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.