Elizabeth: To Clean or not to Clean

I think these 3 are reading the juicy bits from the un-Bowdlerized Shakespeare

I think these 3 are reading the juicy bits from the un-Bowdlerized Shakespeare

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?

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: To Clean or not to Clean

  1. One of my reading groups had a mini-debate about this. My thoughts: as long as it doesn’t violate copyright (ie: you don’t try to sell it), and as long as the final product is clearly labeled “ALTERED”, you should be able to do anything to a book that you like. Apparently, some people white-out naughty words and replace them in tree versions! Which is appalling in a library setting, but not so bad in a personal book collection.

    People, after all, take lousy books and turn them into book art by folding the pages into origami.

    I think people who have hang-ups about this aren’t really interested in reading closely, anyway. And if this is the only way certain works of lit get into the hands of young people, I think it’s the lesser of two evils (the other evil being outright banning). The kids can look up the real works of literature as soon as they escape the grasp of the evil cultists . . . er, excuse me, find themselves in a more liberal environment.

    Covering up a problem doesn’t solve it. Writers think hard (usually) about including swear words — or any words. There’s a reason, and I think the ideas the writer is trying to convey will be expressed less effectively — but the radical ideas, or anger, or angst will still come through in the work. I personally think it’s best to let kids read whatever they want, and then discuss the problematic words/themes/etc.

    For adults who need to block swear words from their own sensitive eyes . . . well, good luck with that. I really think they’d be happier reading clean drivel than bowlderized stuff. But, to each their own.

    • Michaeline – you’re right, covering up a problem doesn’t solve it. Just like on television, when they bleep out words that are “unacceptable” – you still know the words are there and the bleeping-out has the result of calling attention to them, rather than making them go away. Seems reasonable that if a reader needs to block out words in a book that they are uncomfortable with, then maybe that book / author isn’t the right one for them to be reading. There are plenty of other fish in the sea to choose from. As you say though, to each their own.

  2. The app itself reminds me strongly of the Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses from the /Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/ series. Said glasses became opaque the moment they detected any danger, with the predictable (and amusing) result that the “protected” user then walked into walls, as well as stumbling into danger.

    On the less-amusing topic of censorship in public schools, I do think that praising (even “praising with faint damns”) this app as being less evil than banning is a bit like praising a father for only hitting his son with a wiffleball bat; it perhaps misses the point that there is a better option readily available.

    • Scott – just like the Hitchhiker’s glasses, the app does appear to have it’s unpredictable results – especially when on the “Squeaky Clean” setting. Some of the examples I saw posted saw of the cleaned sample text showed that it was either unreadable or, in the case of the replacement of all references to female anatomy below the waist with “bottom”, more risque-sounding than the initial text could ever have been.

    • Well, evil happens. In the best of all possible worlds, parents who love books are active in getting good books into the school libraries, and making sure kids have access. But, even in a homogenous town (or strait-laced families), rebel sports are born. If they read something that’s interesting and realize that it’s been bowlderized, they may be inspired to look for the original material — which is ridiculously easy in this day and age. But if they don’t even have the sanitized version, how do they know anything is out there?

      Possibly, I am paranoid. Possibly, there are no small towns so small and “like-minded” that this kind of blanket censorship happens with little protest. But I remember my parents fighting for our reading rights in school . . . . They won the case, and maybe that happens everywhere.

      Maybe not.

      Anyway, I’m not praising the app. I’m just saying that maybe the rebels will subvert it. The app, itself, is only a symptom of the problem of the homogenization of ideas. That’s where we should target our efforts. I believe in a “free marketplace of ideas.” And the app may allow “subversive” ideas to show up in places where they would normally be smothered because the Guardians of the Library put too much trust into their cleansing apps. (The better solution, of course, would to be to replace the Guardians of the Library with people with broader minds. That’s a lot harder than complaining about an app, though.)

      • Michaeline – on the positive side, if nothing else, the app has gotten people talking and may have gotten in some new readers interested in books – even if only to see what all the “inappropriate language” controversy is all about.

        • Oh, yeah. I think discussion of why we feel the way we do about certain things is absolutely essential. It clarifies our thought processes, and helps us re-commit to our ideals. (-: And, I suppose in some cases, it can cause us to change our ideals, if the arguments on the other side are better.

          There are a whole lot of interesting side-issues around it, too. I do think an author has a right to say, “don’t defile my book!” — but they don’t have the right to enforce that. Let’s face it, as soon as we release a story to other readers, they add their own imaginations to the thing, and make it their own. It’s not really our book anymore. And this results in critical reviews — which can be works of art in their own right (see Dorothy Parker’s review of “The House on Pooh Corner.” Brilliant. Evil. And it doesn’t seem to have harmed A.A. Milne or Pooh at all. “And it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that marks the first place in ‘The House on Pooh Corner’ at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” Personally, I’m charmed by both “hummy” and “Fwowed up.”)

  3. I’m with Chuck Wendig on this one. No one will every read all the books in the universe. If people want to read books without words that some app has decided aren’t fit for children or hypersensitive adults, they can find an author who suits them. I choose the words I do to make the point I want to make. It’s outrageous that somebody else can decide those words aren’t appropriate.

    • Good point Kay. There are plenty of books out there to choose from. There should be something to suit all the varied reading tastes / preferences without having to make modifications. It is interesting to note that Smashwords removed their books from the app’s book store and the Inktera bookstore catalog was removed as well. Seems like enough folks were against the basic idea of the app that changes were made.

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