See No Evil: Thoughts on the Clean Reader App

By now, you’ve probably heard of Clean Reader, the app that scrubs your eBooks of profanity in the name of providing a squeaky-clean, swear-free reading experience.

(If you’ve not, go Google it real quick; I’ll wait.)

::Jeopardy Theme Music::

(Back? Good deal. Let us continue.)

A great deal of e-ink has already been spilled over whether Clean Reader should do what it does. I tend to fall into the camp that argues that no, it shouldn’t be editing the swears out of your books as you read them. I believe that texts, as published, occupy a particular place in culture, history, and time, and that attempting to “clean them up” such that they comply with one particular moral or ethical standard is both dishonest and dangerous.

I apply that principle equally to things that don’t offend me as well as to things that do. I would no sooner see racism, homophobia, and sexism (things that offend me) covered up in a text than I would see profanity, same-sex relationships, and blasphemy (things that don’t offend me) cut out.

My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that a text ought to be read the way it’s written, for better or for worse. If it’s ugly, by Crom and by Erlik, I want to see its ugliness.

But this raises the question: does that mean I, as an author, can keep you from doing something different with anything of mine that you may own?

Generally speaking, no. If you’ve bought something I wrote, the physical copy you own is now your property. You can do whatever you like with it, so long as you don’t interfere with my ability to profit from it. So you can write nasty comments in the margins, scribble out words you don’t like, decoupage your desk with it, wipe your ass with it, and more.

You can give it away, sell it, throw it in the trash. You can read it or not. You can read it backwards, perhaps summoning Satan. You can read every other word. You can use the pages in an erotic papercut session with your full-time (and enthusiastically consenting) Gorean love slave. You can cut it up to use the letters to create creepy serial killer messages.

Whatever. It’s your property now. Have fun. Just don’t go making unauthorized copies of it or selling your fanfic or whatever.

With eBooks, it can get a bit trickier. By and large, eBooks tend to be licensed, rather than sold, which makes them a lot like software. You pay for the license to download, keep, and use them, but you often don’t properly own them.

Some folks are claiming that because of this, what Clean Reader does is illegal because you haven’t actually made that all-important First Purchase. Other folks are saying that because Clean Reader changes the text as displayed, rather than in the file itself, and because you can choose to turn off the profanity filtering, it doesn’t constitute a change, edit, etc. under the law.

Me? I don’t know. I was a fuckin’ English major, dude, not a law student.

But just for shits and giggles here, let’s suppose that what Clean Reader does is entirely, 100% legal, and that even if authors don’t like it, there is damn little we can do about it. Let’s suppose, too, that readers have the right to protect themselves from content they consider morally reprehensible, and to protect their children from it, and that this right trumps the right of authors to insist that their work not be reft of its swears.

I realize you may not agree, but just play the thought experiment game with me for a bit.

Because here’s the thing about Clean Reader: even if all of that is completely true, it can’t protect you from my writing.

It can’t protect you, an adult, from any writer’s work.

And it can’t protect your kids.

Oh, sure, you might not see profanity in the text, or you may not see explicit references to sexy body parts or to blasphemous utterances. But those things are only a small part of what makes a story’s content “adult.”

By way of an example, I had a short story published in an indie Sword & Planet anthology a few years ago. If memory serves, I don’t think anybody cussed once in that story—or if they did, it was incredibly minor. A damn here, a hell there. Nothing big. In that regard, it was pretty “safe.”

But that same story included, among other things, a less-than-heroic protagonist, rampant killing, a healthy measure of nudity, some good old-fashioned blasphemy, a vigorous attempt at human sacrifice, and other things guaranteed to fluster the Pat Pullings and Tipper Gores of the world.

Consequently, though it was fairly “clean” by profanity standards, I personally wouldn’t hand that story to a kid to read—not because I’m somehow ashamed of it, but because I didn’t write it for kids. I wrote it for grown-assed adults, and my intent shone through in the events and people of the tale itself, above and beyond the individual words selected for the telling.

The same is true of the manuscript I’m currently preparing to send my editor’s way. There’s not one F-bomb in Oath of Blood, but if somebody came to me and asked if it was appropriate for their kid, I’d probably tell them no.

A really mature kid in junior high or beyond? Maybe. That same kid, if their parents tend to have frank discussions with them about tough, ugly topics? Sure, if the parents are cool with it. But a kid whose parents are so worried that their virginal eyes might–gasp—light upon a swear that they got themselves an app to prevent it?

Not just no, but fuck no.

Because I assure you, dudes and dudettes: if you’re that worried about whether my characters cuss, you’re going to be way more worried about the rest of the things they do.

A swear-scrubbing app like Clean Reader won’t keep you from witnessing a character butcher another character in cold blood. It won’t keep you safe from priests who are anything but godly—even the ones who number among the “good guys.” It won’t save you from characters who get blitzed and bang out of wedlock, or idly consider taking physical advantage of one another. It won’t keep you insulated from the fact that my characters live and slay and die in a world where their lives mean nothing to those in power and where the gods are silent at best, ugly fiction at worst.

So I have to ask you: does any of that turn your stomach?

If so, I don’t condemn you. You have the right to be offended. But if those ideas offend you, an app like Clean Reader won’t make my work any less offensive. It won’t make my work something you could give to your kid with a clear conscience.

It won’t do those things because it can’t. Swears or not, those things will burrow into your mind’s eye if you read, and you will see them. If I’ve done them well, they may disturb you, or make you question things you once thought beyond questioning. But they will surely, at minimum, offend you.

The only thing that can keep you and yours safe from that is not reading my shit.

And I’m okay with that, personally. If you think something I wrote is going to do you some kind of harm, or offend you, or put you in a weird place when your kid asks you about something my characters did or said, then please–and I say this with the utmost sincerity–go read something else, and go with my blessing.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking adult content is only swear-deep.

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