Writing: Censorship and Clean Reader

The Right Fucking Word: Censorship Edition


So I’ve been spending my time today reading about this scary new thing invented by a couple in Idaho: a ‘clean reading’ app.

Does this not terrify you?

How the FUCK does this not terrify you?

What this app does, in case you’re too lazy to click on that link there, is find naughty words in a story–‘naughty’ can, apparently, include words such as breast, but would certainly extend to cover all my four letter favorites–and replace them with harmless Wheaties box alternatives, such as ‘chest’ for breast, ‘bottom’ for ass, etc.

Cleaning up the world one naughty utterance at a time, eh? What’s so wrong with that, eh?

Let me recap. This app takes an ALREADY PUBLISHED novel, the written and chosen words of a published author, and REPLACES THEM. With other words. Computer generated (or possibly self-specified) words. That the author didn’t intend, or control, or have anything to do with.

Would it be socially acceptable to walk into an art gallery with a black sharpie and scribble over someone’s painting of a cow because you’re vegetarian?

Would it be socially acceptable to walk into a newspaper office, stop the press, and change a few names around because you don’t agrees with the ‘bias’ in an article?

Would it be socially acceptable to replace the naughty words in a song with…oh, wait. Hang on a second. That’s NOT socially acceptable, but it happens anyway. Not feeling so good about this clean reading thing all of a sudden.

But let me say something. In public–sure. I get not wanting to hang a giant painting of a penis in your gallery window, or play an ‘f-bomb’ littered song on the radio. That’s just public decency, and public decency is important. After all, you have no idea who’s walking by your window, or listening to the radio, and we should all at least have the OPTION of not being exposed to what you call filth and I call fun on a daily basis. Public spaces should be neutralish, so that everyone is comfortable using them–or, well. Comfortable-ish.

However. You have the RIGHT to paint a giant penis, if you so choose. You have the RIGHT to write a song full of fucks. You have the RIGHT to make a sex tape, look at porn all day, wear plaid with chevron and stripes. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you have the right to do whatever the fuck you want, and, as long as all involved parties consent, you even have the right to offer it up to the general public.

Should you choose to do this, your work is copyrighted to you. You can apply for a copyright if you so choose, but you’ve actually, as the creator of the work, got one quite naturally. (This is a helpful website, if you want to know more about copyrights and how they apply). There would be some that argue, in fact, that any modification of an original item (such as, you know, A NOVEL) is a violation of copyright, but since a reader has generally bought a copy of the work from an author and ownership of this ‘copyright’ has thus transferred, it’s hard to argue whether this applies in cases like the clean reading app. I’m rather inclined to think it doesn’t.


When I use the word fuck in a story, there is one word I intend, one word that I feel carries through the precise inflections of what I’m trying to say, one word that, ballerina-like, balances the nuances of my meaning against the broad stage of reader comprehension with indefagitable virtue and extends the sanguine hand of hey-read-this to whomever mayeth pass.

And that word is FUCK.

I don’t like you replacing it with ‘feathers’ or ‘fudge’. I don’t like ‘feathers’. I don’t like ‘fudge’. I’m not a maiden aunt, and I haven’t written my story like a maiden aunt. Do I use it for shock value, to get attention? I don’t think so, but even if I do that’s my right of expression. If you want a story where the characters, tippy-toe balanced on the edge of a cliff, exclaim ‘horsefeathers!’ with pinkies extended, search the china shelf in your grandmother’s tea closet for written literature, and good fucking luck to you.

Because I think ‘horsefeathers!’ RUINS my story. I would cry if I saw it included in my novel. Seriously, cry–because it would make the whole story ridiculous. You would be turning my writing, which I worked very hard on, into a steaming pile of maggoty shitbrick. No, not poobrick. Not doodybrick. SHITBRICK. Say it with me, because that’s how I wrote it and how I want it to stay: SHITBRICK.

And if you’re the sort of person who can’t stand the f-bomb every once in a while, you probably shouldn’t have bought my story. And I’d like to repeat it: you bought it. You had ample option to read the first few pages in sample form on Amazon, in which F Primus appears at least once. And you bought it anyway. Half the reviews call it lewd, raunchy, or mention drinking and cursing. AND YOU BOUGHT IT ANYWAY.

My novel isn’t a dress, to be tailored to your form later.

It isn’t a sneaker. You can’t add laces, swop out the insoles.

It might not seem much like a work of art to you, but it is to me. A lot of time and effort went into placing those fucks, and where they lie so shall they stay.

I’m sure the people who invented this app aren’t bad people. I’m sure they’re not evil fascists, word dictators, what have you. They have a kid, they saw a problem. It’s understandable–though, like I said, it isn’t right.

The thing is–in a book like mine, even if you DID replace all the curses with cute little interjections, it’s STILL not appropriate for children. Given, there’s not a lot of sex in there, and the violence is fairly non-gory, but it’s not a children’s book, and the concepts inside it–which include patricide, rebelling against unjust law, and calculated, cold-blooded murder of innocent people–are not child appropriate to my mind.

Just because ‘patricide’ isn’t a dirty word doesn’t make it a clean concept.

And the idea that someone might one day see my book, go ‘oh! A fantasy novel, my kid loves those.’, run it through the clean reader app, and give it to their six year old is terrifying to me.

Words are just words. They aren’t the heart and soul of a story, but they are the tools with which the heart and soul of a story is expressed. If a story says fuck a lot, it probably isn’t appropriate for your nine year old. Because most people, in writing a book for a nine year old, wouldn’t use the word fuck to begin with.

So trust the writer. Don’t change their language; it’s changing the blocks they’ve built the house of their story from. And changing something from brick to straw, or straw to brick, changes everything about it. A roof made from straw but transformed magically into brick will collapse on your head. A brick house turned into straw might blow away with the wind.

Trust the writer.

If you doubt me, here are some famous works of fiction, censored for your viewing pleasure:

The Golden Bottom (from Apuleius’s THE GOLDEN ASS)
Illegitimately Birthed Person Out of Carolina (Dorothy Allison, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA)
A Season in Heck (Arthur Rimbaud, A SEASON IN HELL)
Poop My Dad Says (SHIT MY DAD SAYS)
and, for fun:
Lady Chatterly’s Significant Other (Lawrence of course. Stuffy, stuffy.)

Changes the meaning in some of them, yes? Especially The Golden Ass, which does not in any way refer to someone’s hindquarters.

And, just for shits n’ giggles, here are some other writers who’ve weighed in on the clean reading app, including Joanne Harris’s beautiful and impassioned first message. I agree with every word they say–especially every word Chuck Wendig says, because most of them are naughty.

Chuck Wendig
Joanne Harris

9 thoughts on “Writing: Censorship and Clean Reader

  1. OH! I wonder if they’re going to make an app next that converts porn into PG romantic comedies or something – because that would make sense too! From the purely curious perspective of a programmer though, I wonder how they handle particularly colorful euphemisms? I mean, let’s say you wanted to horribly disfigure someones randy and fun romance novel, what would you replace ‘throbbing member’ with?

    1. Hah! It’s a good question…do all the throbbing members and love caves of the romance world remain members and caves? Tempted to download it and a Harlequin-type romance to find out, but I really don’t want to contribute to their success.

  2. So. They buy the book, and after that they change it? Kinda like if I bought a painting, and I then painted over the parts I didn’t like?

    It’s my copy, right? I’m not changing every copy, right? This is no different than taking a pen to a paper copy, which has been going on for as long as the printing press has existed.

    What’s your beef again? 😊

    1. Oh, Chris. Chrissy Chris Chris Chris.

      Before I go into deep detail about the differences between marking up a personal hard copy of a book you bought and enjoyed versus creating and making money off of an app that does this automatically for any book someone should wish to buy, let me make sure: you’re joking, right?

      Just mocking them, right?

  3. It’s parasitic, yeah. But it’s also capitalism at its best. Worst?

    It’s the nature of the writing medium for one person to steal an idea and try to build off it. This is just an economical spin off an idea the person had while correcting someone’s work to better suit his/her tastes. A chef doesn’t come roaring out of the kitchen when someone asks for pepperoni on the Chefs Choice Vegetarian pizza. I don’t think a writer should do that when someone buys the proverbial pizza anyway. So what if someone has a website that’s making money off “pizza recommendations” that don’t fit the original recipe.

    I would love to know who owns this app so I can avoid selling him my product though.

    Oh, and do go into detail. 😉

    1. Sorry this response is so late–I’ve been tied up at work. Barely had time to squeeze out a blog this morning. Also–I just read over my original message and realized it sounded shitty. Forgive me, Oh Chris. I didn’t mean to be shitty. If you wanna know, I honestly thought you WERE joking. There were smileys. 😛
      I couldn’t agree more that writing’s about building ideas, often on ideas already built (there HAS to be a better way to say that). There are plenty of writers–including my darling Lev Grossman :P–who’ve built very good stories off of other stories, other archetypes, other ideas. And fanfiction–which I actually think is a great writing exercise, and one of the sincerest forms of flattery a writer can see–relies almost solely on that idea.

      But here’s the thing. When you write a story about JK Rowling’s characters, you can’t publish it. Because they’re JK Rowling’s characters. And if you could, somehow, publish it–with her express permission, I’m assuming–you would under no circumstances claim those characters as your own.
      That’s all beside the way, though.

      Here’s the thing that really bothers me about it–and the thing that, in my mind, makes it different from just marking out a few words in a physical copy.

      When you buy a book, page through it, come across the f bomb a few times, and decide you don’t like seeing it there–you’ve read the book already. At least, you’ve paged through it, skimmed it for the Mighty Eff. You’ve gotten the flavor. You’ve witnessed these words in their original form, taken exception, and decided they aren’t important enough to override your need for pretty patsy clean language. You know if it’s appropriate for your child or not, with or without the f word, because you’ve READ IT.

      You’ve gotten my original message, in other words. You’ve seen the Chef’s Vegetarian Special, and decided it would be better with pepperoni than it would be with, say, mushrooms. Okay, go you. That’s fine. You’ve made your choice based on knowledge available to you.

      What this app allows a person to do–and what I consider harmful and unconscionable–is take the Chef’s Vegetarian Special and, SIGHT UNSEEN, without even knowing what it really is, slap pepperoni on it. For all you know, the Veg Special might already CONTAIN pepperoni (unlikely, heh, but possible if the chef’s having a shitty day). Or it might be so perfect without the pep, so delicious, so pretty, that you would’ve decided to hell with the pepperoni, there’s nothing there that needs to be changed.
      But you’ll never know that, will you? Because you didn’t even look at it before you pepped it up.
      I find this incredibly disrespectful to a writer, and the message the writer is trying to convey. It says, in the best traditions of censorship, that your original message is unimportant. That it can be changed without warning, without consideration, and certainly without your knowledge or permission. And the fact that people are making money off this message–are making money off blind censorship and the sort of narrow, one-way focus that should be the ANTITHESIS of reading even if it’s ‘just a small commission’–makes me ill.
      I don’t in my heart agree with marking out words in a print copy, either. I’m not a fan of changing or marking in books. But again–at least you’ve read through it. At least you’ve looked. And if what you saw was THAT disagreeable to you, that you aren’t even willing to skim through it–you shouldn’t have bought the book.
      However–this is your choice. And if I gainsaid you the right to read my novel, or at least skim through it to get an idea and decide you wanted to change some parts for yourself, THAT would be a form of censorship equally injurious, equally unfair. In disagreeing with my message, you have your own message.
      But I just can’t willingly say it’s okay to do this sight unseen. Doing this to something you haven’t at least paged through isn’t forming your own message or creating your own work, it’s blind disagreement, and disagreement without a little knowledge of the subject to stand on doesn’t mean anything. To do it, no less, with a program–a blind amalgamation of algorhythms and numbers that has no idea what’s inside a novel. I just can’t say it’s all right. To me, it invalidates the whole point of writing the damn thing in the first place. I used those words–including ‘dirty’ and ‘anti-Christian’ words–for a reason. See if you agree with it or not, and then mark up your copy.
      But don’t just sit there sucking your thumb and shielding your eyes from something you don’t know if you disagree with or not. That sort of attitude–that sort of blind disapproval–is a lot of what’s wrong with this country. (But this is neither the time nor the place for THAT argument).
      So there you go. Detail enough? 😛

  4. Clean Reader had its own bookstore and as the Royal Society of Authors pointed out, if they’re selling altered novels the name on the book cover is no longer the author of that work; Clean Reader are misrepresenting the stuff they’re selling. Or they were, because after the hue and cry they removed all the books from their store.

    But the app still exists. And at the end of my blog post on the subject I politely requested that anyone with the app should stay the fuck away from my work.

    1. Chuck Wendig’s comments on this were so over-the-top entertainingly lewd they made me giggle like a nine year old sneak-watching an R rated movie from the top of the stairs. Glad to hear their bookstore’s down–I kept seeing references to a bookstore, but couldn’t find it, so I guess that’s why.

      My objection to it is really more ethical than anything–encouraging people to read something that isn’t technically the real book without ever even leafing through the real book seems like a spot on a slippery slope to me. The idea of somebody (or, worse, some program) censoring things FOR a reader automates and devalues the whole process of writing a novel in the first place, and the whole process of reading one as well. It’s the old school question, really: how long until there’s a robot that can do my job? 😛

      Thanks for commenting, totally appreciate it.

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