CleanReader – Simply funny or alarming censorship?

sl3A few years ago, before I became a writer and was just an occasional dabbler, I wrote a short story called David’s Haircut which got published online and proved extremely popular with teachers around the world. So popular in fact, that I was approached by a US state’s education board to include the story on its syllabus.

I agreed – after all who doesn’t want to feel that what they write is of some purpose and use. But then they sent me the amends they wanted to make, which included taking out all the references to cigarette smoking in the story (the setting was a late 1970s barber shop where smoking was de rigueur).

Obviously, I refused. The references to smoking, I argued, were absolutely key not just to the setting and context, but also to the theme of the story, which was about growing up and how a boy’s keenness to be like the men in the barber shop leads to a mix of pride and sadness in the father, who recognises he cannot keep his little boy forever. Besides, I said, people smoke. It’s not like by removing it from a story you are going to remove it from the real world.

The children who would be reading the story would not be encouraged to smoke as a result this story. And neither would they be somehow corrupted by the references – after all they could step out of the school gates and see any number of people, including some of their teachers, lighting up a cigarette.

In the end we agreed that one reference, which felt a bit redundant anyway, could be deleted, but the rest would stay and no-one has ever complained about the smoking references as far as I’m aware.

I was reminded of this by the recent news that an Idaho couple (members, not very incidentally, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have launched “Clean Reader,” an app that removes profanity and ‘offensive phrases’ [my quotation marks] from e-books.

Their motivation was to enable their young daughter to read ‘grown-up’ books without being sullied by profanities. It has caused quite the furore, with Chocolat author Joanne Harris, leading the way in her blog post Why I’m saying ‘fuck you’ to Clean Reader”. And then, having received an email from the couple, a further post about the issue.

The app is, frankly, unintentionally hilarious. According to analysis of the app by blogger and romance novel reader Jennifer Porter, Profanities like ‘fucking’ and ‘fucker’ became ‘freaking’ and ‘idiot’. ‘Hell’ (is that even a swear word?) became ‘heck’ and ‘shit’ got a makeover into ‘crap’. References to body parts are also changed, so ‘penis’ (it seems this anatomically correct, scientific word penis is offensive) became ‘groin’, ‘vagina’ turned into ‘bottom’ (er, what?) and references to sexual acts were also changed, so ‘blowjob’ was switched with the very generic ‘pleasure’.

Good luck, then, with trying to wade through a book like American Psycho, or anything by Irving Welsh, Chuck Palahniuk or a massive swathe of other good authors who are a bit sweary-Mary and poopy-mouthed.

It’s easy to have a laugh about this, but the more serious issue of authorial consent raised by Joanne Harris is right. Like the smoking references in my story, good authors don’t put swearing into the books without thought and consideration, but for effect, to show mood, high emotion, to affect tone, to bring out aspects of character. Profanity is there for a purpose. If you start messing with that, you are making fundamental changes. And doing that without reference to the author is misguided at best.

It’s clearly not something the app developers understand. On their blog they note that author Mark Henshaw “…makes it a point to write well enough that he doesn’t need to include profanity in his writing.” Which says it all really.

Let’s not forget, this app isn’t about Bowdlerizing a single text, it can be used on any text without any human thought going into the actual process because it is an app, not an editor, and uses a ‘find and replace system’. This works clumsily, because the choice of replacement word often doesn’t fit. Essentially you are taking a big shit (or doo-doo) on author’s text.

It also raises a number of other issues – in the brave new world of e-reading and apps, there’s potential for all sorts of censorious shenanigans. Is this a slippery slope that will allow people to change the meaning of a book for a particular religious or political end? Is there an issue here about ideas of parenting? Why use an app like this rather than sitting down with a child and explaining why profanity is in a book, the power of words (and maybe why they shouldn’t use bad language when old aunt Edna comes to visit).

Thankfully the app’s designers have now agreed to stop selling books directly through the app’s e-reading platform, after pressure from authors and groups like the Society of Authors, who said the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution.

One other thing that this debate has produced is an argument that there is still room for traditionally published hard copy books because then at least an author has control over what appears in ink on paper.