No, I’m not talking about whether housework is an essential duty or an unnecessary distraction from your current WIP. Rather, about the rights of a reader to clean up cuss words in your text – or their non-rights to do so.
In days of yore, authors didn’t have to worry about this. They could let their characters swear away to their heart’s content. If a reader wanted to go through a book with a black texta and scrawl all over it … well, it wouldn’t look pretty, but they did buy the copy to deface so probably have the right to deface it as they so chose. However, in today’s world of the Internet applications, times have changed …
The whole debate came to head when bestselling author Joanne Harris picked up on the fact that a couple in Idaho, America, had launched the Clean Reader App. If you purchase dan ebook through their online store, you could apply a filter to exchange offensive words with more acceptable alternatives to enable you to ‘read books, not profanity.’
Jared and Kirsten Maughan, the Christian founders of Clean Reader, started the project after their daughter came home from school sad that she had found a book she wanted to read but wouldn’t be reading as she objected to the language used by the author. They worked with the Page Foundry in Chicago to create a filtering program with three settings:
- clean, which ‘only blocks major swear words from display’,
- cleaner, and
- squeaky clean, the most restrictive setting, which ‘ will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms’.
Now, on the face of it, this doesn’t sound like too bad an idea – if you are prepared to overlook the implications of allowing a third party who is neither author nor editor nor publisher to tamper with the text of a book – and go with the line that since reading is an interactive experiences readers have a say. Okay, so it is a terrible idea. More on copyright issues in a moment. Let’s just stick to the so-called harmless principle for a while.
Is it really so bad to replace ‘fucking’ with ‘freaking’? Isn’t it a good idea to block racial slurs? It’s the fine line that divides avalanche territory from safe snow. For example, if we examine only the implications for our own genre, romance, things already get complicated. What happens when you exchange ‘vagina’ for ‘bottom’ and insert ‘groin’ instead of ‘penis’? The implications for sex scenes are stupendous. Most romances shy away from a blunt ‘he inserted his penis into her vagina’. But substitute the word ‘bottom’ for vagina and you change the nature of the sex. Substitute groin for penis at the same time, and, well … are you still having sex at all?
Joanne Harris led the charge against what she calls a ‘toxic app’, calling it censorship by a religious minority as opposed to the state. She also expressed concern about the psychological impact on young people of labelling sex words as ‘dirty’. Many writers from around the world agree with her, as do many readers. They counter that if you don’t like what an author says, or how she says it, by all means don’t buy her book, but don’t take fan fiction to extreme levels either.
The debate is perhaps best summed up in these few paragraphs from The Guardian’s coverage*.
One supporter of the app wrote: ‘The fact is that we readers would love to hear some of your creative stories without the icky unnecessary junk language. There are some really great and important literary works that are eliminated from our study because I’m not willing to compromise our standards. Not for myself or for our kids.’
Harris replied in a blogpost: ‘Shakespeare wrote icky unnecessary junk language. So did Chaucer, DH Lawrence, Philip Larkin, James Joyce.’
What do you think? Innovative invention or censorship tool?
*You can read the full Guardian article here as well as access all Joanne Harris’s blog posts on the subject.
Text in italics indicates the bloggers personal views.