Kai’s Corner: Clean Reader – A Summary and My Views


Quick summary:  Clean Reader is an app that didn’t seek permission before listing author’s books, used affiliate links to earn money and bills itself as an app that corrects swearing to more ‘appropriate’ language.  They claim to do this by covering the word with another word.
They are billed on their Facebook page as ‘Read books, not profanity’.

A few days ago, I was told about an app which changed swearing to less contentious (to them) words.  It turned out after a bit of investigation that they claim they don’t alter the underlying book – instead, they’ve worked out a way to dictionary search and place something on top of the word that So, the f-Bomb was turned into heck or gosh. Similarly, other words were changed based on settings in the app.  Knowing as I do how dictionary search worked, I quickly realised that this app, at it’s worst, could really ruin the experience the reader had been promised – both by the author and by the app.  It’s since been pulled from the app store, and authors are demanding to know where their books have come from.

My first thought of course was ‘I need to invent new cuss words’. Then I got angry.  Then I looked at my body of work and realised that if they were going to do that to some of my pieces, they wouldn’t make sense, and I wasn’t looking forward to the reviews.  Then I got to thinking (again) about how language actually works, and why, linguistically, covering over *some* words might be a very bad idea.  I mean, think about it.  Dick is a boy’s name, crap can be in many MANY words (and personally I think hecktastic looks ridiculous) and lets not get started on the other words that are being changed to witch which they rhyme with- I’m pretty sure that ‘the witch had puppies’ looks like an editing mistake, not part of the app change, especially if then quoted out of context.
But then I got to thinking about how removing a potentially commonplace reaction that people DO HAVE (and please, don’t debate with me that you live in an environment where people’s linguistic inclinations are cleaner than white snow) occasionally.  I agree with some that, like sex and drugs, some people overdo it to make their work somehow edgier, but I defend to the DEATH a writer’s right to do that.  I think that if readers need to block out profanity to read books though, they’re changing the very fabric of a story, and that fabric isn’t one you can just simply remove a colour or two from and reweave lickety-split.  You start obliterating red and turquoise from your language access and where does it end?

Do we in other words end up in a world where texts are prissily treated as clean simply because we can cover the bits we don’t like?  Does our writing have to suddenly be so sanctioned, cleaned and made ‘PC’ that we’re looking at work that doesn’t have a soul – doesn’t have passion and emotion, because someone’s going to be offended by it somewhere?  And then, I started looking at the language I was using to describe this – prissy, offensive, censoring. I’m using words they use about our books to talk about what they’re doing, but there’s no common ground.  None at all.

My bottom line to this is we can’t tell writers what they’re allowed to write – that’s not how the world works.  But at the same time, without explicit consent from the copyright holder, these sorts of apps shouldn’t exist.  Not because I think that it’s censorship, because I think that writers still have control over their works, especially if they’re self-publishing.  Our language choice is carefully weighed and though readers can choose to avoid work, I personally think that my books should be read as I wrote (and edited!) them.

And ultimately, if you have chosen the words that cover over the words you don’t want to see, your brain is still, on some level, processing it as the word it SHOULD be.  You might not be conscious of it, but it’s not that easy to trick our language centre.  And while a conscious self would feel much better about all of that, the subconscious knows.

You’ll notice I’m not actually swearing in this article – it’s because I don’t think it’s appropriate for where this is appearing.  And anyway, Chuck Wendig covered it better than me.
As it stands, Clean Reader has basically withdrawn their app, though possibly not as fast as they hoped.  Some authors are still pushing for details – me, I think I’m satisfied that they’ve woken a sleeping giant, and that the author community IS stronger than ever, and we speak up when we’re unhappy.

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