Choosing My Words…or The Clean Read App’s Quest to Whitewash Creativity

A friend asked me to share my thoughts on why I am shaking upset with the Clean Read App, its users/defenders, and Page Foundry (the storefront service that’s building a store for the app’s users and including all books listed with that service, whether they’ve opted in or not. They do allow you to opt out. I just happen to think they should instead make it an OPT IN. Needless to say, I de-listed with Page Foundry this morning, though I neither encourage nor discourage others from doing so. We all do what’s best for our own work.). Bear with me. It’s a bit long…

For writers, words are our tools. We use them, and choose them, for the effect they produce…whether it be to shock, to make one laugh, to express characterization, morality, theme. They’re used for description, dialogue, inner dialogue. Removing certain words, no matter how personally objectionable, changes the work and the intention of the author as much as telling a painter, “We’re only going to black out certain brush strokes. We’re only removing the color RED. We’re not changing the painting.”

Yes, you damn well ARE.

I understand some may not like to read profanity. That’s fine. I have NO ISSUES with that. Don’t buy the book. Don’t read it. In fact, If it makes you feel better, every time the book comes up in conversation, feel free to tell everyone around, “I won’t read that. It’s garbage, filled with profanity!” Shout it from the rooftops. But don’t you dare change MY WORDS, MY INTENT, MY CREATION.

Some of the imaginary friends who populate my work will not swear. It’s simply not a part of who they are. I have others who use curses like a shield–because, yeah…CHARACTER. Could I have chosen another way to express that? Something more elegant? More aesthetically pleasing? Sure. But I chose not to.

I CHOSE…because it is my fucking book.

Don’t like it? Go write your own. Go on. I dare you. Sweat, bleed, force yourself to sit in that chair day after day and put thousands of words one after the other. Cry. CURSE. Love it. Hate it. Revise it. Shape it. Obsess over it. Then go back in for more, until it is as close to what you envisioned as you can get it. Then release it into the wild and harden your heart to the praise and the hate, because both are toxic enough to keep you from sitting down and doing it again.

Once you’ve done that, come on back and tell me that it’s A-OK for someone to come along behind you and mangle those words by whitewashing them to fit some constructed ideal of decency.

Am I emotional about this? You bet I am. I’m furious–with the creators of the app, with its users, with Page Foundry, and with the thought-police culture that is slinking in and swarming us like a living cockroach blanket in the name of enforced morality.

And to those who say, “But I deserve to participate in current culture. I just want to be able to read the same things as my friends.” Okay. Fine. Then read it. And then DISCUSS with them what made you uncomfortable. Discuss why you think the author made the choices she did, and the effect of those choices on your experience, and how it shaped the narrative and your impression of characters. Use your discomfort to THINK, parse through your view of the world, and then either challenge or reaffirm your world view. Don’t cower behind a construct that is designed to keep you from seeing with your own eyes, experiencing with your own heart, deciding with your own mind.

Because that’s the damn point of reading. Yep, even the stuff that would never qualify as earth-shaking fiction. Even the stuff that’s pure entertainment.

Words have the power to change us. And I’m betting the good people behind the app are already very much aware of that. Keep that in mind when you defend it.

3 thoughts on “Choosing My Words…or The Clean Read App’s Quest to Whitewash Creativity

  1. I hadn’t really heard about this except peripherally and I think it didn’t really penetrate my consciousness what the app was…so after I read your post I looked it up. And I have to say, I’m in complete agreement with you. Especially the part about reading it and actually, you know, FACING one’s discomfort.

    The creators seem to be under the impression that authors should be happy about what they’re doing because we’re going to “sell more books.” As nice as rent money is, I would much rather have the integrity of my work stay intact than sell a bunch more copies.

    (Also, apparently they created the app because they were looking for more challenging books for their 4th-grader and ended up choosing one with “some significant swear words” in it. (But I mean, who knows what they consider “significant”; it’s pretty vague.) And I’m like…ok, A) you can review the books your kids read before they read them, B) if you can’t do that (or even if you can), you can discuss with your children after they read it about the swearing and other objectionable content and, you know, TALK with your kids, C) if both these things are impossible for you you could ask your local librarian about “appropriate” books that will challenge your child’s reading levels. Like, there are OPTIONS that don’t involve sanitizing existing works.)


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