On the Clean Reader App, Censorship, and the Value of Foul Language

Warning: This post contains some foul language and spoilers for the Bridge to Terabithia movie. Links may be NSFW

For those who’ve never heard of it, the Clean Reader app acts like the Kindle and Nook apps by allowing readers to purchase books from an online store. Then it allows the reader to block offensive words and gives them three levels of blocking to choose from: Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean. Readers even have the option to email the company behind the app if they find words not already caught.

The husband and wife behind the app claim that Clean Reader doesn’t break copyright laws since it doesn’t actually change the eBook file. It simply offers readers the option to block the offending word and to see an alternative.

(Clean Reader sells romance novels, if you’re wondering. A romance book reviewer checked out how the app handles the steamy sex scenes, and the results are pretty hilarious.)

Clean Reader cam about after the creators’ daughter came home disappointed from school.

One day our oldest child came home from school and she was a little sad.  We asked her what was wrong and she said she had been reading a book during library time and it had a few swear words in it.  She really liked the book but not the swear words.  We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with.  To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this.  The more we thought about this idea the more we wanted it to be a reality.  Eventually we decided we would do all we could to bring Clean Reader to the world.

Reading their story reminded me of an experience I had while working at a movie theater. The Bridge to Terabithia just finished playing, and I was picking up trash that customers left behind. A mother stopped me before she headed up the aisle, saying that she wished someone had told her about the ending. Now, she said, she had to explain death to her children.

Now I think back to that mother and wonder why she didn’t do her research before taking her kids to the movie. A friend of mine’s dad would go see a movie before he brought her if he thought it might not be appropriate.

Sure Bridge to Terabithia is a kid’s movie and rated PG, but wouldn’t a parent who’s never even explained death to her children check that out ahead of time? Finding Nemo is rated G even though the mother dies in the beginning.

Clean Reader app reminds me of that mother. Expecting the world to come with a warning label rather than doing her research to ensure she’s comfortable with the things her children sees or reads. Except with Clean Reader, things have gone farther than simply demanding warning labels. They want censorship.

I understand why parents may want to keep an eye on what media their kids consume. But that doesn’t absolve them from the responsibility of actually paying attention and explaining things.

Fiction gives authors and readers the chance to explore. They can experience stories of teenagers in high school, star-ship captains in far off galaxies, or zombies in love. The options are limited only to authors’ imaginations, especially now that self-publishing is becoming a viable way for authors to get their books to readers.

Stories let readers experience dangerous or other situations in a safe environment. They can fall in love with the love interest, detest the bad guy, and hold their breath as the main character dangles off a cliff. Those adventures might require swearing. Danger and sex might be important too. Think of movies made appropriate for cable TV. They’re similar, but they’re not the same.

In any case, the decision of whether or not the offensive bits have a place in the book belongs to the author.

Clean Reader should have received permission from authors to include their books in the app. It didn’t, and more than a few have already voiced their displeasure. Blog posts and news articles caused a rippling effect. Smashwords and @Inktera no longer allow Clean Reader to sell their books. Authors requested the books removed from the app’s store. Numerous negative reviews have been left on the app’s iTunes page.

All of this negative press has forced Clean Reader to close its bookstore. Writers and lovers of swearing have won for now.

Censoring books pushes people’s buttons. When it’s done in the name of making things “less offensive”, I wonder who finds it offensive. And why can’t they just not pick up the book to begin with? If a person like the story but not the “bad words”, then maybe that story just isn’t right for them.

Have you heard of the Clean Reader app? What do you think of blocking and replacing offensive words? Let me know in the comments.

And if you’re interested in what authors have to say, check out these blog posts.

Chuck Wendig (NFSW), Part 1 & Part 2
Lilith Saint Crow
Telegraph

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