Why Clean Reader is Offensive

Occasionally, I feel obligated to take on a major issue in this space. It’s not really what I like to use my blog for, but I’m a human being living in the world, so I have a responsibility to speak up when something is troubling me.

There’s an app out there that lets you alter the content of the eBooks you read. It’s called Clean Reader. It was created by Idaho parents whose daughter read a book at school that she said made her uncomfortable because it had swear words in it. When the parents discovered there was no app on the market that allowed them to sanitize books, they saw a need and filled it.

Clean Reader has several settings (including “off”), which enable you to scour away words you might find offensive. The higher the setting, the stricter it is about what it allows you to read. At its highest, it will remove certain uncomfortable racial epithets and even the least offensive words, often substituting others for them (e.g., “darn” for “damn”).

You can read an article on Clean Reader and how it works here (I refuse to link to their official site). Chocolat author Joanne Harris blogs about Clean Reader here (which includes an email she received from them and her response). And author/blogger Chuck Wendig takes on the issue here. (Warning: Wendig is famously and gloriously profane, so you can imagine how profanity-laced his response is.)

I’ll let Harris take up the mantle of this being a slippery slope to book burning and witch hunts. I’ll allow Wendig to make the point with creative cursing of respecting artistic choice.

I want to take this on from the point of view of a guy who keeps the swear words in his books to a minimum.

The argument for removing profanity from books (or movies or TV shows, for that matter) is that it’s lazy writing. Instead of thinking of a creative way to say something, the author just throws in a swear word.

Maybe there are writers who do that. I don’t know any, nor have I ever heard of (or read) one.

If you think authors don’t agonize over word choice, you don’t know anything about writing. We all think carefully about our words. We recognize their power, and we understand that we are manipulating language to draw a picture a particular way. Just as an artist chooses colors, we choose words. Just as Picasso deliberately painted differently than Monet, we pick the words peculiar to our vision of the story.

I very deliberately limit the amount of profanity in my books. I think curse words read more starkly than they sound. I believe they are more jarring in print than spoken.

So every time a situation might call for swearing, I decide if I need it there. And if the answer is yes, I think very carefully about which curse word is appropriate. The word, “damn,” for example, has always been the bottom rung of naughty words for me, but I am sensitive to the fact that, for some Christians, it is far more offensive than say, “shit.”

So I think about it. What’s the right word for this situation? How strong should the language be? If this is dialogue (and it usually is), would the character use one word over another? Why?

Here’s an example from my most recent novel, Little Red Riding Hoodie: A Modern Fairy Tale. The book’s principal villain is a 12-year-old Mean Girl named Molly Richards. She tries to seduce the protagonist’s would-be boyfriend, Brian, to sit at her table at lunch instead of at the main character’s. When he refuses, she calls him a faggot.

I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I wanted to do that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have him bullied as homosexual, and I wasn’t certain I should use a word as hateful as “faggot.” It’s jarring, and it’s the most offensive thing that happens up to that point in the narrative. Molly goes to a whole new level with that insult.

In the end, I decided it was important to do it. It establishes Molly not only as mean and as a bully but also as a bigot. She is willing to say anything to hurt people. By having her call Brian a faggot, we see Molly clearly for whom she is.

Brian’s response is immediate and strong. He’s black, and he retorts by asking why Molly doesn’t just drop an N-bomb on him.

Again, I had to think very hard about what to do here. Should I have Brian actually use the N-word instead of a more sanitized code phrase? If he was offended (and he is), wouldn’t he push the envelope further? And because he’s black, doesn’t he have the cultural authority to say it?

Ultimately, I decided not to have him use that word. I decided he found it so offensive, he wouldn’t say it. And that reveals something about his character. Brian has no tolerance for bigotry of any sort.

If Clean Reader scrubs “faggot” out of my novel, the entire context and meaning of that scene is lost. Our understanding of the characters and the situation isn’t the same.

And I’m sorry, Clean Reader, but you don’t get to make that call. I’m the artist. I made a choice. I did it for a very specific reason, and you don’t get to take that away from me so that “more people will want to read my book.”

Because if you can take out a word you don’t like, it’s a short step to taking away a theme you don’t like. Brian later explains that he’s an ally — that a gay person can’t be any less gay than he can be less black.

Will that be offensive to some readers? Should they have the right to remove that scene because thinking about a black kid supporting gay rights makes them uncomfortable?

I don’t just write adventure stories with magic and monsters. I write about racism and religious extremism and bullying and overprotective parents and alcoholism and other uncomfortable subjects.

And I do that very deliberately.

That’s the thing about art. It doesn’t exist solely to entertain or make you feel good. It pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior. It explores the depths of the human condition. It shines a light on the beautiful and the ugly.

And the consumer doesn’t get to tell the artist how he or she expresses his or her art.

You can disapprove. You can condemn. You can refuse to read it (or look at it or watch it).

But you don’t get to say, “You can’t do that.”

That’s censorship. That’s wrong.

Young people who read Little Red Riding Hoodie should feel uncomfortable when they read the word, “faggot.” They should understand that it is hateful and cruel. They should see that Molly is someone to be reviled, that her behavior is absolutely unacceptable. That’s my point as an author. I made an artistic choice to reinforce my theme.

And it wasn’t lazy writing. If Molly had said, “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gay,” it would not have had nearly the impact of her saying, “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a faggot.”

Authors choose their words carefully. They are artistic decisions designed to craft a very specific picture.

And neither Clean Reader nor anyone else gets to make substitutions because they object to particular expressions.

If my words make you uncomfortable, chances are I’m doing something right.

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2 thoughts on “Why Clean Reader is Offensive

    • Hi, Virginia! I see what you are saying, and I think there is a real difference between firearms and text-censoring software. Clean Reader is a tool provided by people who think it is okay to change the meaning and intent of artistic choices. As you know, words have power and meaning. Change the words, and you change the meaning, you change their power.

      That’s just not the same thing as “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” I’m all for people exercising their right to choose by not reading my books if they find my content or language offensive. But they don’t have the right to make changes to it. It’s copyrighted material that belongs to me. Clean Reader allows them to do that. I object to it being possible for consumers to alter my words without my consent.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Best,
      John

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