Up Front by Emma Hart


Mind Your Language

I have to admit, I had some mixed emotions when I heard Clean Reader had been taken off the market. Delight, because the app was ridiculously stupid. Sadness, because it was hilariously stupid. I still think it's worth talking about Clean Reader because it highlights a few pertinent stupid things about censorship. 

Basically, the idea was that if people wanted to read good, classic books but didn't want to read all the nasty swears and stuff, there should gosh-darned be a way to do that. If you bought a book through the Clean Reader shop, it would replace all the Rude Words with nicer, cuddlier, more wholesome words. 

Now you might think this isn't really censorship, and what does it matter? It's voluntary: only people who wanted to read books this way were going to. Where's the harm? 

We start with this idea that some words, in and of themselves, are bad. Offensive. And that removing those words, and leaving the underlying ideas they express intact, solves the problem. 

Let me tell you about my personal experience of how mad this is. I once had a boss who believed this, and set our on-line writing forum's Prude Controls to maximum. Anything it thought was a naughty word – starting at 'damn' – would be removed and replaced with '#$%&*'. Whether you'd said 'fuck' or you'd said 'damn', it would come out as '#$%&*', which, and here's the start of the problem, always looks like 'fuck'. Also, the filter had, as they very often do, the Scunthorpe Problem. So bars had  #$%&*tails and planes had #$%&*pits, and if you read that as 'fuckpits', you can see how much more fun I was getting out of the filter than my boss was. 

At the same time, the slogan of the virtual 'entertainment facility' I was running, "A proud tradition of customer servicing", got through just fine. You don't need much ability with language to know that you can say the filthiest things using only the most cromulent words. 

Clean Reader also has the 'everything looks like 'fuck'' problem: sometimes it makes things ruder than they were to start with. All words for female genitalia are on the scarily-long list of things that Clean Reader replaces with "bottom". "Vagina" becomes "bottom". In Clean Reader, all sex is anal sex. 

And yes, the correct scientific terminology for naughty bits (you should watch The Naughty Bits, you really should) gets censored just as hard as the nastiest slang terms. 'Clitoris' also becomes 'bottom'. All terms for male genitalia are replaced with 'groin'. Imagine the effect on any kind of sex education. Blanket censorship has always taken out sex manuals and contraceptive advice, and one of censorship's greatest voices considered that a feature, not a bug. 

Take a minute, too, to ponder the implications of a vocabulary that leaves you no possible way of expressing the concept of 'clitoris'. You're not just removing the word, but the idea. It's like sex education from the 80s. 

But here's where Clean Reader really fell down, apparently to the great surprise of its creators. Authors, notably Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig, were Not Happy. What Clean Reader does is Bowdlerisation. It doesn't just remove words, it replaces them with other words, words the author didn't write. Bowdler removed Ophelia's suicide from Hamlet, as being too disturbing for children. In the process, he removed the idea that Hamlet's revenge-obsessed behaviour had serious negative consequences for other people. If you hack about Shakespeare's plays, changing words and indeed whole incidents, to what extent are they still Shakespeare's plays? 

And I know it probably seems quaint and precious and selfish these days for authors to want to control their works. But this is vandalism. 

The kind of vocabulary characters use is part of the way writers define them as characters. If characters from The Wire start talking like they're in Famous Five books – "Gosh darnit, what the freaking heck is that freak doing here?" – they have become different characters. Less plausible characters. Completely freaking ridiculous characters. Language, including apparently 'rude' language, gives atmosphere. It can create tension. Words are all writers have. So I'm thinking the way Clean Reader says the mother of a puppy is a 'witch', and chickens have 'chests' is a whole lot less funny when it's your book being freaked in the jerk*.


* Yes, 'arsehole' is one of the few words that doesn't become 'bottom'. I love this so much.

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