If the title of this post sounds weird to you – well, that’s how it would look when read through Clean Reader, a new app which removes words deemed offensive by some (mostly swearwords and bodypart words) from e-books, so extremely sensitive readers can read without having to see words that might trouble them.
Authors are understandably furious about an app which makes random changes to their books in order to satisfy some people’s moral qualms. Thought in the comment thread at The Passive Voice, several authors also express understanding for the app, including a few who consider swearwords “verbal violence”.
Charles Stross points out that Clean Reader violates an author’s moral rights and might well be illegal for that very reason. He also points out that the app is quite easy to circumvent via equally offensive but less common words and combinations.
On the other hand, Cory Doctorow points out that he hates censorship as much as the next person, but believes that readers have the right to read in whatever way they want and if that includes censoring swearwords and skipping passages, then so so be it.
Jennifer Porter has actually tried out the app on some romance novels and reports that the results are frequently incomprehensible and often hilarious. She also offers a list of substitutions made by Clean Reader (as well as which terms are not considered offensive for some reason). The list includes a lot of religiously based swearing (Oh my God, damn, hell, Jesus Christ, etc…) which is considered offensive by some people in the US and just ordinary speech almost everywhere else.
In fact, the censoring of terms like “damn” or “hell” in certain American works was so incomprehensible to my teenaged self that I assumed the “hecks” and “darns” and “freakings” in American superhero comics were actually really cool (and probably quite dirty) American slang and promptly adopted them into my vocabulary. And of course, silver age Marvel Comics slang is really just defanged 1940s/50s US Army slang, which must have made a teen girl in the 1980s adopting those terms seem doubly weird.
More troubling is that fact that Clean Reader seems to turn every word referring to female genitalia, from the very rude to perfectly inoffensive medical terms like “vagina”, into “bottom” and many references to male genitalia into “groin”, turning sex scenes into some kind of weird “Polonäse Blankenese” (a song that is a lot dirtier than it seemed at the age of 8, but then a lot of German comedy songs of the 1970s and early 1980s were surprisingly dirty, e.g. “Der Nippel” or “Ich liebte ein Mädchen”) for two. Coincidentally, as Jennifer Porter points out, substituting “bottom” for “vagina” and its synonyms also turns perfectly vanilla romance novels into anal sex orgies and also privileges male over female sexuality.
Personally, I’m just baffled that “vagina”, which is after all an official medical term, is considered an offensive word in the US at all. Okay, so I understand that 12-year-olds will giggle at the word “vagina” and might even use baby-talk substitutes like “hoo-ha” or “vay-jay-jay”, but we’re talking about adults here.
Joanne Harris, Chuck Wendig and Michael Patrick Hicks all tell Clean Reader to go fuck themselves with various degrees of profanity from “dirty but scrubbable” to “Clean Reader explodes in horror”. Joanne Harris received an e-mail reply from Clean Reader (Chuck Wendig and Michael Patrick Hicks didn’t, probably because the Clean Reader app scrambled their blog posts beyond recognition).
Joanne Harris, Chuck Wendig and Michael Patrick Hicks all make a similar point, namely that writers choose words, including swearwords, for a reason and that to change those words without permission is a violation of the author’s intent. As an author whose works occasionally include swearing of the heavier kind, I very much agree with them. I include swearwords in my books not because I lack the vocabulary or the education to find less offensive words – an absurd accusation, if there ever was one, because some of the most educated people I know are also the heaviest swearers and knowing many swearwords, including obscure ones, actually means you have a larger vocabulary – but because this particular word is the right word for the character and situation. And if I choose to use a heavy duty swearword like “fuck” or “cunt” (I don’t worry about “shit” or “arsehole” or “damn” or “hell”, because those are either considered mild or not swearing at all, where I come from), I’m using it because it is the most suitable word to use in this particular context.
For example, in Debts to Pay, villain Darius Gilroy calls Carlotta, the protagonist, a “stupid fucking little cunt” at one point (he also drugs and blackmails her, threatens to hand her over to torture-happy officials and tries to kill her), because that’s exactly the sort of expression that an intergalactic crimelord would use. Calling Carlotta a “silly freaking little bottom” or a “silly witch” would not carry the same impact. Because Gilroy is a man who has absolutely no compulsion about threatening and hurting people and other sentient beings to get what he wants. He’s also a misogynist. People like that don’t use euphemisms, they use the harshest word possible. If anything, I censored myself slightly, because I had Gilroy only use the c-word once instead of the five or six times in a row he probably would have used it.
Coincidentally, the one time I had a story “censored” by editorial request was replacing the repeated “bullshits” at the beginning of Countdown to Death with “bull” for its original magazines publication. The editor in question was respectful about it and requested my permission for the change to comply with the guidelines of the magazine. I gave the permission, too, even though I was a bit confused that of all the possible things to complain about in Countdown to Death (violence, death penalty scenes, hints at alcohol abuse) they had to choose a few IMO rather harmless words. And as a matter of fact, the original “bullshits”, uttered by Jake Levonsky who is a rather blunt and sweary person, were the first thing I restored for the e-book edition.
If a book of mine includes heavier swearing (i.e. several instances of “fuck” or single instances of taboo words, but not “shit”, “arse” or any of the religious ones), I put a warning in the blurb as a courtesy to potential readers. Ditto for explicit sexual content, graphic violence or potentially triggering material. Because I believe that readers have the freedom to decide not to read a book, if they feel it might offend or hurt them. Of course, it’s not possible to warn for anything that might upset somebody. Indeed, I have been badly triggered by things which aren’t normally considered typical triggers. I have also read books, often books which came highly recommended, which deeply upset or offended me (e.g. Declare by Tim Powers or a romance with a surrogate pregnancy plot that wasn’t apparent from the blurb). However, in these cases the fault was mine, not the author’s.
In many ways, this whole thing reminds me of the upset when Horst Schimanski, a working class cop played by actor Götz George, used the words “Scheiße” and “Arschloch” on German prime time TV in the venerable show Tatort. Even as a child, this debate struck me as absurd, because the words deemed objectionable were words everybody around me, both adults and children, used all the time. Besides – and I didn’t know this at the time – Schimanski wasn’t the first person to utter the word “Scheiße” on German TV. It was used, albeit in adjective form, in an episode of the German SF classic Raumpatrouille Orion back in 1966, predating Schimanski by 15 years.
Rewatching Schimanski’s TV debut Duisburg Ruhrort thirty years on, I’m struck by what a marvelous bit of characterisation and scene setting the first four minutes are, from the dialogueless opening scene of Schimanski puttering around in his kitchen to the sounds of “Leader of the Pack” by the Shondells (note how the camera lingers on Götz George’s impressive body, acknowledging the female and non-straight male gaze in a way that was rare in 1980s film and TV making) to the moment he steps out into a typical working class neighbourhood in heart of the Ruhrgebiet, a mining and industrial region. The first words we hear Schimanski utter on screen are “Komm schon, du Idiot! Hör auf mit der Scheiße!” (Come on, you idiot! Stop that shit!), which immediately establishes him as a different breed of cop (though we don’t actually learn that Schimanski is a cop until approx. seven minutes into the film) than the tweed-clad gentleman inspectors investigated genteel murders in upscale suburbs which dominated crime shows on German TV until then.
To a modern viewer it is hard to imagine how revolutionary Schimanski really was back in 1981. Unlike the staid middle class gentlemen investigators of the era, Schimanski was a working class cop investigating crimes in working class neighbourhoods. Schimanski wasn’t an artificial character like the other TV inspectors of the time, he was real. He talked like real people talked (unfortunate racial slur during the bar scene included), he dressed like real people dressed and he lived in the sort of neighbourhood everybody at the time would have recognised, whether they lived there or not. Schimanski was a breath of fresh air, a bit of reality in the artificiality of early 1980s German TV. I didn’t actually see Schimanski on screen until a couple of episodes into his run (I was eight when he debuted and probably ten or so when I first watched a Schimanski episode – there only were two or three per year), but once I did, I immediately realised that I was watching was something unprecendented and new. And no, Schimanski’s swearing didn’t scar me, since I knew those words anyway.
As a matter of fact, the people behind Clean Reader claim that the inspiration for their app was concern for a fourth-grader who was upset at finding some bad words in a book. Now standards for children’s and YA books are different, particularly in the US. However, I and many other authors don’t write for children but for adults (though teens could read many of my books).
Besides, as a teacher let me assure you that those children whose tender ears you are so concerned about already know all the swearwords that Clean Reader removes and a few others besides. Indeed, parents are frequently shocked to learn (when there is some kind of disciplinary problem) that their of so innocent kid has hurled a very strong swearword at a classmate. But pretending that these words don’t exist is not the answer. Demystifying those words and telling students what they mean and why they are considered offensive is a lot better. Ditto explaining to an overly bold 6th-grader that he really shouldn’t be surprised that he got beaten up after he called a girl two years older and twice his size the German equivalent of the c-word. And yes, this really happened and it could have been averted, if the many other girls to whom he said that word (it was a habit with that kid) had actually told me what he said to them rather than vaguely saying he was rude and disrespectful.
As for Clean Reader, the issue seems to be moot by now, because Page Foundry/Inktera, from where Clean Reader was getting the e-books for its service announced on Twitter that they pulled their entire catalogue from Clean Reader.
— Page Foundry (@pagefoundry) March 26, 2015