If you haven’t heard of Clean Reader yet then allow me to enlighten you: it’s an app that automatically changes swears and other types of “profane” words in ebooks into more acceptable language.
I know! What kind of terrified baby would want or need something like that?
Well, apparently some people do. Though what they make of the internet I have no idea.
Here are my thoughts on why it’s kind of OK in one way but mainly not OK in pretty much all other ways…
The reader is always right
If you’ve bought a book then you have the right to read it however you like. You can read the last page first if you want. You can skip sentences, paragraphs, pages or even whole chapters (I never read a prologue, for example, and I skipped the “Huey Lewis & The News” chapter in American Psycho after I got a couple of pages into it and realised that it was just going to carry on like that).
No-one’s even going to know. In all likelihood, no-one’s going to care either.
If you’ve bought it then it’s your book. You can do what you like with it, and whether a writer likes it or not, you’ll read it however you want to. You may not get the experience that the writer intended, but it’s only you that’ll suffer if you miss out on the better experience that you could have had. But it’s up to you.
In this respect, I have no problem with Clean Reader.
The writer is always right
Writing a book takes a lot of thought, time and effort. Few writers simply dash something off, and the plot, characterisation, narrative and dialogue that they work so hard on are all crafted in order to convey very particular meanings and emotions. The words that they use are chosen with care, and many – particularly the more controversial – are used very deliberately.
Changing words without the consent of the author changes the meanings and emotions that the author wants to convey.
The most stringent setting of Clean Reader apparently removes racial epithets and slurs. That’s fine, but if you’ve written a character who is a racist and he is suddenly not saying racist things then the characterisation is wrecked.
In this respect, I think that Clean Reader is at best ignorant of the purpose of fiction, and at worst insulting to writers.
A bitch by any other name
The most obvious issue that I can see with Clean Reader is that it will change words without any understanding of context.
For example, as far as I can tell, in Clean Reader the word “bitch” is altered to “witch”, and the word “Jesus” is altered to “Gee”. The problem with that, however, is that a bitch is a female dog, and Jesus is a pretty popular Hispanic name.
I look forward to the book in which Gee Rodriguez goes to the rescue centre to adopt a two-year-old rottweiler witch.
According to an article by Jennifer Porter there are plenty of other words that could be used in a non-profane context but which would be changed regardless: damn (criticise), bastard (illegitimate child), ass (donkey), cock (rooster), prick (puncture), pussy (cat). It even goes so far as to censor “penis” and “vagina”- these are correct anatomical terms that appear in every dictionary.
Clean Reader could turn perfectly serviceable non-profane prose into gibberish.
The book nanny
Going back to my point above that the reader is always right, when using an automated profanity censor the reader doesn’t make the decision on what is and what isn’t acceptable. While Clean Reader provides different levels of babyfication of the text, it decides what words it will change – not you. It takes away some of the reader’s freedom.
Equally, I think it implies an abdicated level responsibility: “It’s not up to me to accept and process things I don’t like, it’s up to someone else to prevent me from experiencing them”. I don’t think that’s a very healthy attitude, and while I hope that Clean Reader doesn’t teach people to expect others to modify their behaviour just to suit them, that’s exactly the approach it is promoting (whether it realises it or not).
There are worse things than swears
If the point of Clean Reader is to protect people from reading offensive words, then I think it is kind of missing a far bigger point.
There are far more distressing and disturbing things in books than a character saying “fuck”. You can read about rape, torture, murder and all kinds of other nasty things, and Clean Reader won’t change any of it…although it will potentially turn it into some kind of far more harrowing child-friendly version in which the car battery is attached to someone’s peepee instead of their penis.
It’s an extension of the abdication of responsibility point – I wonder how many parents will think that Clean Reader makes a book “safe” for a child and then won’t worry so much about checking the actual content. Maybe none – and I certainly hope that’s the case. But it does make me wonder.
While I support the right of a reader to read in whatever whey they choose a book that he or she has given up their hard-earned cash on, I think that an app that does this automatically insults the writer, potentially breaks the prose and promotes an abdication of personal responsibility for things in life that don’t meet your standards of approval.
I won’t get angry or upset if people use it, but if you do then I’ll probably think you’re a dick.
NB I haven’t linked to Clean Reader in this article because on balance I think I’d rather it weren’t widely adopted, so I don’t want to promote it or boost its search ranking. If you want to read about it then by all means go ahead – you know how the internet works by now.