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“Read books. Not profanity.” The tagline of Clean Reader is short and simple—but what it represents, and the responses to it, are anything but. The swear-word-censoring app has kicked up a firestorm of ideological debate, and neither side is backing down. So, who’s right? And what’s at stake?
The Clean Reader App
So, what, exactly, is Clean Reader? It’s an e-reader app, available for iPhone and Android, that allows (well—allowed; we’ll get to that in a moment) readers to download books from its store and then choose whether they want to read a “clean,” “cleaner,” or “squeaky clean” version. The app replaces instances of profane words, so “fuck” is replaced by “freak,” “fucker” becomes “idiot,” “penis” is displayed as “groin,” pretty much all female genitalia becomes “bottom,” “breast” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch,” and so on and so forth.
The books are sold in complete form; there’s no permanent changing of the words, a fact that’s important in this discussion. Readers can choose what they (or, often, their children) will see written, and that option can be changed at any time.
Unsurprisingly, the app was created by two parents whose daughter had an unpleasant experience when she first came across swearing in a book. They thought that an app like this must already be available, but they couldn’t find one—so they made it themselves. In an email to outspoken critic Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, they said they had no idea that it would cause this sort of response.
What’s the Problem?
The uproar surrounding Clean Reader has come primarily from authors, though many readers have been outspoken as well. Most authors’ main problem with the app is that it presents their book in an altered form without their permission. The Society of Authors has stated that the app violates authors’ right to integrity by presenting a form of “derogatory treatment” to their book, and constitutes a case of false attribution.
Harris has been one of the most vehement critics of the app:
Anyone who works with words understands their power. Words, if used correctly, can achieve almost anything. To tamper with what is written—however much we may dislike certain words and phrases—is to embrace censorship . . . we’ve been down this road before. We should know where it leads by now. It starts with blanking out a few words. It goes on to drape table legs and stick fig leaves onto statues. It progresses to denouncing gay or Jewish artists as “degenerate”. It ends with burning libraries and erasing whole civilizations from history.
Authors, of course, choose their words carefully, and for a reason. Whether for establishing the correct context, correctly characterizing a figure in the book, or just creating an overall atmosphere that contributes to the feeling of the story, profanity can be put to good use in novels. And removing those words from the novel can potentially have effects on how it’s interpreted.
However, some people are offended by those words. This isn’t a discussion about whether or not they should be offended by them—it’s just a fact. There are a lot of people out there who are offended by profanity; and there are a lot of people who want to prevent their children being exposed to those words. And because of that, they’re hesitant to read or let their kids read books that contain profanity or sexual descriptions.
Just to be totally clear, I’ll say it again: this is not a discussion about whether or not people should feel this way or try to shelter their children. Harris has attacked conservative Christianity as peddling a “toxic message” via Clean Reader, and I believe that this has seriously detracted from her overall argument. Let’s not make the same mistake.
It’s clear that the interests of these two groups—authors and sensitive readers—are at odds. Authors want their books published in an unaltered form, and readers would like the opportunity to read these books without being exposed to words that offend them. Unfortunately, no middle ground has yet been found.
And in fact, the authors seem to be winning the fight; Clean Reader pulled all books from its store, making the app nearly worthless. They’re working on an update to the app that promises a better experience, though. What that means isn’t clear (and they won’t say).
Should Clean Reader Exist?
There have been some rather convincing arguments on both sides. April at The Steadfast Reader weighs in with this:
Life can be hard and ugly. There will be situations where you will have to deal with people who do not ascribe to your morals, who do not follow what you consider to be the proper way of life. By reading about these people and situations we are preparing ourselves for these encounters. Hopefully by preparing ourselves we can act with more poise, grace, and even compassion when we encounter these people.
Rhoda Baxter also points out that censoring the words from a particular scene doesn’t make that scene any less offensive or disturbing; there’s a date rape scene in one of her books, and even if the profanity is taken out, the date rape remains (even if it’s not quite as clear what happens). And she points out that the app wouldn’t replace very many words in the scene anyway.
And, of course, authors do have rights. They work hard to create their art, and they’d like for it to remain unchanged. That’s understandable. But do they have the right to determine how people read? That’s much less clear. Cory Doctorow says it’s a matter of free speech:
It’s precisely because I disagree with Clean Reader’s users that I have no business prohibiting them from choosing how they read the copies of my books that they lawfully acquire with equipment they choose. It’s easy to be a free speech advocate when you agree with the speaker. Unless you support speech you find objectionable, you don’t support free speech at all. Make no mistake, this is a free speech issue. The right to free expression includes the right to decide whom you listen to, and how. Free speech is not compelled listening. The writer has no right to dictate how the reader must read.
He compares Clean Reader to selling a book and a marker and telling the customer to take the marker and cross out a line on a specific page; that’s not a crime against the author, even if it’s not a great thing for literature. He even compares Clean Reader to ad blockers; while these pieces of software may be bad for the Internet, it’s certainly within people’s rights to determine how they interact with the Web.
This is why Harris’s conflating the issue of authors’ rights with her disdain for conservative Christianity is damaging to her argument. In trying to set books above the freedom to read how we want, she aligns herself against censorship over a religious issue, instead of a moral one; and few people will stand up for the abolition of religious freedom.
Clean Reader may appeal to a specific audience, but that audience does have a right to exist. Just because Harris wouldn’t raise her children that way doesn’t mean the app should be taken off the market so that others can’t do it.
And there certainly is a group of readers that appreciate the app. There are a number of good reviews for the app from readers who enjoy reading more when they don’t have to read words that offend them. And if you can find your way past the authorial diatribes on the Internet, you’ll see that there are more people out there than you might expect that are interested in clean reading. This clean reading group on Goodreads has almost 1,500 members. There are blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts dedicated to clean reading. Say what you want about the app, but it does meet a demand.
Interestingly, there’s an issue that’s only gotten a minor amount of discussion in this whole debate that I think is very important, and that’s the issue of who the censoring is meant for. Censoring books for yourself is different from censoring them for others. Institutionalized censorship is very different from personal censorship, especially if there’s no “off” switch, as there currently is in Clean Reader.
It’s hard to imagine institutionalized anti-Semitism and library burning arising from a few hundred or a few thousand people censoring books for their own reading or for their kids. The incorporation of censorship into societal structures is bound to cause problems, but that’s not what Clean Reader aims to do.
As far as I can tell, Clean Reader is meant to be a lens through which an individual reader can read a book in a manner that’s more suitable to their tastes. And whether you subscribe to the idea that a book exists completely apart from the author, it’s hard to argue against someone’s right to do that. Yes, artistic integrity is at stake. But so is the freedom to be a reader.
The technological age has given rise to our desire to customize everything; our computers, our smartwatches, our cars, even our experience of the Internet itself… why not the books that we read?
What do you think? Should Clean Reader be allowed to censor books? Or is that a violation of authors’ rights? Would you consider using this app with your children? Share your thoughts below!