‘Victory for dirt’

Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, has always been my hero, now more than ever since she led the charge against the The Clean Reader, an app which enabled customers to “read books, not profanity”. A filter could be applied to ebooks purchased from its online store, which exchanged words that were judged to be offensive with alternatives.

Joanne HarrisJoanne Harris. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Explaining in The Guardian why she felt the filter was “censorship, not by the state, but by a religious minority”, Harris said it “misunderstand[s] the nature of fiction writing” and gives a “toxic message” to young people.

The app is being pulled and Harris claimed that it is a “small victory for the world of dirt”.

Harris, of course, isn’t the only author who objected. Among the many others is someone whose bio reads: “Chris Farnell is an author whose work has been described as containing “plenty of ripe profanity”. His anthology, Dirty Work, is sadly not available through Clean Reader, but you should feel free to go through it removing all the swearing and replacing all his characters with wombles.”

He has come up with other apps he thinks should be made available, including Dirty Reader, which will go through any book replacing “heck” with “hell”, etc. and Naked Reader, which will essentially replace any mention of clothes with the words “bare flesh” and “skin”.

I like him already.

While the protests ended with the app apparently being pulled. someone else connected with it is talking about “updates” so that implies a continued zombie existence.

Dan Meadows commented on the site where The Clean Reader was originally put up that he finds “the attitude many writers have shown here to be very off-putting. I wouldn’t use it, I’d make a case for not using it to anyone who does but I’m not going to tell someone who paid for the book how they’re allowed to read it. They bought it, they own it as far as I’m concerned. If they choose to use a glorified find/replace text, knock yourself out. Getting into dangerous territory here claiming the right to determine what people do with the things they’ve bought after they’ve bought them. Where does that stop, exactly? Throwing up both middle fingers with a big old “F#&$ you!” to folks with concerns over profanity is pretty egregiously arrogant and disrespectful too.

It’s disrespectful to insist on the integrity of one’s own work? In the face of pure primness and ideological bias?

I’m writing for readers whom I assume to be mature enough to choose what they want to read. They may not choose to read my books, but that’s their choice. I am not going to write goshdarned vanilla pablum because someone cannot handle a swear word in context.

Please note, it starts here. From here on, it gets worse. What if someone does not wish to read a book with a gay character because it conflicts with their ideology? What then? Is there an app that can EXCISE AN ENTIRE CHARACTER, a whole plotline, which a reader might find unsavoury?

Isn’t it just easier to find other reading material, people? Stuff that won’t offend your delicate sensibilities? Here’s a novel idea – DON’T READ THE STUFF YOU DON’T LIKE.

My response to Dan Meadows was this:

As an author with more than a dozen books out there… here’s the thing. There’s silent contract out there between the Writer and the Reader. The Writer writes the story that the Writer writes, and that is the thing that the Writer puts into the contract. The Reader has several options at their end of the contract. They choose to buy the book, or they do not.

If they do not, this is where it ends and the silent contract is voided – the Reader does not choose to take up their side of it. The reasons for this may include the use of profanity in the book which the Reader does not wish to see or interact with. That’s fine. That’s the reader’s choice. If the Reader has particular requirements of their books (like for instance no swear words) it is UP TO THE READER to find books which match those criteria. Nobody is forcing any Reader ANYWHERE to pick up a book they find offensive in any way.

If they buy the book, they have three options. They can read the book and like it, in which case the contract is fulfilled from both ends and everything is just great. They can read the book and go, meh, I’ve read better – in which case the contract is fulfilled because the Writer provided a story, the Reader wasn’t particularly enthralled by the story, and there was simply a mismatch of tastes and intent. Or they can read (or not finish, as it were, that’s option 3A) the book because they virulently hate it, and in this case (assuming they have a valid reason for hating it) they’re perfectly free to go out and tell everyone what a terrible horrible book this is.

THERE IS NO OPTION 4. You don’t, as a Reader, get to rewrite an existing book according to your sensibilities, beliefs, or ideology. Your choices are to like the thing, to not like the thing and yell about about it to like-minded friends, or NOT TO READ IT. As written, that story is the product of someone ELSE’s imagination, dedication, and hard work. If that person felt that a swear word was necessary, it probably was. You are under no obligation to read that word, or the book it appears in. But your choice here is simply to put the damned book down and walk away. You don’t get a do-over. Period.

What do you all think?

Alma Alexander      

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