Much hay has been made of Clean Reader.
Better-known authors than I have probably already picked this topic to death. For those who haven’t heard of it, it claims to edit out the profanity from e-books. Now, anyone who’s been online for longer than about six minutes has probably run into some variant of the Scunthorpe problem, and those who haven’t can get the gist of it from this Kids Exchange storefront. In short, natural language processing makes spotting when an arrangement of letters is a dirty word and when it’s describing a rooster or an ex-Vice President a lot harder than it might seem.
However, that’s not why I want to talk about Clean Reader.
To be totally honest, I’m not really sure I care all that much about what people do with my texts once they have them. True, I care about moral rights, and I care about having my work read in its unabridged format. While I wouldn’t put as much passion behind the notion as Chuck Wendig, I find it important to read my work as it’s presented. I mean, consider how much controversy the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have caused because of Twain’s repeated use of vulgarity, and yet consider how many teachers consider it of prime import that we teach the text precisely because of that. Consider Larry Niven’s Known Space series and the very fact that “bleep” is used as an expletive precisely because of the censoring technologies of past ages, or the way “cuss” is used in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox explicitly to permit swearing without using any recognizable swear words.
In fact, just go and check out Wikipedia’s article on profanity in sci-fi and this collection of fictional expletives for a brief tour of why this app is doomed to failure from the get-go. I doubt it censors “drek” or “frak,” and it certainly doesn’t block “B*****m,” even if I won’t say it.
There is, perhaps, an argument to be made that it’s the words themselves that are violent, but… honestly, I have to call shenanigans on that one. To say that a particular arrangement of phonemes is somehow imbued with a conceptual violence is to say that there are certain arrangements of notes in sequence that contain more power than others, and while there is some evidence for specific elements of musical arrangements that seem to be neurologically encoded, I don’t think it’s so broad as to be cross-culturally relevant, and I certainly can’t buy the notion that it’s the words themselves that are meaningful. I can get behind, in a small way, the idea that acculturation to profanity might reduce its hypoalgesic effect, but I can’t really accept that as an argument against its use in narrative. Perhaps one might say that it’s the tone of the words that are impactful? If that’s the case, then what’s the emotional impact of any of the words on that list above? What are we do about the city of Fucking, Austria?
There’s an argument to be made that once I give you the text, it’s yours and you can do what you want with it. This is the tack that Cory Doctorow takes. I’m a fan of remix culture, and while I don’t take as far as creating YTPs, I certainly “get” that people will create derivative works based on almost anything, and that can conceivably include removing the profanity from a work. In fact, Jimmy Kimmel removes things that aren’t profanity from speech, creating shocking hilarity in the process.
That, however, is the thin edge of the wedge, as it were. I worry about the precedent that its sets for people to produce the expurgated versions of my books and consider this a moral goodness. The creators of the software themselves use as their advertising slogan, “read books, not profanity,” as if books containing profanity weren’t really books. True, this happens all the time, and there’s even a business model for it for those who’re inclined to buy into it, but down that road lies what I can only call the Metropolis problem, after my favorite film of all time. Two of the main characters in the film, Rotwang and Fredersen, shared a love for a woman named “Hel,” which in German is a perfectly cromulent name but which the censors of the day thought would be shocking and upsetting to American audiences. Every scene referencing the relationship, and thus the tension it created between them, was cut for the American release, causing no less a figure than H. G. Wells to loudly proclaim, “I don’t get it.” Scenes of robot Maria dancing at Yoshiwara’s were cut completely, robbing the audience of the context that her disguise was so lifelike that she could be naked and still fool people. The complete content of the Garden of Delights is still missing, for something so licentious as women with bared breasts smoking cigarettes. This is what people of 1927 thought was so terrible that delicate American eyes had to be protected from it.
I get that nobody’s suggesting that the originals be altered. I know that. I also know that we’ve lost a lot of originals over the years, with only the stripped-down versions.
And that, really, leads me into the real reason why I don’t support Clean Reader as a concept. Fundamentally, the swearing in my books is the least taboo thing that one could find objectionable within them. When I swear in my stories, it’s usually not even in common parlance. I think Valentin, arguably my most prolific swearer in Bonds, uses alchemy- and astrology-based swear words because that’s the culture from which he came. Thirteenth Step, my next book, will be even moreso. One of the characters in that will likely swear up a storm on a regular basis, but never once will she use excreta or sexual congress as curse words, because that’s not how her society works. Meanwhile, Beautiful World has an erotic transformation and a three-way sex scene involving hypnotic spores and a raccoon with a literal flower between her legs. Bonds has more sex in more ways than I could classify in my text, slavery, a very visceral beat-down, and several on-screen deaths, and yet the filthiest word to come out of somebody’s muzzle in that text is “dust.” If that doesn’t bother you, I can’t imagine a few shits, fucks, and damns getting in your way. If you’re genuinely the kind of person that worries about the kinds of problems that CleanReader purports to solve, then CleanReader isn’t going to help you here.
What do you think? What do you feel about profanity in a work? Does it bother you? Does it titillate you? Does it inspire you to stop reading, or to keep going? Do you even notice or care about it? If one character swears and another doesn’t, how do you view those characters? What do you think about non-standard profanity? Do you avoid using profanity, or do you embrace it?
I don’t claim to know where my holiness goes.