Last week, the writerly internet exploded in a furor over the premier of a new app for readers. Called “Clean Reader,” the app allows you to purchase a book and apply an “anti-profanity” filter to it. Much like watching a movie adapted for television, the “profane” words in the text become a white space, a silence that can drastically interrupt reading, depending on the context.
Numerous writers have chimed in on either side, with Chuck Wendig telling the app writers to essentially fuck off, and Cory Doctorow going against the grain by offering that the app is basically “the author is dead” playing out in real life.
As a literary critic, I can understand the idea that the author is dead and that words belong to the reader to read as they please.
As an author, I bristle at the thought of my work being hacked apart in this particular way.
As a reader, I get the desire to make sure that your children have an experience of reading that aligns with what you’re trying to teach them.
I am, needless to say, conflicted. So what other choice did I have but to download the app and put my own book through the ringer? So I bit the bullet, paid the $12 for my book through the app (new releases are spendy, you guys), and set it on “squeaky clean,” the strictest of the available settings.
Perhaps a non-fiction book about sexual ethics is the wrong thing to put through an app called “clean reader.” But that, precisely, is why it needed to be done. After all, the app makers main contention is that what they are doing is not a substantive change to the text – it is merely covering up those things that are considered profane and “suggesting” replacements. It is through this argument that they both skirt copyright law and find a way to defend their app ideologically. It’s about protecting people, not censorship.
Cries of protection, in the literary world, are inseparable from cries of censorship. Every year, well-meaning parents pull books off shelves and destroy them in the name of “protecting” the communities’ children. It is “in the interest of the children” that book banning becomes a justifiable, understandable threat.
The difference between book banning and that app is the presence of the community. Does it really make a difference if someone is censoring a book on their own electronic devices versus trying to pull it out of a public library for good? Surely there must be – we have to respect a person’s privacy and desire to do what they want with a text they have bought, or we are no better as people. If I have a right to throw a book I have purchased and disagree with across the room, surely these people have a right to read my book as squeaky clean as they possibly can.
The question, however, is not and should not be one of rights. Of course, I have all kinds of rights available to me, both as a reader and as a writer. Whether or not I exercise those rights and how I exercise them is where the real conflict is.
What happens with the Clean Reader app is a reinforcement of an ideology that says such censorial approaches to reading are good and positive elements of an engagement with the text. A child who grows up on a Clean Reader doesn’t learn how to engage with the sacred and profane and to hold them in tension. Instead, the child learns to protect themselves from things they don’t like, and to hide from that which is potentially upsetting.
This is far removed from the idea of a sexual assault victim being triggered unexpectedly and seeking to making the world safer for other survivors. A survivor who requests trigger warnings on a text is not seeking to substantively change the text – they are seeking space and time to engage with the text as it is, with the understanding that there may be something intense and traumatic within that text.
The ideological mindset behind Clean Reader is precisely the problem I have with it. Let’s return to my own work as an example.
I’ll admit, when I opened up Damaged Goods in the Clean Reader app, I laughed out loud at the suggestions for replacement words in the “squeaky clean” setting. My quotation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” was comically changed from a Holy Ghost brooding with warm breast to the Holy Ghost brooding with warm “chest.” Any mention of “whore” or “slut” was changed to “hussy,” giving my book a feel of a Southern aunt talking about her “loose” neighbor.
But, the more and more I read, the smile dropped off my face. Just as I found myself amused by what was changed, I was more dismayed to see the ideological construct created by what was left. Consistently through the work, any mention of the word “sex” was changed to “love,” which is an ideological position imposed upon the text.
But more disappointing was when I arrived at the chapter about rape culture and consent, only to discover that graphic discussions about rape were not changed. “Rape” was not considered profane by this app creator’s rubric. And the imposition of “love” onto sex created awkward and deeply troubling phrasing, such as “forced love.”
What’s more is that when the book gets deep into a discussion about the mechanics of sex, it becomes utterly unintelligible. Vagina is changed to “bottom” and “penis” is changed to “groin.” This, understandably, creates great confusion in a section where I state that using euphemisms for body parts should be eliminated from our sexual health praxis.
After seeing my own work pushed through this app, I have to conclude that while I support the right of people to decide how to read the book, I remain uncomfortable with the ideological impositions upon my work. It may be available and it may be permissible to do so, but we have to ask harder questions. We have to ask if it is good.