Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Scrubbing bumbles


What would you say if there were an app that changed your book to suit the tastes of particular readers? In other words, the way you wrote the book doesn’t appeal to Reader A, so she fires up this app, which literally changes the words you wrote and published so that she can better enjoy your work.

I say, with respect: Keep your mitts offa my words!

Orwellianly enough, such a thing already exists. It’s called Clean Reader, and what it does is hide any offensive words you might have used (something like, “What kind of asshole would develop an app like Clean Reader?”) and can replace them with less offensive ones (“What kind of prankster would develop…”). Some readers — Mike Huckabee, for instance, if you happened to see him on Bill Maher last week — cringe at the sight of bad words infecting their eyeballs, so the creators of Clean Reader decided it would be okay to offer a way of removing the tainted language even though it means altering the text as approved by the artist. They thought it would also allow their kids to read books that might be a little too raw in their natural state.

What does this mean for the writer of the offensive text? Who gets to decide what’s offensive? Some people can’t abide the words “God damn,” and to a few particularly squeamish folks, even “Hell” is hell on their psyches. Clean Reader has three levels of “cleanliness,” for want of a better term, so you can fine-tune the filter to your own relative sensitivities. Yet, the more I think about it the more I think readers don’t have the standing, let’s call it, to fuck with a writer’s writing. Sorry: to mess with a writer’s writing. Whatever their relative sensitivities.

Now, the author of this piece about the app, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame, is a strong advocate of “anything goes”; i.e., once a work of art is released into the world, it is ripe for manipulation by the consuming public. It can be altered, mashed up, expanded upon, or sampled, and the artist has no say in what becomes of it. He’d like an app that removes all Oxford commas (which irks me because I’m a vigorous proponent) or that lets him “swap clichés for humorous alternatives.” Both of which are pet peeves that bother a lot of readers. But what about the writer who uses cliches to give a character a certain spin or who spices up his prose with creative profanity? Isn’t it more appropriate for readers simply to reject work that they don’t like rather than to change it?

It’s a little like the Blue Jean Bible or bowdlerized Shakespeare. What you get isn’t the Bible or Shakespeare. It’s some strange kitsch monstrosity that’s been forged only to appeal to a small slice of the market that insists on being pandered to.

What if we just go ahead and take all the sex scenes out of Fifty Shades of Grey? Sure, your grandma could read it, but it wouldn’t be Fifty Shades of Grey, now would it?

One reviewer of Yesterday Road, quite fairly, I think, warned potential readers that there is a lot of profanity in it — so much so that she almost stopped reading. But she forged ahead and was glad she did. In other words, she accepted the profanity as part of the package, and, indeed, I used the profanity in order to characterize the world my innocent protagonist, Jack Peckham, was getting himself into. I also used it with humor in mind, so that the reader would see a wink and a nod rather than feeling assaulted by strong language.

The idea that there’s an app that would have removed all my F words — so lovingly sprinkled, so carefully placed — makes me want to stick a #$%&*@ broom handle up Clean Reader’s $@%^#*&!

Writers put their work out into the world in the condition they want it to be consumed. The words are the ones the author hand-picked. Think about it: Mamet sounds like Mamet because he uses the F word like parmesan on spaghetti. It’s disrespectful to even contemplate a cleaned-up version of American Buffalo for the lily-livered.

In other words, if you don’t like the F word, don’t read Mamet. It’s that simple.

And if you want your kid to be able to read big-people’s books, don’t alter the books; educate the kid.

12 comments on “Scrubbing bumbles

  1. islandeditions
    March 31, 2015

    Has anyone considered there may be legal aspects to altering an author’s intended text? I haven’t seen this angle addressed yet. And, yes, your last point is the best approach. Educate readers. Good post, Kevin!

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2015

      They claim their lawyers have assured them they’re okay legally because they’re not altering the text, only the display. Sounds iffy to me!

  2. sknicholls
    March 31, 2015

    I read a copyright lawyer’s take on it and he’s saying it appears to be perfectly legal because the reader is doing it for personal consumption and not to resell. I don’t like it. If I do use profanity, like I did in my crime novel, I expect it to stay where I put it. It helps in defining my character’s attitude. There is much less in my historical fiction because people less frequently used it publicly.

  3. 1WriteWay
    March 31, 2015

    I think the Clean Reader app is gratuitously disgusting. Why would a reader bother when there are more than enough “clean” books available for their limited reading pleasure?

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2015

      Exactly! Most readers who’d use such a thing wouldn’t be attracted to books known to be loaded with F bombs. What am I missing?

      • 1WriteWay
        April 1, 2015

        I don’t know. I really don’t understand why anyone would bother, except maybe those folks who like to ban books. Maybe they’re into mutilation, too, cuz that’s what that app would do to books.

  4. Phillip McCollum
    April 1, 2015

    As a serious tool, ridiculous… But I have this soft spot for those movies they air on network television and completely dub over the curse words. The results are often gut busting! “Frankly my dear, I just don’t give a ham!”

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 2, 2015

      Ha! True. I remember the gut-busting-est one of all, when “Do The Right Thing” was shown on TV and all the mother f&^#$ings were change to “micky ficky.” I still use that one!

  5. cinthiaritchie
    April 8, 2015

    Oh, for fuck’s sake, what is the expression? If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Stuff like this totally burns me up. In fact, it makes me want to use more offensive words in my writing, lol. Nice post, Kevin.

  6. Pingback: Tell me what you want, what you really, really want | Cinthia Ritchie

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This entry was posted on March 31, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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