Clean Writer: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

obscene.gestureDear Clean Reader,

You have the freedom of religion and speech–you can say what you want. I support your freedom to believe what you want and say what you want.

Unfortunately for you, this is a two-way street. I can believe what I want, and I can say what I want.

You have the freedom to not listen. I have the freedom to not listen to you, too.

I don't feel you have the freedom or right to change my words because you don't like what I have to say. I have the freedom to speak–and write–the words I want in my novels. That is my art. That is my story. While I'd love everyone to read and enjoy my stories, I understand not everyone is my audience.

If you don't like the use of the words fuck or bitch, or if you dislike the thought of a witch working with a bitch, my novels aren't for you–and I'm okay with that.

I want you, Reader, to be happy with what you read.

At the same time, I want my book to remain my book. Please don't take away my freedom of speech because you don't like what I'm saying. Don't change my words because you don't like what I have to say. Go ahead and skip scenes–go ahead and ignore what I have to say. But don't change my words. Those were written for a reason. And in my books, I say fuck and bitch and shit and damned and an assortment of other naughty words that may be difficult for you to swallow.

I don't mind if you don't like what I'm saying, but please don't take away my right to say it.

The words in my novels are, and will always be, mine. They are not yours to change as you please, simply because you are not comfortable with what I have to say.

I do not support your application, and I am intend never to do business with you and yours.

Fuck off.

Yours,

RJ Blain.

Some of you might be asking just what that little tirade was about.  Over the past few days, the internet has exploded regarding an app called Clean Reader. Clean Reader, developed by a fundamental Christian who was tired of reading profane language, scrubs novels for naughty words and replaces the terrible, frightening, profane, scary words!!! with harmless ones.

At a glance, I can see why many people would like this feature; profanity in books is difficult to avoid, and many adults don't want their children getting a hold of stories with bad words in them. I grew up with a very colorful language. Amazingly enough, I didn't turn into a monster. To this day, I still have a rather extensive vocabulary of naughty, naughty words.

Chuck Wendig wrote a spectacular piece on Clean Reader, and I agree with it from top to bottom. However, I'd like to go on to make some observations about this app from my perspective.

My first thought: Fuck you, Clean Reader. Bitch is not another word for witch. This is another shining example of why computers can't do your editorial work for you. Bitch has several different meanings and connotations. One is a curse word. One is not. Get over it. Welcome to the English language.

I'm the author of the Witch & Wolf novels. Bitch is a term for female dog. Guess what? Female Fenerec, the wolves in my world, are frequently called bitches. It is a compliment. Calling someone the son of a bitch is also complimentary. It's a nod of respect to the mother, who is a bitch.

They're proud to be bitches–in all ways.

In Winter Wolf and Inquisitor, the main characters at one point or another are referred to as bitches. They're also partnered with witches.

If you exchange bitch for witch, the entire story changes. Two witches are going out for a party instead of a bitch and a witch. A son of a witch is a much different thing than a son of a bitch in my world.

You're not just cleaning up the language of novels when you use this app. You are changing the meaning of the story. You're altering the plot, the characters–and the imagery the author wrote for your enjoyment–or not, if you dislike profanity.

I understand adults wanting to purify the world for their children. It's an instinct to want to nurture and protect the young.

My novels aren't the only stories that will suffer catastrophically from the existence of this application. Take George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, I may not like the writing or the series–but Martin uses traditional and crude language to convey things. Entire characters are hinged on the use of this language. If you take away the bitches and make them witches, the entire story changes. The entire tone of the novel is destroyed.

I may not like Martin's works, but I respect his art–I respect the words he chose. I don't like them. He had the freedom to say and write those words.

I chose not to read that series of his. That's my choice as a reader.

When I initially found out about Clean Reader through a member's only discussion over at SFWA, I was on the fence about the app. I could see some uses for it in very certain contexts. There are some novels where the fuck bomb gets dropped so frequently that it makes my eyes cross and my cheeks twitch. It's annoying–and I don't really feel so many fucks doesn't help express anything about the characters.

But, I respect the living fucks out of the author's right to put those fucks there–and have the book read as it was intended. Black text on a black background, where I could see the words used if I chose–I could live with that. But changing those words to sanitize a novel?

That I can't live with. It's a violation of the author's freedom of speech.

If Clean Reader simply put black text on black background for the naughty words, allowing readers to see those original words, I wouldn't have been so up in arms over this.

The more I thought about it–and the more I read about the concerns of others regarding this app, the more I really disliked the app altogether.

My bitches aren't witches–they're bitches. Some of my bitches are witches, but them being witch witches makes no sense.

Some readers want to stay safely nestled in their comfort zones. I get that. There are books I simply can't read because they take me too far from what I can handle. I put down that book and quietly walk away. Sometimes it is the language–like Martin's novels. The language bothers me, so I do not read it. I find his writing crude, and I simply can't tolerate it enough to get into the story or the characters.

Sometimes it is the content that bothers me… so I choose to avoid those books. That's my choice as a reader. I do not buy what I cannot bring myself to read. I also check the samples of books I buy to make sure the content doesn't bother me. Most books have the language and content present within the sample, so it's not like I can't filter what I don't want to read. I also check reviews for that sort of thing.

If it isn't something I can stomach, I exercise my right as a reader and find some other story to consume.

I don't have children, but if I did, if it's a book I'm willing to read, it includes things I'm willing to discuss with my children, no matter what age they are.

If I had a child and they wanted to learn about the birds and the bees, they'd know. And they'd get my moral lessons along with it–and why what they read doesn't define who they are. That's my job as a parent.

If you don't want your child reading those books, don't let them read those books. You can install a door on your bookshelves and use a lock. Keep the key. That's your right.

But don't take away my right to express myself. I chose those words for a reason. I didn't choose them so someone else could come behind me and change them. If you don't like reading profane language–don't read them. Skip them. Skip the sex scenes (which I don't typically write anyway), skip the graphic violence–choose not to read the books.

But don't change my words because you can't handle what I have to say.

For the record, if Clean Reader only changed the color of the background and text to black out the questionable words, I wouldn't have quite as much of a problem with the existence of the app. My words aren't being changed, and are still available for the reader–in their original form.

But don't change my words because you can't handle what I have to say. So long as you have the freedom to say what you want, so do I, and I will never give you permission to change my words without my consent.

P.S.: The title of this post is incorrect on purpose. If it's okay for the app to change words in my book to whatever the fuck they want, I can change the name of their app. After all, if bitch is witch, then reader can be writer, right?

Leave a Comment:

2 comments
Cy Wyss says March 26, 2015

It might be interesting if they do what they sometimes do in game chat, replace the words with flash-bangs, like $#&%. That sometimes gives hilarious results. But I agree, in general it’s serious infringement to change an author’s words because you don’t like them. How much of it gets replaced before it’s tantamount to plagarism (because the original author’s name no longer belongs on the work but pieces are obviously still theirs)? Although on the other side, some might see it as no worse than beeping out curse words in songs so they can play on the open radio.

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HJ Buell says April 14, 2015

Well said RJ. While not music to everyone’s tastes, Glenn Danzig put the same sentiment down well in his song ‘Mother’.

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