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Clean Reader

(finsihing this post up while waiting to head to doctor...)

So the writer blogosphere is pretty pissed off at the moment, because of an app called Clean Reader. You buy an e-book through it and can then apply a filter that will scrub out all the bad words.

(More on reaction and my own feelings in a minute--first a bit about what it does and how poorly it does it.)

Basically, it lays a censor bar over any word on its list and I think, when tapped, the censor bar returns a sanitized word.

This is a blunt instrument at best. For example, it'll only "see" a word if there are spaces around it. So a peacock is fine, a cock-of-the-rock we don't know (hyphens seem tricky) and the dying words of Socrates are "We must sacrifice a groin to Aesculapius."

Some amusing knock-on effects are that all female genitals become "bottom" and all male genitals become "groin." There are presumably a lot of groins being inserted into bottoms if one attempts to read a sex scene. Meanwhile, the Owl and the Pussycat can still go to sea, but he will be calling her "Bottom, my dear," and the bottom willows should be blooming any time now. (No word yet on the runcible spoon.)

Also, chest-feeding and chest cancer. I'll just leave those there, as they appear to be loaded.

The Clean Reader people (who I don't think expected to become the center of the howling shitstorm (see, compound word, so that currently passes muster!)) claim that you can turn off this filter at any time, and admit that many religious books such as the Bible become unreadable. (One shudders to contemplate the scene where Balaam's butt demands to know why he has beat her three times, although Samson's ability to slay that many men with the jawbone of a butt is certainly...vivid.)

As with many such things, I suspect it will actually serve to make many books much pervier. Sleeping Beauty is going to groin her finger on that spinning wheel, and we shall be subjected to groin's crow in the morning. (Not to mention my third kid's book, "Curse of the Were-Groin." The heart quails.) I also suspect that it will make confusing word salad out of a lot of innocent paragraphs, and readers will ultimately wind up turning it off in irritation.

But technology marches on, and let us say that they actually improve this and some people like it and it learns enough to slap the censor bars in a slightly less slapdash fashion.

Now we come to response.

A lot of authors are very, very angry.

The general thrust seems to be "I chose those words for a reason, and if you don't want to read them the way I wrote them, you can bleep the bleep right off, you bleeping bleep."

And you know, I get this.

Really, I do.

My adult books do not contain a great deal of profanity, but ironically, I'll bet you a dollar I get more unhappy e-mail about profanity in my books then most authors do, because I'm a children's book author. I have been sent long screeds about how using the words "My god" in my books is dreadful. (My personal favorite of those included the phrase "I'm sure you consider yourself a good Christian!" Hey, I laughed.) I have literally received spreadsheets of every usage of the word "crap" in my books, with suggested alterations, so that I could "fix" this in future printings, because it was simply too strong a word for nine-year-olds. (Okay, ONE spreadsheet. That was special.)

And the first time it happened, I was pissed.

And the second time it happened, I was pissed.

And the third time it happened, I rolled my eyes.

And the tenth time it happened, I decided people were just people and there was nothing to be done about it.

Maybe it's because I've had art on the internet too long and it gets sliced and diced and moved around and reposted and at first you get extremely indignant and then you rapidly stop caring as long as they're not getting money on it, because life is too short and the internet will always outlast you.

I totally understand why people are angry. My kneejerk is initially How dare you! as well. And I am not going to tell anybody that their feelings are wrong. There's a lot of authors I respect enormously who are very indignant over it, and more power to 'em.

I'll be honest, though, I don't care nearly as much as I probably should.

If you want to change your own reading experience on your own device, what's it to me? You're not changing what I wrote, you're changing what you read. If you want to read a slightly more nonsensical version of my book that badly, I just can't bring myself to care very much.

There are lots of legal arguments that may or may not have a foothold including Moral Rights--not even the lawyers seem to agree there, so I certainly won't claim to know one way or the other. There's also the argument "Books are supposed to challenge you!" which is an interesting argument, but I don't actually like it very much. Most of my books aren't actually supposed to challenge you, they're supposed to comfort you because life is a hard country and we all need a little kindness along the way. (It is totally fine if other people's books are supposed to challenge you, just...err...#NotAllBooks or something.) I do not actually feel bad about this, because I think comfort is hard to do and generally worthwhile.

I also sort of feel like this argument gets dicey because there are plenty of trolls who will scream bloody murder if you block them, and one of the go-to battle-cries is that you're just creating an echo chamber where no one will challenge your beliefs. Few people are actually "challenged" by endless kill-yourself-dumb-cunt comments, so it turns into an argument for blocking abusive white noise.

On the other hand, you block those people, you don't filter them so they're sending cute photos of puppies instead.

On the gripping hand, if there was an app that let me turn those troll comments into cute puppy photos, I can't swear that I wouldn't endorse it whole-heartedly, so...err...complicated.

Anyway, at the end of the day, I do see why people are mad. I see why some readers might be mad! And if this was the start of a slippery slope (and I don't actually believe it is--or all slopes are slippery, take your pick) where these versions were taught in schools or the original is no longer available or something, then yes, I would likely become quite concerned. If a clean "print" version comes out, I'll be irked. If the option to turn off the app and read the original goes away...troublesome. But people are buying the app and the book and no one is holding a gun to their head to make them install the app, and as it stands...I do not feel as strongly about this as many of my peers.

So, y'know, read a sloppily abridged version if it makes you happy. It's not the book I wrote, but I'm not going to stand over you and tell you you're reading it wrong. You could also hold your thumb over the bottom line of every page and never read that line, or skip every third chapter, or read backwards if it made you happy. That would probably also affect the reading experience, but...oh well. What happens between my words and your eyeballs is not my problem, and I sort of feel, not even really my business.

I held up my end by writing the best book I could--everything after that is out of my hands.

The thing that strikes me is that we pure-minded types don't JUST object to bad language. When I'm in a pure-minded mood, I want literature free of violence, swearing, meanness, major crime, untrustworthy protagonists... If you take a story about criminal thugs, in a bar, committing grievous bodily harm, while swearing, and take out the swearwords, you still have a story about thugs committing crimes. Like that version of Saving Private Ryan with all the guns removed -- it's still a war movie.

And replacing each 'bad' word with a censor bar is boring. The online comic strip Skin Horse has a character with a censor-chip implanted in his brain, and his speech has the swearwords replaced with cute or intriguing phrases; much more fun.

All in all, this sounds like a product based on what machines can do, rather than on what people want.

I suspect that this thing teaches something useful to people who are forced to use it.

Sadly for the enforcers, that lesson will be censorship is total bullshit.

I actually have a friend that reads books out of order. Reads the first couple of pages, then the end, then pages at random. I find this completely baffling, but it seems to work for her.

how does she know when she's done?

I have a google chrome extension that turns every photo of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott into a cute kitten.
Because whilst I'm interested in reading articles about the politics of my country, every time I see his smarmy face, I feel like either punching it or spitting in it.

And yet I'm not a fan of clean reader, even though I wouldn't raise a hue and cry about it. So. Yep. Complicated.

Thank you for your thoughts, and the interesting discussion it started.
Good luck with the lurgy!

"On the gripping hand" - yay for the reference!

As for the rest, I do agree with you. It's another idiotic attempt at auto-censorship, though; not the first and not the last. People, as you say, will be people.

I don't have a problem with this (in fact, I have a story I'd love to run through it, I think it would turn into the story that would kill readers with laughter), but...

It's an app. A lot of kids in schools now do things on tablets. Homework, read books, etc. I can see this somehow getting pushed that way, and that's what I'm wary about. As a parent, I will stay on the lookout for this, and raise hell if it shows up here.

But until then, I don't know that I care much. Like someone earlier said, once the reader has the book, they're going to read it from their perspective anyway, and if they feel the need to replace words, then whatever. I do like the idea someone put forth of using it to remove trigger words, but then the context and event would still be there, so I dunno? If it helps though, then I'm all for it. Maybe somebody will revamp this app (or write a new one) to have customizable filters, which would make more sense to begin with.

This is an incredibly mature response, and I respect that a great deal.


I rather expect this to go the way of the company that took movies and edited them to remove the violence, swearing and sex. The lawsuits didn't kill it, the lack of interest did.
I'm just going to shake my head at the sad people who want the cake to be yellow and not chocolate. I'm busying living my life, I don't have the time to try and run other peoples.
Though, if they do survive and force 'sanitized' copies of books on me, against my will - there WILL be Hell to pay.

Edited at 2015-03-27 03:09 pm (UTC)

I agree, both as an author and as a reader.

I'm not personally interested in it. I don't swear much, and I don't write with swears much, but I'm not bothered by reading profanity -- and I am much more distracted by imperfect bowdlerizing like "he was woken by the groin's crow" or mentally reverse-engineering a sentence about bottom-willows. But if someone else finds it a more comfortable or accessible reading experience with CleanReader installed, who cares? I wish them joy of it! It doesn't affect what anybody else can read, unless they're looking over their shoulder. It doesn't affect what I wrote, and it doesn't affect what I'm reading. And it saves somebody either the mental effort of editing out something stressful, or printing something out and crossing out words, or cobbling together their own find-replace solution, or whatever.

Somewhat off topic, but I remember tales of a Batman forum back in the day with censorship filters. It became awkward when one of the main characters is Groin Grayson.

Edited at 2015-03-27 10:57 pm (UTC)

Yeah, you've summed up my reaction perfectly. I've had stuff published, and I really don't care. Bought the book? Great. Do whatever you want with it. If it's the e-book, censor it all you like. If it's the print book, use sharpie, cut out pages, make an art project with it, let your toddler turn it into confetti, whatever. Once you've bought the copy, it's your copy, you can do whatever you want with it. Why should I be fussed?

I dread the idea of something like, "I watched Mike groin his gun and take aim at the bandits."

I learned my English from reading fiction (still cannot speak it, as native speakers do not understand when I say words letter by letter like they are written ... well, I also say the letters as they are written, not as they are supposed to be said by the rules of spoken English)

I cringe at image of getting only the changed books and then attempting to write a letter ... for example, to a person whose first name is Groin.

I kinda feel like a program that actually does what Clean Reader wants to do, without all the comedic false positives, would be semi-sentient. Knowing the difference between "Check out the package on that Scarlet Witch crossplayer!*" and "Maria set the package down on the table" is a complicated problem that requires knowing a lot about what the words mean, and how they work together.

* A thing I saw at ECCC this weekend. Oh it was marvelous. He was gorgeous. I suspect there may have been padding involved. I do not care.

I continue to enjoy and respect just how thoroughly sensible you are. While also being really very funny.