Okay, so not writers themselves, but their work, which is arguably the same thing, if not worse. Yes, thanks to the Clean Reader app, you too can remove any and all words you deem offensive from any e-book. (Yet another reason I don’t like e-books).

The simple fact of the matter is that writers choose every word for a reason. Each and every word. I almost never use profanity in my work. My 86,000 word manuscript includes less than 10 instances, but each and every one was chosen for a specific reason.

The app, which includes three settings – Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean – was created by parents Jared and Kirsten Maughan of Twin Falls, Idaho. As the Washington Post article explains:

The idea came to them when they were trying to find books for their precocious fourth grade daughter. “In order to challenge her as a reader,” Jared says, “we had to present her with books that were a little bit older.” But after starting a book she had checked out of the library, she told her parents, “It had some pretty significant swear words in it.”

If a four-year old is precocious enough to actually tell her parents that a book “had some pretty significant swear words in it,” one would think she would be able to handle those words. We all have our own tastes and that’s a wonderful thing. If a book offend you so much, however, don’t read them. I, for one, deliberately avoid many writings, including those that are racist, homophobic, outright pornography, and those that include sparkly vampires. Don’t neuter a writer’s work to suit your tastes. Take it or leave it and I’ll do the same.

Remember, words are not tangible things. They only exist because we decided they exist and they only have the power that we give them. That said, though, we can imbue them with remarkable power as Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed demonstrated on an episode of the documentary Fry’s Planet Word. The segment consists of them holding their hands in ice water until they can’t stand it. They do this twice, the first time they’re able to say any one word that isn’t a swear, and in the other they can swear. Spoiler alert: saying the word fuck is an effective pain-killer. Unfortunately I can’t find that clip online, but here’s Blessed from the same segment enjoying a good bit of swearing as only he can.

But to get back to literature. If an author wants to release a “clean” version of their work that’s up to them and their publisher, not the reader. Now, discussions like the one about the use of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn are well worth having, but simply cutting it out does nothing to further our understanding of anything, let alone racism. What it does is allow us to ignore why we react so strongly to some words and not to others. That’s the better discussion for a classroom – what’s really behind it when we’re offended? If these words are offensive, all the more important we know their history and how they’ve evolved over time.

Now, the app says it substitutes an applicable word to keep the context. As a writer that’s downright offensive to me. The first thing that comes to mind is Gone With the Wind. (For contemporary examples of the app in action see the WP article). Admittedly, I haven’t read it but we all know the famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The line in the novel omits the “frankly” so it reads, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” The use of the word damn was highly controversial in the film but, thankfully, made it through. What other word could have had the same impact? The same context, yes, but impact, no. Not even close. Director David Selznick campaigned for months in order for it to be included. The preferred line? “Frankly my dear, I just don’t care.”

Other versions included: “Frankly my dear…”

  • “it makes my gorge rise.”
  • “my indifference is boundless.”
  • “I don’t give a hoot.”
  • “nothing could interest me less.”

Yikes. All around yikes.

If something offends you, perhaps it’s better to take a long look at yourself and just why you find it so offensive. I completely understand why certain things are offensive, which is why I used the term “N-word” earlier in this post rather than writing out the actual word. But pretending a word doesn’t exist is just plain silly. And childish. Don’t neuter writers. If you don’t like the language of a book don’t fucking read it. Go write your own fucking book.

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