Monday, April 13, 2015

How Clean is Your Reader?

The Clean Reader controversy has played itself out—I’m behind the curve again, as usual—though it did get me to thinking about what the perceived need for that app, and the controversy surrounding it, means in the reader-writer relationship.

I have commented more than once on foul language in books; my opinion—for what it’s worth—is well-known. (Well, as well-known as I am, which isn’t saying much.) I work hard on the language in my books, so I felt compelled to send a note of my own to the Clean Reader folks:

I recently became aware of your app through Facebook, and, as an author, was curious. Investigation changed my outlook from “curious” to “appalled.”

Where did you acquire the ability—or the authority—to arbitrarily edit my work? Everything I write
goes through multiple drafts; I labor over, and consider, each word. Alternatives were considered for every “cocksucker” and “fuck” (in any of its forms) I used, just as every other word was assessed. When I chose to include what some would consider foul language, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive; that’s exactly what that character meant to say. To alter it is to alter the character, which is to alter the book in a fundamental way.

Those who may be offended by my choices in language have a clear, and better, choice than your app: don’t buy the book, and I am happy to advise them not to do so.

In my research, I came across the following comment from Clean Reader to author Joanne Harris:
“Many of the people who we’ve heard from that are using Clean Reader say they’re willing to miss out on a little bit of context in order to avoid reading some profanity. Ideally our app will open the door to more readers/customers to consume a more diverse selection of books.”

This ignores a salient aspect of oral and written communication: context is everything. Identical words said to a small child and an adult can be comforting, or insulting. To be more specific, there is the word “ass.” I would not be surprised to find Clean Reader changes that to “backside,” or something equally innocuous. How’s that going to play, when someone learns Samson killed a thousand men with the jawbone of a backside?

Author Chuck Wendig tried to play Devil’s advocate with this comment:
“You may say, ‘But I want to read your books, just without all that nasty business’."

Then you don't want to read my books. My books include all that nasty business. My books are often about that nasty business. You want to read your idea of what my books would be like if you could write them.

Clean Reader capitulated later that day. I take full credit.

Still, the controversy got me to thinking. I’m an argumentative and stubborn bastard by nature, but I genuinely do not want to offend anyone through my writing. That doesn’t mean I’m changing anything, but I’d be happy to let folks know they might not like what’s in there. For myself, I’d be willing to post ratings on my books to alert people. The Beloved Spouse and I came up with a system I like a lot:

Network Television: Relatively innocuous language. Sanitized sex and violence.
Basic Cable: Similar sex standards to network. More graphic violence. Language can be anything except “fuck,” in any form.
Subscription Cable: Anything goes.

The problem there in that most of my books would cover the spectrum: Network TV for sex (with a couple of exceptions), Basic Cable for violence, and Subscription Cable for language. What would work better—for me, at least—is something similar to what TV uses now. We’ve all heard and seen the disclaimers for Justified: This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17; the screen displays “TV-MA,” with L, S, and V as needed to designate language, sex, and violence. (Editor’s Note: If you haven’t seen the Justified disclaimers, what the fuck’s wrong with you? That’s a great show.)

I’m not promoting censorship—as my response to Clean Reader should clearly show—but I also don’t want to offend anyone unnecessarily. (I do it on purpose often enough.) I’d be willing to let people know in advance my book might be a risky proposition for them. My choice, mind you; I don’t want anyone telling me I have to. Along this line, I am seriously considering placing something like this on the back cover copy of the next self-published Nick Forte book: Be advised: This book contains strong language, and violence. (The next Forte has no sex worth mentioning, much to Forte’s chagrin.) I have also chosen to devote my fifteen minutes of Malice Domestic to (what I hope will be) an interactive discussion with readers on the topic.

What do you think?

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