Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s events I see there has been a controversy regarding a Kindle app called ‘Clean Reader’ that deletes profanity and sexual references in downloaded fiction titles, replacing them with harmless terms like ‘heck’, ‘darn’, and ‘bottom’. The app was launched by Jared and Kristin Maughan of Idaho and they say in their FAQs that the idea for Clean Reader came up when their daughter came home from school upset because she had been reading a book in the library that had swear words.
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 app had numerous problems. Romance author Jennifer Porter ran some titles through the app and found that the Maughans had likely just used ‘a find and replace schema to find certain identified profane words and white them out’. Three words for the female, ahem, organ, ‘cunt’, ‘pussy’, and ‘vagina’ itself, were just replaced with the word ‘bottom’ which, as the novelist Joanne Harris points out, is biologically plain wrong and could lead to some confusion, embarrassment and potential legal problems (certainly in Utah).
Speaking of legal problems, the Maughans assure us that ‘We’ve discussed this with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book.’ Retailers thought otherwise and pulled titles. It now appears that CleanReader is going the way of CleanFilm, a similar operation that bowdlerised movie DVDs and is now defunct following a court ruling in 2006.
The Society of Authors said it was concerned ‘that the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution’, with the former ‘the right of an author to object to ‘derogatory’ treatment of a work’, and the latter ‘the right not to have a work falsely attributed to you as author’.
I’m against Clean Reader along the lines of Harris’s argument but I kind of understand where the Maughans are coming from. I use swear words regularly both in person and text, and although I am naturally foul-mouthed I understand that some people find profanity vulgar and even painful to read. I also understand that parents will feel the need to protect their children from bad language, and portrayals of sex and violence (although what the Utah couple don’t seem to understand is that kids will clandestinely seek out the forbidden books precisely because we were told not to).
Arguably it’s good to have some words that are taboo because it adds spice to the language. Terry Pratchett’s hired gun Mr Tulip constantly peppers his sentences with ‘—-ing’ (‘So called because it was an instrument for —-ing young ladies!’) and the effect is funnier and more furious than if the words were completely displayed. George MacDonald Fraser uses dashes in his novel Flash for Freedom, explaining that the text has been censored by Flash’s sister-in-law, Grizel de Rothschild, who ‘paid close attention to oaths’ but ‘left untouched those passages in which Flashman retails his amorous adventures; possibly she did not understand what he was talking about.’
But is this really the end for clean reading? After all, we live in an age of trigger warnings and safe spaces and ‘appropriate language’ – a censorious and fucked up world (that should read ‘fiddlesticks’ if you’re using Clean Reader) where people are banned from public speaking or hounded on Twitter for trivial breaches of linguistic codes. And if you’re an artist who’s seen as ‘going too far’, ‘being too clever’ or, hell’s sake, being ‘needlessly provocative’ – then you will have a reasonable fear of being murdered in broad daylight. So, I repeat, why stop at profanity? There must be an IT guy at a tobacco control charity working on a Kindle app that removes all instances of fictional characters smoking. Another at the NUS, working on an app that deletes all heteronormative, cisgendered or privileged text. The CIA could make an app that removes anything subversive at all.
The digital world is a multiplex of opinion. The consumer has almost infinite choice here. But the consumerist paradox – identified by Jamie Bartlett, in his book The Dark Net, and by radical writer Nick Cohen in this stunning essay – is that it’s never been easier for individuals to lose themselves in a feedback loop where you read only writing that confirms and bolsters what you think you already know. Surely, with web analytics these days, we should be able to make software that reads your personal and political preferences and screens out anything that contradicts with those preferences. If books ever get totally digitised you need never come across anything that could unsettle, offend or disturb you. The customer is always right. My own private Idaho.
Or we could admit to ourselves that the world is not a safe space, and at some point we are going to encounter passages of darkness, that make our principles and beliefs seem like – in Mark Z Danielewski’s phrase – ‘a house of leaves/moments before the wind.’
In the meantime, I think we’ll see many more ways of clean reading.