Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Clean Reader - censorship by any other name

I couldn't let this week go past without adding my two cents worth on the current storm over the Clean Reader app. My good friend, Diane Nelson, had a rant about the issue on her blog entitled Don't read my books if you need Clean Reader. She summarises the situation very well, with links to Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog, among others. For those who have just emerged from beneath a rock, Clean Reader (as the name suggests) sanitisizes text by blanking out swear words, or replacing them with more "acceptable" alternatives.

Can you imagine a sanitized version of Chuck's writing?

Pause while we all have a giggle. There'd be an awful lot of blacked out words. Rather like a letter from the Western Front, censored to take out any information of potential value to the enemy.


It's heartening to see that Mark Coker, CEO at Smashwords, has added his voice to this one. Read it here. Essentially, he's saying that the app changes what the author has written, and that's wrong. Needless to say, I'm in complete agreement.

I have to wonder how people can give so much power to a word on a page, spoken by an imaginary character in a made-up story. I don't know about you, but if I had a child who came home looking sad about encountering a swear word in a book, my first response wouldn't be to get rid of the word. Why not just explain to your child that some people talk like that, it's a cuss word intended to have a certain effect on the reader? Coarse language is here to stay, folks. You'll find swear words in every language, in every culture. I talked about this in The dreaded F-word. What does it really mean?

But this Clean Reader app doesn't just root out 'fuck', 'shit' and 'cunt'. It famously changes 'bitch' to 'witch'. This is just plain ridiculous. Who decides what must be substituted, and what with? Let me illustrate my position with a true story.

I worked for a company that put a filter on emails arriving from outside. If the text contained words like the three mentioned above, they were stopped at the firewall and the intended recipient was informed that the mail from such-and-such wasn't delivered because it contained unacceptable material. But they didn't leave it at obvious cuss words. I sent my husband an email which was censored for no apparent reason. After we'd scratched our heads for a while, we worked out the magic word was 'tit'. To test the supposition, I sent an email which said, "I'm thinking of buying the statuette of a blue tit from that shop". Sure enough, it was rejected. For a bit of fun, I sent another email, "Jim has a big cock". That one went through. So 'tit' was rude, but 'cock' was fine. Ahem. I've read a few books where that wasn't really the case. I wonder if 'penis' would be acceptable. Or was it just that the company filter was misogynistic.  (See my raised eyebrow?)

Make no mistake readers, this is simply CENSORSHIP by any other name. Unlike the email filter I described above, people have to choose whether or not they use the Clean Reader app. But if they do, they change what the author has written. Personally, I'm NOT okay with that. Since I received a blistering review about my use of the "F-word", I've added a cautionary sentence to my blurbs. "This novel contains coarse language and sex scenes".  Take it or leave it. If the word 'fuck' upsets a potential reader, I'd really prefer it if the person found some other book more to their taste. After all, there's plenty out there.



21 comments:

  1. Agreed on all points! And I've removed all my self published books from distribution to Book Foundry/Inktera to prevent them ending up in Clean Reader. Unfortunately I have no say in where my publisher distributes to, and theirs is a marketing decision to remain. That is totally their right to do so. But none of the books I do control will EVER be in Clean Reader.

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  2. Apps like this don't understand context. I had an email blocked because it contained the word Virgin Islands. This is stupid and pointless censorship.

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    1. Hahahahaha Point taken :)

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    2. Wow! Since when is the word "virgin" considered a four-letter word? I totally agree. That takes things to a silly extreme.

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  3. Why would you even want to read a book that had had its guts ripped out in this way? The sex and language in my books are integral to the plot and the development of my characters. I don't throw words around just for effect and I don't think other authors do either. Pointless is right, Amelia. Just don't read the book if you don't want anything more than PG-13.

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  4. How whacked. I'm against censorship. Let me decide for myself.

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  5. I actually take the opposite side in this. With books I regularly blacked out words I didn’t like. Notations are left in margins (mainly sci-fi) and scenes I found unpleasant had a pencil line drawn through so I could skip them.

    Before people say I needed an education as a child when I was eleven my parents had me help out survivors of African torture so certain violent acts can make me think of real life unpleasant memories. I have enough in real life I don’t need them in fiction.

    The reason I like the idea of Clean reader is that it allows me, the reader, the choices I had when I used a physical book. There are always the odd mistake that slip through the editing process and these could be corrected to restore the ease of read.

    I would argue that far from being censorship this is freedom being restored. I understand that authors have ‘attachments’ to their characters but then so do the readers – Just think of FanFiction and the debate that provoked.

    Basically this is reader vs author and not censorship.

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    1. You're entitled to your opinion, of course. No-one can stop you from blacking out parts of a hard copy. But Clean Reader (as I understand it) does that FOR you. Which is not freedom, it is censorship.

      If my word choices offend a reader, I'd prefer they selected another book more to their taste.

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    2. Two follow up questions about the sanctity of word selection:

      Would you object to a program that altered things from the American to the British English? Not just restoring the u in honour but replacing pants with trousers.

      What about when a book is translated? A good translator does not do a word for word translation because often a word may not exist. They go by ideas and the intent. For example swear words are different in other languages – would you object to a translator substituting one swear for another?

      There was one example of a magazine being translated which had an introduction talking about rain. In the area it was being translated rain is basically non-existent so they changed the content to a musical symphony. The content was changed dramatically but the intent was preserved and better suited the readers understanding.

      If Clean Reader was default set to on then it would be censorship. A good app would also allow you to hover above the [bracketed] word that has been changed and read the original or at least indicate that it has been altered. I have not used Clean reader so I am unsure of the mechanics of how it works.

      Also art is about inspiring people to do something - if they are moved to alter the content to preserve the 'message' then the artist has succeeded.

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    3. We'll start with translation. That is done with agreement from the author - which is the issue here.

      'Translation' of words from US English to UK English? No, I would not approve. I'm Australian. I manage to read and understand both dialects, as well as a smattering of Irish and Scottish. In fact, I've written one book where I have an Australian POV, and an American, and although I use US spelling in both, I use the correct expressions for each. If nothing else, it will broaden the reader's mind.

      If readers are moved to alter content to preserve the 'message' they should go write their own damn book.

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    4. I take it then you would be against the publishers revising Enid Blyton to remove 'old-fashioned' views and substitute Goblin for gollywog? Enid Blyton is dead and thus unable to consent.

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    5. Actually, you're correct. I am against those revisions. Blyton used the language of her time, as did Dickens, Twain, Austen et al. It's sanitising stories. For me growing up, a gollywog was a doll. I didn't associate it with anything else and I don't imagine modern kids would, either. But then, you see, the publisher has the RIGHT to make changes to a book. Clean Reader does not.

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  6. I have to say that as long as it's very clear the version of the book has been "cleaned" it doesn't bother me all that much. The wording is going to be weird and likely the plot will be impacted esp. in the case if SFR
    (though I'm not knowledgeable about how the app works), but if it's something the reader has chosen to do? I don't get it, but I'm not offended.

    The part that does bother me is that I'm sure those readers will write reviews, and reviewing a book that has been altered by someone other than the author is NOT cool. Same way I feel about DNF reviews -- how can you give a fair opinion on a book you didn't finish (or read in the form it was originally intended)?

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    1. Agreed on the reviewing - but yes, it's going to happen.

      Context is the killer for me. I've read a few more articles since I wrote mine. Apparently it changes 'hell' to 'heck'. Somehow being chased by all the hounds of heck doesn't have the same impact.

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    2. Greta, that made me LOL. It could certainly result in some "heckish" translations.

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  7. I started out on the fence with this issue, because I can understand the points of both sides. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized which side I lean toward.

    I understand some readers are opposed to reading books with expletives even if they are used in context and a natural reaction by the character to what they are experiencing, and my original thought was that if it makes the book more readable for some, maybe not a bad thing because they can still experience the story in a way they find acceptable.

    But then I realized the problem with that thought. For me, if someone is reading a book with selected words deleted or changed, then they aren't reading the original version of the work as the author intended, so it's not really the same book because the character's reactions, dialogue and thoughts that are integral to the plot have been altered. It reminds me a bit of how certain cultures put clothes on nude statues to make the art "acceptable." But that practice doesn't enhance the form, it masks it. I think the same could be said for the written arts.

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    1. I absolutely agree! I'm just saying it doesn't really affect me unless they write a review based on the altered version.

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    2. Yeah, agreed. I certainly wouldn't feel right about a review written about my story which had been altered without my knowledge.

      But if that wasn't the case...hmmm. Well, if the reader prefers a whitewashed version and doesn't attempt to influence other readers by writing a review based on the altered version, there's no impact and I don't think I'd have an objection. Using my clothed sculpture example above, the presentation of the "art" wouldn't be impacted for other readers who could still enjoy the original version.

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    3. Of course the reality probably is that a good number of those folks will review!

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