The latest app for the discerning reader is “Clean Reader”, a handy little bit of software that goes through your favourite literature and removes all that unpleasant blue language. The consequences of this app are nothing short of spectacular. You will finally be able to show the works of Chuck Palahniuk to your mum. Biology students will find their work much easier as now the only body parts that exist between people’s knees and their bellybuttons are the “bottom” and in extreme cases, the “groin”. The New Testament will now star the brilliantly named Geez Gosh, because what the Bible’s been lacking all this time is a character who sounds like he’s from the Beano.
And yes, some say that this is ruining great works of literature, taking words that were precisely chosen by an artist for a specific reason and letting a not very bright robot cram the vocabulary of Just William in their place (Does Just William survive the Clean Reader intact? I haven’t checked).
There are writers who are angry about this new development. Chuck Wendig is currently holding the record for most imaginatively sweary response with his post Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters. Cory Doctorow, while also believing that using Clean Reader is dumb, argues equally eloquently that “authorial consent” actually doesn’t matter so much. After all, you can buy a book and go through it with a marker pen blotting out all the swears and nobody will mind, or want to borrow books off you. Wendig argues that this would at least involve reading the swears, but the fact is the options Clean Reader opens up to us were always there. With easily available (and free) software it’s a piece of… let’s say cake, to convert any ebook into a PDF, drop the PDF into Word, do a find and replace and then convert it back into an ebook again.
This is standard Death of the Author stuff. Once you’ve written a thing and put it out into the world, barring a few flimsy copyright laws to prevent other people making money off you or denying you credit, people can do whatever the hell they like with your work, legally and morally, even if it’s a terrible idea. Clean Reader’s blue cheese metaphor is apt, even if what their app does is less like hand picking the blue cheese out of every meal, and more like having a machine dump a pint of mayonnaise over it.
There are those that argue this is a slippery slope, but freak those people, let’s slide! The problem with Clean Reader isn’t that it clumsily graffitis all over great pieces of prose. It’s that it does so in the most boring and predictable manner possible. Here’s the next batch of e-reader apps I want to download.
The obvious one. This will go through any book replacing all the “heck” with “hell”, every “gee whizz” with a “for fuck’s sake” and will occasionally just insert the word “bollocks” into any given sentence. Like the Clean Reader, this will be a customisable app with a sliding scale that allows you to dictate what percentage of the text you want replaced with eye-watering profanity, from “a bit sweary” to “I just want to read the word ‘shitbuckets’ 100,000 times”.
If you’re anything like me you mainly read books for the nudity, and so this app will open up a whole range of books that were previously left uninteresting by how clothed the protagonists were. It’ll be a job sorting out the vocabulary replacements for this, but essentially it will replace any mention of clothes with the words “bare flesh” and “skin”, while putting the word “naked” in front of any proper noun. Admittedly, this will result in some surreal continuity issues sometimes, but Robinson Crusoe is still a great work of literature despite the fact its hero strips off his clothes, goes for a swim and fills his pockets with biscuits, so in the long run I don’t think anyone will mind.
A little while ago there was a craze for taking public domain works and filling them with geeky genre stuff. The trend was kicked off by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and continued in Sense, Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and reached its vomit-inducingly unnecessary climax in War of the Worlds, Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, because a book where a giant robot smashes a person to death against a tree just has no appeal for violence-hungry modern audiences. However, this still involved a labour intensive process of someone going through the original text and occasionally writing some bits of zombie violence, while also leaving all non-public domain works tragically out of reach.
This app solves those problems by simply searching for any paragraph breaks in the text and inserting one of several randomly chosen descriptions of human-on-zombie combat.
On the other hand, the fact is that even if you remove the swear words, a lot of fiction is still extremely stressful. Clean Reader deals with the swear words, but that still leaves the violence, the sexual content (it’s amazing how graphic you can be even with just the words “groin” and “bottom” at your disposal), subversive ideas and characters facing conflicts which they must then struggle to overcome, often with a great deal of suspense and emotional distress.
Calm Reader will solve this problem by taking the ebook of your choice and substituting the entire text for that of The Little Book of Calm. This not only protects you from a potentially upsetting reading experience, but also makes many books a much shorter and more manageable read.
Clean Reader was invented because the creator’s daughter came home and was “sad” that a book she’d been enjoying contained some profanity. Ignoring for the moment that I’ve never encountered a child who’s reacted this way to discovering a swear word in a book, and that if she’s upset by the number of swear words in fiction she’s going to absolutely freak when she discovers people, there are probably bigger issues she’ll encounter as she continues to read. Like the fact that the vast majority of books out there are going to be about (white, heterosexual, cis-gender) guys.
But since gender is primarily displayed through pronouns, this is a pretty easy fix for an app like this. It’s already happening. Take this example of one parent who, while reading their daughter The Hobbit, decided to switch Bilbo’s gender pronouns. It turns out Bilbo makes an absolutely fantastic female protagonist! There’s also, moving out of books for a moment, this guy who hacked his daughter’s version of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker to make Link a girl. Or, without any tech at all, there are all these people who’ve decided to read the Harry Potter books while reading Hermione as black. Yes, an app like this opens up the doorway for the terrible human beings that got upset when they discovered a sympathetic character in The Hunger Games is brown, but surely that’s the point? This sort of app is a tool that doesn’t have any values in and of itself. It’s what you use it for that makes it good or bad. It just so happens that what Clean Reader uses it for is to make books blander, poorer and worse written.
Chris Farnell is an author whose work has been described as containing “plenty of ripe profanity”. His anthology, Dirty Work, is sadly not available through Clean Reader, but you should feel free to go through it removing all the swearing and replacing all his characters with wombles.