You Have the Right to be Stupid

UPDATED March 27, 9:36 AM: New information about Clean Reader’s status as a book reseller has come to light … see footnote.
UPDATED AGAIN March 27, 10:43 AM: The point has been raised that Clean Reader is marketed as a way to censor books for kids, which raises a lot of thorny issues … see footnote.

A lot of online ink has already been spilled over a controversial new app called Clean Reader. It aims to get naughty words out of your eBooks, and it works by substituting these words with “cleaner” alternatives. “Fuck,” for example, gets replaced by “freak,” which would make Freaks and Geeks a totally different TV show if this were reversed. It also replaces “Jesus Christ,” apparently, which would probably make The Bible a confusing read, especially with all the “damns” and “hells” in there.

In response to the existence of this absurd thing, authors are sharpening their pitchforks en masse. Nothing gets an author’s back up quite like censorship, to the point that even the insinuation of it causes blood to boil. Some are corresponding with Clean Reader, ripping the app developer a new one and demanding to have their books de-listed (Clean Reader, for the record, seems to be taking these requests seriously and acting on them). Others are posting persuasive legal arguments on why Clean Reader’s actions are against the spirit of the law, if not the letter. Here’s a good summary by Chuck Wendig, a man whose books would be rendered completely illegible by the app.

I’ll summarize my view right off the bat: I think Clean Reader is fucking stupid (yes, the wording there is intentional). And of course I am opposed to censorship of creative works. But what Clean Reader does is not illegal, immoral, or any of the other hyperbole being thrown around right now.

Let’s break this down, point by point:

Why Clean Reader is Stupid

Books contain words. These words were put in the book deliberately by the author, and published deliberately by the publisher. Choice of words is, quite obviously, the key means of creative expression in a written work, which is why we have so many of these wonderful little words to choose from when writing. Written language enables us weirdo writer-types to express a single thought in ten thousand different ways, and it’s the aggregate whole of these word choices that give a book its tone, its mood, its depth and subtlety.

Sometimes we use words that are objectionable to certain people in certain contexts. Those words, like all others in the book, were chosen deliberately, and with a specific intent. Perhaps they’re there to add realism to dialogue. Maybe the weight of these controversial words is wielded to convey tone, or to hammer home an important point. Or, believe it or not, the author might have chosen that word because it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. We’re not here to cuddle you and feed you ice cream. We’re here to tell a story. And sometimes that story gets nasty and ugly. If it was all ice cream and cuddles, you’d be bored with it by the third page.

As far as software goes, Clean Reader isn’t very clever. Its core functionality is a basic search-and-replace algorithm that finds “dirty” words and replaces them with less offensive (i.e. bland) alternatives. Jennifer Porter did a fine job of reverse engineering Clean Reader’s algorithm using a few romance novels as test subjects; her findings are here, and they’re painfully funny.

The app’s goal is to take a book that would otherwise be too risque for certain audiences and sanitize it for their protection. Not only, as Jennifer Porter’s post proves, does it utterly fail at this, the goal itself is pointless and impossible.

An offensive word is offensive because of its meaning, and because of the intent of the person using it. Many of the words we consider the most offensive have deep historical context behind them — they evoke ugliness from the darkest corners of our past. Using these words is a potent way of expressing a dark thought. But when you replace the word with a milder synonym, you’re not removing the context or the intent, and you’re barely altering the meaning. That dark thought is still there, lurking in the shadows. You didn’t kill it. It’s hiding right there, behind the bland word you chose. All you’re doing is softening the language, and language is what makes a written work special.

Example:

“Eat shit and die, motherfucker,” said Ronald McDonald, right before punching the Burger King in the dick.

… versus …

“Eat poo and die, jerk,” said Ronald McDonald, right before punching the Burger King in the groin.

What did that really accomplish? It bland-ified the text a bit, turning Ronald into a 60’s Batman villain, but the intent of the character (and the author) remains the same. He’s angry, and he wants to hurt the Burger King, so he lashes out and punches him in a sensitive area. If the first line is offensive, why isn’t the second line? The exact same thing happens to the same characters for the same reason. The only real difference is that the first line is evocative and on point, while the second line is … just shitty writing.

Clean Reader doesn’t make potentially offensive books safe. A find-and-replace algorithm is never going to be able to do that. There is, and has always been, one solution to dealing with a book that offends you: don’t read it. Mangling the original text to suit your puritanical tastes is like putting ice cubes in a good pint of beer: it’s still beer — all you’ve done is water it down and ruin it.

Why Clean Reader Has the Right to be Stupid

Let’s play make-believe for a minute. Let’s pretend you own a print copy of a book, but you’re afraid to read it because it might contain naughty words that make you cry. You decide you want to take that book and white out the naughty words, then replace them with squeaky clean alternates. But you quickly realize this is an arduous, and perilous task: by the very act of searching for bad words, you are inadvertently reading them, and we simply can’t have that, can we?

On your way to the non-ethnic chain restaurant you go to every day for lunch, you happen upon my new shop called “Gentle Matt’s Book Sanitizer.” You are intrigued, and wander in. I explain that for a fee, I read your paper book and white out all offensive words, then replace them with clean words. Thrilled, you leave your book with me, and I sanitize it while you eat your bowl of broth and dry toast at the restaurant. When you come back, you’re so enthralled by the result that you ask for more sanitized books. I take down a list of books you’re interested in, order them from a bookstore, sanitize them when they arrive, and bill you for the cost of the books plus my fee.

This is essentially the Clean Reader business model, in analog form. It’s just as stupid and pointless as Clean Reader, and also just as legal and above-board. You might turn your nose up at it, or be upset or offended that a business like this exists, but they’re fully entitled to be doing what they’re doing, as absurd as it is.

Some contend that Clean Reader is altering books without the consent of the author or publisher, which puts them in sketchy legal/moral territory. There are two things wrong with this. First, Clean Reader is not altering the books at all. The book file on your device is intact — the filter is applied in real time when you read. If Clean Reader is breaking the law, so is every ad blocker and browser extension in existence (for more on this, see Cory Doctorow’s post). Second, even if Clean Reader were permanently altering the book, that’s their right. The consumer has paid for the book, and is simply asking Clean Reader to apply a stupid filter for idiots to it.

Despite what many of my fellow authors contend, I don’t believe Clean Reader is interfering with my rights as an author. If someone wants to alter a copy of my book that they paid me for, I’m not going to stop them. It’s theirs. They can delete every odd-numbered chapter. They can read it backwards. They can replace Carlos’s name with “Fancy Unicorn Princess.” Actually, I fully support that last one.

If Clean Reader were altering my book and then selling it, that’s a whole other story, and I’d definitely not be okay with that. That’s the basic principle of copyright: you can’t sell copies of an eBook without the copyright holder’s consent, altered or not. As I said before, Clean Reader’s not doing that. They’re buying books from an eBook distributor (Page Foundry), delivering the file to the customer, and then applying an optional filter that the customer can disable at any time. The rights holders get compensated. The customer gets the eBook they paid for. And nobody’s rights are violated, not even a tiny bit.

Maybe you agree with me that Clean Reader isn’t breaking any laws or violating any rights, but you still hate them and want them to die. That’s fine. As I said, I think Clean Reader sucks a bag of festering dicks, and I’d prefer it if the service didn’t exist at all. I’d also prefer it if this stuff didn’t exist at all, but I’m not going to interfere with anyone’s right to sell it, or rub it all over their stupid skin.

And if you’d prefer to read a version of my books that have no naughty words, go ahead. I think you’d be ruining the book for no good reason, but it’s not up to me to tell you how to read a book you paid for with your own money. In any case, it’s a moot point, since none of my books are available via Clean Reader (I don’t deal with their distributor).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to work on the Fancy Unicorn Princess edition of the Winterwakers series.


 

*UPDATE [2015-03-27 09:20]: It’s no longer possible to buy eBooks directly from the Clean Reader app. Page Foundry announced yesterday they pulled their bookstore from Clean Reader. Meanwhile, Clean Reader claims they’re the ones who asked Page Foundry to shut down the bookstore.

Interesting. This seems like a big loss for Clean Reader; I’m guessing the app is now strictly a filter that works on eBooks you’ve purchased elsewhere. If that’s the case, any argument against Clean Reader’s continued existence is moot. They’re not selling altered books (not that they were in the first place, but now the issue is crystal clear) thus no author should have any legitimate claim against them.

UPDATE [2015-03-27 10:45]: It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter by John Degen and Margaret Atwood (!!!) that Clean Reader is marketed as a tool parents and teachers can use to censor books before letting their kids read them (i.e. without the knowledge or consent of the child). I hadn’t considered that facet when writing this piece. This puts us into “rights of the parent vs. rights of the child” territory, which is a murky swamp of complex legal and moral issues. I admit to being out of my depth on that front, but I will say unequivocally that any parent or teacher who thinks this is a good idea is a moron. As for whether Clean Reader should be pilloried for supporting this practice, I’ll leave that to the experts. My instinct is to say it’s akin to punishing the knife, and not the murderer who wields it, but there may be some subtlety that I’m missing here.


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