The Android version of the new Clean Reader reading app claims that it has “the ability to remove swear words from books.” Not hide, remove. However, what it really does is hide the words that the app authors have decided are profanities. The program covers up the naughty words with a bubble, leaving the reader untainted yet still able to enjoy that really good book.
If the reader wants, it will suggest a substitute word. For example, words for female anatomy below the waist have the word “bottom” suggested as the substitute. (Think it through…) In direct appeal to Christian readers “Jesus Christ” becomes “geez” while “Christ” becomes “gosh.” For the more generically squeamish reader a host of cuss words are toned down and descriptive anatomy turned to euphemisms and words we don’t want to explain to kids are changed too – such as hussy substituted for whore, because kids won’t need hussy explained.
The app creators defend their work as not censorship because the reader can opt to read the original without redaction. They haven’t changed the book itself, they say, only how the reader chooses to view it. Defenders say it’s the exact same thing as “clean” versions of songs on the radio or movies edited for language and then shown on TV. They ignore that such versions are created with the cooperation of the copyright holder.
Clean Reader is like the network censor who bleeps out the iconic seven words you can’t say on live television (thank you George Carlin) during certain hours of the day, except it’s not just seven words and it’s all the time, and it’s not on the public airwaves, and the copyright holder is not consulted.
Had they stopped at the seven (or so) words they might not be getting the kind of pushback that is running around on Twitter. Had they not insisted that they are essentially performing a translation task without altering the original, they might not have these really fabulous take downs, from irate to hugely amused, that document what the app does and means. Lots of good reading:
- Of greatest concern to this lesbian writer was possible screening of LGBT words. The GLBT Roundtable of the American Library Association reports that no LGBT words are redacted at this time. (Emphasis mine.) GLBTRT also reports that a character named “Dick” had his name changed to “groin.”
- Joanne Harris – Why I’m Saying Fuck You to Clean Reader – “To tamper with what is written – however much we may dislike certain words and phrases – is to embrace censorship.”
- Joanne Harris – An e-mail from Clean Reader – “It’s clear from the list of words you consider “profane” that this app is designed to impose a Christian agenda on books.”
- Lilith Saintcrow – On Clean Reader. “No doubt there is money to be made catering to the fears and petty prejudices of those who wish fiction or language deboned, dethroned, denatured, or spayed, but you shall not make one red cent off doing so to my books.”
- Dazed – We put American Psycho through the Clean Reader app – “You’d think that a censorship app might replace the n-word with “black man” or “person of colour”, but the Clean Reader app goes for “negro”, you know, like you might say if you lived in Mississippi in 1930.” Dazed also discovered that for the app creators, readers might be offended if you exclaim “Jesus Christ!” but not if you call someone “faggot!”
- Chuck Wendig – Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters – Among their assertions is that good writers don’t resort to what they call profanities, when even the Bible includes “breast.” To which Wendig says, “Conflating quality with a lack of profanity? *vomits up a whole bag of middle fingers and dumps them into your lap*”
- Close to my own misgivings is Madeleine Morris (Remittance Girl) – Clean Reader’s Profound Illiteracy: Consumption of the Text. “The exchange of anything for money now comes with the implicit understanding that no one should ever have to pay for a single moment of unpleasantness or discomfort ever again.” She also managed to make it choke on James Joyce’s Ulysses and demonstrated that the app might screen out a naughty word, but it misses a whole ‘nother level of naughty. So much for the security parents might think it provides.
- From #johnscalzimyboyfriend a.k.a. John Scalzi’s Twitter feed – “Asked for my thoughts on Clean Reader. They are: you bought the book, do what you want, but if you use the app, it’s not the book I wrote.”
- Jennifer Porter – My Clean Reader App Experience – After experiencing some hilarious substitutions in romance novels as well as gibberish results based on substitutions, “The app is a form of censorship as people who we do not know are making decisions about what is profane and what is not.” Porter’s blog has the best examples of the sometimes baffling choices. “Sex” changed to “love”?
Porter’s testing shows that even without getting into whether Clean Reader ought to do what it claims, all in all, Clean Reader isn’t very good at doing what it claims.
I am 100% behind the right of the reader to pick their books and for parents to filter the books their kids read. If I use words my readers don’t like, they will stop buying my books. Many will tell me why, they’re not shy. But for those readers who want to experience my books yet screen out the very things that make them my books, you need to find another writer. If you don’t respect the way I write, then don’t read my books. But don’t disrespect my work by reading something I never wrote and still calling it a book by me. You are no longer reading a book by me.
I fundamentally object to my books being “translated” to read like these examples:
- An encounter would undoubtedly take care of her unruly love drive.
- Jamie reached into an overhead warmer for more cooked chicken chest.
- “This is what you’re missing,” Leah whispered fiercely, looking into Jackie’s face. “It’s like this between women. It’s called freaking, Jackie.”
The first two are just goofy, but it’s the last one that destroys the shock, power and context of the word I deliberately chose to have shock and power in that scene.
I did download the app to see what was offered and how it worked. (Hey Clean Reader, why do you need to know the names and numbers of people who call me? But I digress…) The Bible is one of the books available from their web store. If I wanted to read it squeaky clean Matthew 6:20 becomes: Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was gee the gosh…
Oh, did I offend someone by changing the words in a book they feel is sacred? Imagine then how I feel about words in a book I actually wrote being filtered, obscured and substituted to accommodate someone else’s whim or outright bigotry.
Ultimately, however, the reader isn’t picking out the words they don’t like, the creators of Clean Reader are picking out the words. Give over your own moral definitions to a stranger and their morality becomes yours. One day, without anyone noticing, “lesbian” could be changed from hero to villain by becoming “pervert.” But wait, they don’t want to call us names, they just don’t want to know we exist, so maybe “lesbian” becomes “woman.”
What begins as changing offensive words will sooner or later become changing offensive ideas. It has never been otherwise when someone wants the world to be what they define as “clean.” How long before someone claims this kind of app is a religious imperative, and it’s their right to erase us from our own books?
So let’s talk about what this app REALLY does, especially for their target market, the Christian reader. You see, for Clean Reader to work, you have to buy the ebook from the Clean Reader web store. You use the app to shop, buy and then bubble over the naughty words in the books. This means that the reader gets to FEEL like a good Christian because those nasty words don’t pollute their minds.
But they’re still supporting the source of the offense with their dollars, from which Clean Reader takes a cut, and on every purchase.
In other words, the customer is still supporting so-called profane writing, but using an app to avoid experiencing it. Very, very clever Clean Reader. Packaging something naughty as a virtue is one of the classic roads to riches.
Isn’t this the same thing as denouncing the evils of liquor while selling someone the booze and a pill to keep them sober? When the app inevitably begins to hide profane ideas, the reader will go on supporting content they may never know is there, and Clean Reader will get its cut. I don’t see how anyone can claim a high moral ground from which to judge my word choices.
3/26/2015, additional note: If this were legal and advisable, a certain large player in the ebook market would already offer a “Clean Kid Safe” product and be charging parents a monthly fee to deploy it. This app didn’t already exist because other people who thought of it got legal advice perhaps?
3/9/2015: One of my favorite WordPress features is being able to live link to subsequent Facebook discussions about that post. Depending on your browser you will see the story head and comments or just a link. Or something in between.