Clean Reader: Censorship?

Clean Reader1.

If you run in the same circles as me — circles which read literary blogs — there’s a good chance you saw a new mapp (short for mobile application [just coined it.]) making a few waves. The mapp is called “Clean Reader” and seeks to scrub your e-books of all filth and debauchery, replacing the words in question with family-friendly terms, like “freak” and “bottom.”

The mapp gained a bit of international attention last week when author Joanne Harris posted a scathing critique on her blog. And almost instantly it blew up, forcing the issues of authorship and censorship to the forefront of Internet discussion, as different authors weighed in, and even a few journalists threw their opinions into the ring. As a fan of words and literature in general, these types of discussions are my jam, and I’ve followed the debate closely, nearly salivating over each new entry into the saga. There were issues of copyright thrown about by armchair lawyers, and horrible metaphors about blue cheese dressing thrown about by the mapp creators. Big authors got involved. Small authors got involved. Dogs and cats started sleeping together. It was madness. It was Sparta.

I went back and forth over whether I would join the conversation. What could I add to it, I wondered aloud, most likely disturbing the other people at the bus stop. Who is this guy ranting to himself about books, they most likely thought. They exchanged nervous glances to each other, and a heavy air of awkwardness settled upon all of downtown Omaha. Then, I’m sure the conversation switched in their minds. They probably then thought, well, this guy probably knows what he’s talking about when it comes to books. He’s probably read a lot. Well, that settled it. I couldn’t let down my new friends at the bus stop. I needed to rant about books for a while, and this seemed like a decent topic of conversation.

So, let’s talk about the debate.

On one side of the debate stands the mapp creators. Why did they create the Clean Reader? Well, according to them, their daughter came home from school “a little sad” over a book she had been reading. The book had “a few swear words” and “she really liked the book, but not the swear words.” They wondered if there was an app that would automatically censor books, and there was not. So, they created one. It’s a good story of American entrepreneurship, really. They saw a gap in the market, and they filled it.

Of course, then the shit poop hit the fan when Harris posted her thoughts on it. Detractors of the mapp tend to follow a couple of different lines of thought. First and foremost is the idea of artistry. Most authors, like Harris and sci-fi author Chuck Wendig, feel that since an author takes such great care in selecting words, changing the words of the book ultimately hurts the artistry of the text.

They also take some issue with the motivations behind the changes in these words. Since the mapp creators are Christian, all of their edits are rooted within that religious belief:

Fuck = Freak

Bitch = Witch

Damn = Darn

Jesus = Geez

And, so on.

The argument is that by encouraging such censorship of artistic material, the mapp perpetuates an outdated and dogmatic morality that has a history of oppression and suppression, which can be dangerous to all involved. As Harris writes in a later post:

As to confusing children, I think that trying to pass off both the words “anus”, “buttocks” and “vagina” as having the same meaning is very confusing indeed, not to mention damaging. It is tantamount to abuse to encourage children to be ashamed of their bodies, and to be ignorant of these terms. My daughter knew all the Latin dinosaur names by the time she was four, so I hardly think a few anatomical terms would confuse a normal child. With respect, I believe that you are the ones who are confused on this issue.

 

2.

Personally, I’m of two minds on the entire debate. First, I understand the issues of artistry and clarity with in my work. My wife and I have this discussion periodically. When I write, I sometimes use vulgarity and profanity. When I do, I try to be as intentional about the issue as possible. Words have power, and they are tools, and if I choose specific words, I am intending those to words to carry with them all of the weight that they do. Sometimes, “crap” is not enough.

That said, I am also a firm believer in audience consuming media as they want to. Here’s a not-so-secret: I make it a point to not look at women other than my wife in a sexual manner. This includes women on the street as well as women on the screen. Am I perfect at it? No. Not at all. No one is perfect. But, I am very intentional in my choice to keep my eyes only on my wife as much as I can.

And this bleeds over into movies, music, and TV as well. Because I’ve made this choice, I make a decision with every piece of media I consume. I weigh the content of that media versus the commitment I’ve made, and I determine whether the appeal of the media is worth the content. A few months ago, my wife and I were looking for a movie to see. We briefly considered Gone Girl, but after telling her some of the stuff I had heard about the movie, we decided not to. There is very explicit sexual content in the movie, and for me, that’s just not worth it, even if people say that the movie is amazing.

(Now, I want to be sure I clarify: I’m not saying that Gone Girl shouldn’t contain what it contains, or that the movie shouldn’t exist, or that people shouldn’t watch it. I am merely stating that I chose not to watch it because of a decision I made three years ago.)

Which brings me to Clean Reader. Because of my choice, I can understand the heart behind its creation. It’s an appealing idea to be able to consume great stories without having to worry about any material that makes you uncomfortable, for whatever reason. And, ultimately, I think you should be able to do this, especially if you’ve already purchased the book. It’s yours, you should be able to do with it what you want. When I read a book, I am a note taker. The margins of many of my books are filled with notes and observations. I’ll underline sentences and circle words, and the pages often end up looking more like a mob hit than great literature. Now, I understand that note-taking is in no way equivalent to content censorship, but I do think it serves to illustrate how we all consume books differently. Some of us write in the margins, some of us don’t. Some of us want to read profanity, some of us don’t.

Honestly, I think that this is one of the cool things about literature. It can be shaped and formed by its readers, because really, it belongs to the reader. In English studies, we teach our students about the concept of audience, and how the audience works with the text and the author to generate meaning. The audience is an active participant in the process creation.

Which leads me to probably my biggest concern with the arguments of many of the authors against Clean Reader. Yes, you are the one that wrote the book; yes, you are the one that chose specific words. That is all true. But, once the book leaves your typewriter and goes out into the world, it belongs to the readers to do with what they will. To assume otherwise is to adopt the pretentious, elitist position of Modernism, which sees authors as the utmost authority on the text. Do they have authority? Absolutely. I’m not arguing against that. But, they don’t have absolute authority over the text. The reader plays a vital role in part of that process.

And that’s okay. That’s what generates conversation and reinvigorates old works. It’s why literary theorists, a hundred years later, can look at a book like The Virginian and say, “Wow. These western books are certainly making an interesting statement about male sexuality and relationships on the frontier.” Did Owen Wister intend that? Who cares. It’s one way we’re reading the book now, and it has kept the book alive over a century later.

(Again, I am not equating a queer reading of The Virginian to outright censorship, I am only using it as an example of how authorial intent is not paramount.)

And, honestly, the fact of the matter is that often the author has no say in what version goes out to the people. Here’s a story: Stephen Crane wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in one way. He tried to sell it, and he was unable to, so he self-published it. Then, he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, and it sold huge numbers. Suddenly, everyone wanted to publish Maggie, but when they did, they edited the Hell out of it. Language, content, etc, etc. Nothing was safe from the editor’s scissors, and what we ended up getting was a watered down version, with none of the punch and impact that the original version had. I’ve read both versions, and his original version is much, much better. But, the edited version was what readers had for nearly a century, unless they were lucky enough to find one of his original self-published copies, which were rare and expensive. Crane‘s authorial intent mattered little when it came time to publish. For better or worse, someone else edited that book to remove content they found questionable, and that’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.

 

Clean Reader23. 

If it sounds like I’m coming out in support of Clean Reader, I’m not. I don’t support Clean Reader. Let me say that. But I don’t support it for different reasons that other authors. I don’t support it because, like most censorship, it’s merely a band-aid on a sword wound. If you have issues with content in books and media, censorship is not the way to handle it. All censorship does is mask the content. The meaning and intent is still there.

KidzBop is a fairly popular series of CDs that offer sanitized versions of popular songs for kids to listen to. Their method of sanitation involves cutting out all of the dirty words and occasionally cutting entire verses. That’s fine. But, the content and context of the song is still there. Take for example, This Love by Maroon 5. On the surface, sure, it’s a fairly standard pop song with a catchy rhythm. But, look a bit closer at the lyrics, and you’ll find such gems as “I tried my best to feed her appetite, keep her coming every night, so hard to keep her satisfied.” Yes, there are no bad words, but that’s a fairly explicit line in a song that is played on a CD intended for children. Likewise, a lot of times, just sanitizing the words in books isn’t going to change the content that much. Without the “F-word,” Game of Thrones still contains extreme violence, and sex, and politics, and all manner of material some people might find questionable.

While I can appreciate the heart behind creating a mapp to make a book more family-friendly for children, you have to wonder: is profanity really all the creators should be worried about? Their daughter was sad because of the profanity. That’s okay. But, was she sad about anything else in the book? Was there sexual content? Was there violence? If your biggest concern with a book is whether or not a character says “fuck,” you have got your priorities all screwed up, because I can guarantee that a lot more was happening in that book than just some profanity.

Instead of creating a find-and-change app, maybe talk to your kids about the media they’re consuming. Find out why they’re troubled by the words. Find out if there’s other stuff in the book they should be troubled by. And, if so, why aren’t they troubled by it? And, honestly, maybe they shouldn’t be reading it, if the content is that big of a deal.

Taking kids out of the equation, I would say the same thing to adults as well. If your convictions about content are that powerful, then maybe you shouldn’t be reading the material, because just changing the words is going to do nothing to sanitize the real content of the book. And if the words are the only problem you have with the book, then maybe you should rethink your priorities. Because, I think they might be a little skewed.

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Christopher David Lawton

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