By Dennis Abrams
At The Guardian, Alison Flood looked at how the creators of the Clean Reader app, which “changes swear words and so-called offensive terms” from books, backed down from selling books after receiving “significant feedback from authors.”
Clean Reader was founded by Jared and Kristen Maughan, who developed it after their daughter “objected” to the use of profanities in a book she was reading at school. Created with the Chicago firm Page Foundry, the app’s filtering program came with three settings: “clean, which ‘only blocks major swear words from display,’ cleaner, and squeaky clean, the most restrictive setting, which ‘will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.’” (It would be interesting to see what it would do with Huckleberry Finn.)
According to an analysis of the app by Jennifer Porter, profanities such as “fucking” and “fucker” magically became “freaking” and “idiot,” “hell” became “heck” and “shit” became “crap.” Clean Reader also cleaned up more than swear words: Porter ran several romance novels through the app and discovered that the names for body parts were also replaced. “Penis” became “groin,” “vagina” became “bottom” among others.
The campaign against the app was led by Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, who wrote a blogpost entitled “Why I’m saying ‘fuck you’ to Clean Reader,” describing her belief that the filter was “censorship, not by the state, but by religious minority,” as well as the fact that it “misunderstand[s] the nature of fiction writing,” while sending a “toxic message” to young people.
Other writers joined in the campaign as well. As Flood wrote:
“The science fiction novelist Charlie Stross described himself as a writer who “deeply resents the idea of his books being mutilated to fit the prejudices of a curious reader’s blue-nosed and over-protective parents” on his blog. The Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood asked on Twitter: “Could you take the kettledrums out of Beethoven because you don’t like loud noises and still call it Beethoven?” The novelist Chuck Wendig tweeted: “Personally I think #CleanReader is a bunch of HOT JEEPERS MCGEE and a bucket of MONKEY FLOPPING CUPCAKE BATTER oh gosh they got to Twitter.”
And so after Page Foundry subsidiary Inktera announced that its bookstore had been pulled from Clean Reader, and Smashwords Founder Mark Coker requested that its titles be pulled from the app, because “under the terms of our agreement with all retailers, retailers don’t have permission to alter the words our books,” Clean Reader threw in the towel and stopped selling books.
Because of that, Harris is claiming a “small victory for the world of dirt.” She told The Guardian, “And a wise move on their behalf. I think somebody would have proved how fundamentally illegal it is, and would have taken them to court…it’s interesting to see how pressure from the internet has done it, and how widespread support is for the integrity of books. A lot of people don’t want to see books tampered with.”