14 March 2015

"Clean Reader" - The Censorship Beggars Belief

Okay, I'm on a rant here, I'll say that upfront and try to keep a lid on it. 

I've just caught a Tweet which reads "Weird >> App Allows Readers to Sanitize Books for 'Cleaner' Reading..." I followed the link to a post dated 9th March on Lit Reactor which is basically highlighting an app called Clean Reader.

A couple in America have decided that to help their offspring, a 4th grade 'advanced' reader, it would be good to have an app that used a filter to censor ebooks - ANY ebooks - of what they deem to be profanity. The couple are quick to point out that the original book files are not changed therefore their app circumnavigates breach of copyright.

The Huffington Post has an interesting take on it. So have the commenters, on both blogs.

What I find breath-taking is the belief that by replacing certain words or phrasings, in this case with blue dots, or if the reader is determined to have a word substitute then a less provocative word (their choice of word) is used as a mask, the piece of fiction is not changed, that it is merely sanitized.

We are talking fiction here, not non-fiction in all its many forms. Non-fiction is written to be precise in the meaning of the phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter so as to be an efficient teaching/learning medium. Fiction is written to be precise in its meaning, and precise in its subtext, which often the writer is aiming to be a polarised, or at least an oblique, opposite. And there may be more than one set of subtexts at work. It is akin to removing all the hand-painted pieces from a medieval stained glass window so as to leave the coloured glass alone and insist that it is an improvement.

There is also a chill hilarity to this wilful censorship. In my short story Contribution to Mankind the viewpoint character is a belligerent, foul-mouthed individual. Clean Reader's sanitized version would remove the swearing and verbal slurs but leave intact the emotionless murder which holds far more shock value, and in doing so would make that character not the angry self-loather he was written, but a calm sociopath. 

In my novella The Paintings the two main characters contrive an impecable if stilted relationship, which I believe holds not one word the app would flag, yet reaction from its early readers is of a skin-crawling menace that stayed with them through the dark hours. It's certainly not a work I would let any twelve year old in my household read.

This, of course, is hardly the point. It is not the app's software that is flawed, it is the thinking of the people who contrived it. The first act of a dictatorship is to censor books. The second is to ban them. The third is to burn them.

Welcome to America - Land of the Free.

UPDATE 16 March 2015:

It seems that the app works with the Inktera retail site run by, and a subsidiary of, Page Foundry. Through an aggregator my ebooks are made available to Page Foundry. As an indie author I'm lucky enough to be in control of distribution of my ebooks and have, as of today, requested they be removed from sites operated by Page Foundary. Authors under contract to publishers won't be so lucky.

UPDATE 26 March 2015: read HERE.


  1. Very well made points, Linda.I haven't seen the Huffington Post article you refer to (yet) but one of my initial reactions is to scoff at the idea that they circumnavigate copyright. What's the next step? They start to loan out their versions? The author's name is attached to a version they didn't write ... that they very likely would never have put out with their name on. Writers have the right not to have parodies of their work attributed to them. And good grief, imagine thinking this is a good way to treat a child. It's a subtle lesson in dishonesty.

    1. Like I say at the top, it's a (quiet) rant - so I haven't yet done all the background reading needed to state whether the ebook, which I believe has to be purchased through the app, can be loaned/emailed on to another party. However, it does bring into question whether in buying an ebook through the app gives the app owners an added money-spinning top cut of the author's work.

      Although the app is available free from the usual app stores, according to Lit Reactor the app provider works with ebooks downloaded from Page Foundry. The name rang a bell and I checked - it is one of the the distributors Smashwords works with, therefore my ebooks could be available to this app. Not for much longer.