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.






Leave a comment


  1. Bowdler did this to Shakespeare and his name entered the language. Bowderlism isn’t a compliment but I don’t imagine narrow-minded bigots care.

  2. I guess people are entitled to limit their own life experiences as long as they don’t do it to others (and that includes their innocent children). Language is wonderful, inventive and exciting and constantly changing. I haven’t used any cuss words in my writing (much) but I don’t want to be stopped from doing so if I think it’s appropriate, funny or inspiring.

    • I think you have nailed the question right there, Claire. It’s the author’s right to chose what language appears in her book. The reader’s choice is to read or not read.

  3. elizabethellencarter

     /  April 2, 2015

    I addressed the issue on Cleanreads a few weeks ago on my blog –

    The libertarian in me says no to this.

    By all means protect your children from what you consider age-inappropriate material. And as an adult you have a world of choice when it comes to your tastes in literature.

    The best profanity, micro-aggression and offense filter is the one that came pre-installed between your ears at birth.

    What *would* be an interesting discussion is the use of profanity in literature.

    My own personal view is that all words have meaning and power and they should be used deliberately and consciously because their misuse or over use can detract from the story.

  4. I agree with elizabethellencarter that it’s at the authors discretion what language they use as long as every word really needs to be in the story. I think my work in progress, a romantic story set on a military base called ‘New Recruit’, would sound ridiculous if the Sergeant said, “Freaking run you silly people!” instead of “fucking run you idiots!”. My husband is in the Army as is my brother and the amount of profanity spoken on a Base is unavoidable if you wish to replicate that setting in fiction. Excessive swearing can also be used successfully to create a character who is (cliche’) say low social status. I think it has it’s place but only if used wisely and if you are really against it it’s best to avoid the book altogether.


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