Why Clean Reader Won't Work

Well, dang. Fudging shark snacks. This has been a fricking crap week for authors and anti-censorship readers the world over. All because of one little wolf in sheep's clothing called the Clean Reader app. I mean, at this stage, everybody and their mother has made an app. In this case, a little girl's mother and father apparently made this app just for her after she expressed that she was "sad" because a book she was reading had swear words in it. When they found out that no one had yet had the bright idea to make an easy-to-use personal censor for their tablets (I mean, come on, universe), they decided to just go for it. I mean, what the heck, amiright?

There are a lot of problems with this. I could not possibly express them more eloquently than Joanne Harris or more hysterically than the terrible mind of Chuck Wendig (ironic warning here: they use a lot of swears to make their points). However, I'm going to attempt to throw my own opinion into this mix.

Even if Clean Reader hadn't decided to pull their library of books due to the protests of hundreds of authors, the app never would have worked the way they wanted it to anyway.

The main argument used by Clean Reader and its supporters is that there are a lot of people who won't read a book if it has (what they consider to be) profanity. There are so many issues with that statement it's actually bonkers.

  1. What is considered to be profanity differs from person to person, and offends on different levels for a variety of reasons. I have a friend who'll drop the f-bomb but hates the word "douche". Would you recommend the Cleaner or the Squeaky Clean setting for her?

  2. Authors spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours on a book. Many choose literally every word with great consideration. If she put that word in there, it means that she, her agent, and her editor (and all of the beta readers and early critique partners) thought the word belonged there. Pretty audacious of you to take it out, then, isn't it?

  3. This isn't like going to a restaurant and ordering the Cobb salad without bleu cheese, to which the Clean Reader blog so glibly compared it. This is like going to building contractor who has spent months planning, constructing, and perfecting your house and saying, "This is great, but I have this thing about spruce wood. I don't like it. Could you take all the spruce out of the house? Just replace it with any old thing that fits."

  4. As of 2013, there were 28 million books in print in the English language. Even if only 0.5% of those had no profanity, that would still be 140,000 books for you to choose from. Now let's say that only 1% of that 140,000 books were of any interest to you. That's 1400 books, which is a tough number for even the most voracious reader to achieve in a lifetime.

  5. You can bleep swear words, but you can't bleep ideas.

That last one's the biggest reason why Clean Reader won't work, in my opinion. I know there are many people, whether for religious or other reasons, who prefer not to be exposed to profanity. I get it. I used to feel the same way, and you know what? I found plenty of books without any.

Yes, it's unfortunate if you want to read a great writer who happens to use words you don't like, but that's your problem, not hers.

But let's just think about this logically for a minute. Take one of the most famous recent examples of what those in the market for something like Clean Reader would call an inappropriate book: Fifty Shades of Grey. Say Clean Reader got ahold of that bad boy and turned all of the "erections" into "bottoms" and the "fucks" into "fricks." Would that really make it any cleaner? Would you really think your impressionable 9-year-old daughter would be less sad because, while Christian Grey is a manipulating tool bag, at least he doesn't use naughty words? Doubtful.

That's because ideas are far more powerful than words. 

That's why Clean Reader would never work. It might make the language less sailor-y, but it won't change a book's message. It will make it clumsier, sure, and less enjoyable to read, but sanitizing the language won't make the idea of the book fit with your beliefs and ideals.

By all means, know what your kids are reading. I sneaked some pretty weird books in from the library when I was a kid. One in particular was called The Parent Trap, and I read it thinking it would be like the Hayley Mills movie. It was actually a pretty trashy romance with an opening chapter where the characters are nearly arrested for public indecency. Yikes.

But if you want to be careful what your kids are reading, the best and only way I know is to read it first. Yes, that will require more effort on your part, but there are some things that an app will just never be able to do for you. Screening ideas is one of them. Even if you have no respect for authors and the countless hours they put into their novels, if you're at all concerned about the content, reading it before you give it to your kid is the least you can do.