ban on speech criticizing Muhammad.)
        It’s not surprising you don’t hear from pagans calling for censorship, however, since historically (and I mean fairly recently as well) censorship has been used more to silence them than benefit them. I would imagine most are strongly pro-speech.

  • I disagree with the hope that it’s illegal. I think a reader should absolutely be ABLE to use software to mess with what they’re reading, if they wish, and do so legally. There are word-changing software filters on all sorts of games and other online platforms; stories aren’t any more special than any other communication to me.

    I agree that using such filters may sometimes mean the user is a weasely asshat, of course.

    But I don’t take issue with being able to set “turn all curses into pirate slang” on Puzzle Pirates; nor do I have a problem with Jailbreak The Patriarchy, so I think there are sane uses for these things.

  • I would only download this if it were free and for laughs. Imagine reading Miriam black and seeing how it changes “go eat a bag of lightly toasted dicks”

    But on a serious note this is a form of censorship which is bloody well disgusting

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds