Clean Reading, Dirty Business

“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?”

— Genesis 3:10-11

Let’s start with something both amusing and sad.

clean_reader_twitter_blogifiedOff to your left, you’ll see a detail snagged from the Twitter page of an app called Clean Reader, which purports to “clean” your reading experience by allowing you to mask curse words in ebooks.

Do you see the irony?

Clean Reader wants to protect people from the horrors of curse words. Yet its Twitter bio forces a curse word into your head! “Quit reading $%&# in your books!” can only mean one thing. “$%&#” doesn’t stand for crap or garbage or junk. If it did, there’d be no need to mask it. It can only stand for the word shit. The clean-minded folks at Clean Reader are forcing everyone who visits them on Twitter to think the word shit.

But at least they’re not reading it, right?

“Who told you that you were naked?”

“I saw it on Clean Reader’s Twitter page, my Lord.”

Okay, let’s move on.

The existence of Clean Reader has caused something of an uproar in the writing community. Authors love words — words are all we have, folks — and the idea of people out there modifying and jerryrigging our words is anathema to us. It’s a moral poison. (I refer you to Chuck Wendig, Lilith Saint Crow, and Joanne Harris for more.)

As do many authors, I find the idea of Clean Reader noxious and its existence repugnant. I write specific words for specific reasons, and anyone bowdlerizing my books is changing them in ways I did not intend and, therefore, having an experience alien to that intention. Consequently, I am damaged (because if someone reads and doesn’t enjoy the book, they’ll blame me, not their own censoring), and the community is damaged (because there is no longer a common discussion point for the work in question if everyone can read their own version).

Beyond this, though, lies the inevitable slippery slope. I am no fan of slippery slope arguments, as all too often they are exhibitions of horrendous logical fallacies and catastrophic thinking. But I don’t think it’s outrageous, in this scenario, to envision a world in which one can not only remove objectionable words from art, but also objectionable ideas described by those words. Given advances in text processing and artificial intelligence, how far away are we from an app that makes black characters white? An app that removes homosexuality from a book via the opportune substitution of certain proper nouns and pronouns?

You see where this is going. Where it can go. Why it should be stopped here.

Is Clean Reader legal? Funny you should ask because clearly it’s something on the company’s mind as well. It’s right on their FAQ:

Is Clean Reader legal or does it break copyright law?

We’ve discussed this with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book.  All Clean Reader does is change the way the content is displayed on the screen.  The user has the option of turning off the profanity filtering tool if desired.  No changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book.

I’ll take their lawyers at their word and then say this: It doesn’t matter. I’m not suing for copyright violation, after all. I’m ticked off about the violation of my moral rights as an author.

Clean Reader defends itself by holding up its hands, palms out, chuckling, and saying, “Hey, man, we’re not changing anything! We’re just giving people the tools to do so!”

And I respond: “It doesn’t matter that you’re not doing the editing. You’re telling people it’s okay to do the editing…and it isn’t.”

The reasons why are varied and many. The authors I linked to above give excellent, full explanations that I won’t repeat here, as there’s no point re-stating what they’ve so ably stated. I urge you to read them.

I would like, however, to discuss two points I’ve not seen raised.

The first is that, quite simply, no one has a right to the art of their choice. If you find something in a piece of art displeasing, your only option is to disengage. And then I recommend you create something that you find more palatable, or support art that meets your standards.

The remedy to bad art is better art, not alteration.

The second point is more damning and more sensitive. Again, from Clean Reader’s FAQ:

One day our oldest child came home from school and she was a little sad.  We asked her what was wrong and she said she had been reading a book during library time and it had a few swear words in it.  She really liked the book but not the swear words.  We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with.  To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this.  The more we thought about this idea the more we wanted it to be a reality.  Eventually we decided we would do all we could to bring Clean Reader to the world.

The Clean Reader app is morally vile, artistically bankrupt, and logically flawed. But this description of its origins points to a deeper problem.

Clean Reader folks, I’m speaking to you now not as an author, but as a fellow parent: You are terrible, terrible parents.

You are teaching your daughter that the world exists to please her. You are teaching her that when she finds something offensive in the world, she should have the ability — and she has the absolute, undeniable right — to change it as she sees fit. You are teaching her not to think critically, not to engage with and wrestle with difficult ideas, but rather to take the narcissistic step of battering the world around her into conformity to her own narrow views.

I’m sorry, but that’s bad parenting.

I find your business reprehensible and your mission pathetic, but it is your failure as parents that saddens me the most. Whether or not you like and can tolerate curse words is beside the point: The world does not exist for our pleasure and comfort. It exists to challenge us and temper us.

Teaching your child otherwise ill prepares her for the challenges of adulthood and citizenship.

You had two great options when confronted by your daughter. First, you could have told her, “We understand that you find those words objectionable and we respect that. That means there are going to be books and movies and such that you won’t want to experience. Fortunately, there’s a slew of such things that meet your criterion of no swearing, and you can enjoy them.”

Or, you could have said, “We understand how jarring it can be to encounter those words, but maybe you could take a moment to think about them and think about why the author used them. Maybe it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for the book. If not, you can always put it down and read something else.”

You did neither. You tried to have it both ways. You took the easy way out. You abrogated your duty.

There’s no app to fix that particular problem.

P.S. to authors: Email and cc: to request your books be removed from the in-app Clean Reader store. To their credit, they did so immediately when I contacted them. (Thanks to Lilith Saint Crow for the tip.)

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