The USA Today had an article the other day about the “10 killer apps you shouldn’t live without.” While the Wickr app (send self destructing messages) sounded intriguing and the Be My Eyes app (connecting blind people to sighted volunteers through video chat) definitely sound like a fantastic app, the one on the list that caught my eye was Clean Reader (“read books, not profanity”). I was surprised to see that particular app appearing on any list of “killer apps,” especially considering the brouhaha surrounding its release.
For those not familiar with the app, it prevents swear words in books from being displayed on your screen. You select the level of cleanliness you want in your reading experience (Off, Clean, Cleaner, or Squeaky Clean) and the app covers up inappropriate words. The most recent “inappropriate” word list I saw contained about 100 different words and phrases including traditional swear words and “anatomical terms that can be a little racy.” The app doesn’t make permanent physical changes to the eBook, rather it presents a redacted version of it on screen and offers more “acceptable” alternative words for those that have been covered up.
When the app was first released earlier this year, it seemed everyone had an opinion. Some felt it was a useful tool while others saw it as unacceptable censorship or a violation of the reader-writer contract.
The author of this relatively favourable Guardian article says that the app is really no different from the software that he uses on his computer to block ads or change linkbait headlines to milder versions.
In this somewhat less favourable Washington Post article, the author notes that at the blindingly pure “Squeaky Clean” setting, Fifty Shades of Grey is bleached to One Shade of Ecru. The article also contains a more serious commentary on the app from Chocolat author Joanne Harris.
“Most writers think very hard about the kind of language they use. Some of us are well-nigh obsessive about our choice of words — and those of us who are published in the US often have to fight to retain our British spellings and vocabulary,” she wrote. “We do this because we care about books. We care about language. And if we use profanity (which sometimes, we do) it is always for a reason.”
In one of the least favourable posts on the subject Terrible Minds author Chuck Wendig refers to the app as a “colonic cleansing process” and makes this comment:
“You may say, ‘But I want to read your books, just without all that nasty business.’ To which I say, ‘then I don’t want you reading my books. Nothing personal, but I wrote the thing the way I wrote the thing. If that troubles you, then I don’t want you reading it.'”
The Clean Reader app isn’t the first time someone has attempted to clean up another writer’s work to make it more acceptable to readers. The early 19th century had Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta for that. The Bowdlers are best known for publishing The Family Shakespeare, an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work intended to be more appropriate for 19th century women and children than the original.
“Nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” ~ frontispiece of the Family Shakespeare
Bowdler created his “Family Shakespeare” versions as a way to introduce the plays to audiences who would otherwise be barred from experiencing them at all due to the sensitivities of the time, and actively encouraged people to seek out the originals. The work was well received and by 1850, at least eleven editions had been printed, though no doubt there were those who were not in favour of anyone attempting to re-write Shakespeare, no matter how well-intentioned.
So, do you worry that, like this Flavorwire blogger, apps like Clean Reader are just the first step in what could be a censored future?
“What’s to stop a tyrannical conservative governor from implementing Clean Reader in schools? And, given that e-books are not technically objects but software licenses, who’s to say the future of digital reading won’t be instant censorship at the push of a button? Clean Reader may be down for the count now, but it may also be the sad future we want to avoid.” ~ Jonathan Sturgeon
Or like Thomas Bowdler’s supporters centuries ago, do you think that the ability to modify a book to remove the “offensive bits,” whether you mark out the words in your physical book with a marker or use an app to do so electronically, is a reasonable way to put books into the hands of readers who would not otherwise read them?
I must admit that, as a reader, I might be briefly tempted by an app that would let me do a global search-and-replace for words of my own choosing – like one that would have allowed me to replace the grammatically incorrect occurrences of “there’s” with “there are” in the last eBook I read. As a writer, however, having painstakingly chosen the words I’ve used in my stories, I’m not particularly interested in having someone else muck about with them, especially if their changes end up changing my meanings.
So, what’s your take on the subject?