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Clean Reader and the Art of Swearing
March 28, 2015

Update: Good news from the front lines! You can stick your ******* Clean Reader app up your ****: Authors’ backlash forces Christian couple to remove all ebooks from app that bleeps out all the naughty words has all the details.

I’ve been meaning to do a blog post about swearing in fiction for a while. Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire is about a twenty-something criminal so giving her a potty mouth seemed like the natural thing to do. Most of the swearing she does is in her head and used for comedic effect.

I’ve had very few complaints about the swearing. These people didn’t have a problem with Molly being a criminal though. This amuses me.

And that’s FINE. You can’t please everyone. People who mind swearing and sex in their reading material are not my target demographic. I realize that I may be shutting out some potential readers by including swearing and a bit of sex in my books. My book wouldn’t be my book without swearing and the occasional sex joke.

And then, just this morning, Twitter exploded.

Chocolat author Joanne Harris expressed her distaste for an app called “Clean Reader” (I will not link to it because screw that.), an app that sanitizes an ebook by replacing profanities with “clean” versions. Users can dial up or down the level of profanity. Word has it that this app also gets rid of body parts in steamy romance scenes. Because genitals are icky!

(Why buy a romance if you’re going to tidy up the best parts? Jeez.)

Lots of authors have been expressing their likewise disgust for the app since this specific Joanne Harris article came out. I adore this post from Chuck Wendig, an author who basically has turned swearing into an art form. His article is fantastic and you should probably read it before/after you’ve read this one. (Also go read Harris’s email exchange with the makers of the app. She is eloquent and her points are brilliant.)

The F-bomb is dropped exactly 37 times in my book. I looked it up. Almost all of these instances are used for comedic effect or to make an exciting, thrilling action scene more real. My first draft probably had double that amount but I only kept the really good ones. If that word is removed from the sentence I put it in, it would be less funny and/or impactful. How do I know this? Because I likely considered other words before using it. It’s almost like… oh, I dunno…

WRITERS USE SPECIFIC WORDS ON PURPOSE. The fact that there’s now an app that can go in and change our words we crafted into submission to something else without permission is insane. Unethical, maybe. Possibly illegal. If not, it’s definitely disrespectful to the writer’s vision and borderline copyright infringing.

It’s definitely a concern, as evident by the number of writers freaking out on Twitter today.

The topic came up in a writers group I’m in and, well, the discussion ended up in a place that made my blood boil. Almost everyone was disgusted by this app and what the app is made for. Except for one person who got a bit defensive, directly at me because I was being snarky about it.

“Did a swear word ever hurt anyone, child or otherwise?” Then I made the comment that I think it’s funny when parents try to protect their children from swearing. (“Are the kids homeschooled? Are they banned from TV, movies and the internet? Do you keep them in a cupboard under the stairs like Harry Potter?”)

Someone responded to me by saying involved parents monitor their children closely, TV intake and internet usage. This person compared Clean Reader to the ratings provided for TV shows and movies and asked me to explain the difference between Clean Reader and these ratings “if you’re so smart.”

(I know, right? Totally unnecessary.)

Several other people in the group pointed out that a rating system is meant to aim programming at a certain audience. Some stations air whatever they want during all times of day and none of the content is ever sanitized in this way. So, no, the two aren’t comparable at all. In fact, I would be fine with a book rating system. I would happily slap a PG-14 on my book write-up, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. I mean, I already mention that my character “knocks boots” with her roommate on the back cover, so you know there’s some pre-marital hanky-panky ahead. If putting swears on the back cover was kosher, I would’ve done that too.

Those who skim the book in a bookstore or read a free sample on Amazon will find the first F-bomb on page one. This was not done accidentally.

But back to the comment about parenting. I understand that this app is partly for children. I thought about my own childhood and considered how protected I was from the perils of swearing and sexual content in movies and whatnot and how it has affected me as an adult.

I don’t really remember being shielded from light swearing in movies or TV. They didn’t let me watch R-rated movies until it was age appropriate, although I do admit I watched Rocky Horror Picture Show a little early. I would say my parents were pretty relaxed about monitoring my media consumption. I cursed as a teen and I curse as an adult, in socially appropriate situations, I mean.

Plus… There’s evidence that cursing is therapeutic.  So there’s that.

All of this and yet… I’m not a murdering psychopath. I’m a published author, I have a cool 9-5 job, I have a good relationship with my family, I don’t do drugs or drink, I’m engaged to a really nice guy and I do volunteer work with the local animal shelter on occasion. My brother, who had a similar consumption of media growing up, has a good job, is married to a lovely gal and is about to become a father any day now. It’s almost like my parents did a good job with my brother and I.

Moral of the story to that person who said involved parents monitor their children closely: there’s more to parenting than helicoptering kids and keeping them safe from the big bad world out there. Maybe trusting them is important too.

Books are often times a mirror to the world as seen through the eyes of the author. Skewing that view to match a sanitized world that doesn’t exist is disrespectful to the author. It closes the door to the author’s world. Isn’t that why we escape into books in the first place? To experience lives and worlds besides our own?

Photo by nickistock

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Jillianne Hamilton writes delightful historical fiction and historical romance featuring rebellious ladies and happy endings.

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praise for jillianne

Jillianne has done a fabulous job creating a loveable and down-to-earth heroine in Molly Miranda and followed through with a really strong plotline packed full of twists and turns.
Holly at Bookaholic Confessions
Hamilton handles the story with a deft touch, balancing action, laugh-out-loud zingers and romance with zippy pacing and a character you can really root for.
Author Kat Ross
I thought the author's sense of humor was so funny! I found myself giggling out loud.
Linda on Amazon