Two days ago I posted a ranty-pants McGee sort of article about CleanReader from an emotional perspective. Then it got even more personal, because lo and behold, my book THE MASKED SONGBIRD, which isn’t even available for sale right now, was somehow on it. They were drawing from a distributor (Page Foundry’s Inktera), and apparently were still pulling from outdated Harlequin catalogs. So, you know, cool.
Harlequin got it fixed in a jiffy, and that’s nice. (They really did — a couple emails and boom, so thanks to the legal and editorial team there for getting that taken care of stat.)
Then CleanReader announced that they’d taken away the in-app purchasing option for all books across the board, which is an interesting way to spin it, because Smashwords and Inktera actually pulled their whole catalogue of books from CleanReader, not the other way around.
CleanReader did, however, at least acknowledge that on their Facebook page after someone called them on it. Which is an ongoing trend of stepping on feet and then being surprised people are nursing bruised toes. If they’d taken the time to talk to authors beforehand, a wide range of authors, maybe they would have found a solution that kept people happy. But they measured once and cut, and now they’ve got a mess.
I read through some of the Facebook comments, and their responses felt…well, flustered and defensive. All in all, they seem like they just really did not anticipate any kind of negative response to their app. (They also said that readers shouldn’t care what the authors think because the CleanReader creators hate eating bleu cheese in salads and that’s exactly the same thing, so…that’s also cool. [/sarcasm] It’s on their March 7 entry on their blog, which I don’t really feel like giving more traffic, so if you fancy looking it up, I’ll leave that to you.)
The very icon of their app is a sort of self-righteous thing, a broom sweeping away the dirt of us sweary, sexed up writery folk. It’s clear they feel that their intentions are somehow noble, which leaves a sort of rancid taste in my mouth, for reasons I outlined yesterday.
My boss and I had a long, tears-leaking-from-the-eyeballs laugh reading examples of the app in action, and this morning I sort of woke up with more thoughts, because if the tone-deaf responses from CleanReader show anything, it’s that they never stopped to consider how artists feel about their art being stickered with blank spaces and/or scribbled on top of with words you’re more likely to hear in a sandbox or some parallel, Pleasantville-esque universe than in a mixed gathering of adults in the 21st century.
Bottom. Jerk. Groin. Bum. Poot. Poop. Gee gosh. Geez.
The suggested words are resonant of a culture that exists only within an carefully defined, insulated sphere. When I was at CCU, we called it the Bubble. I lived in it for years. There is another language that exists in that space. Much like the business world has given us “impact” as a verb and phrases like “reach out” and “lean in,” the evangelical world I lived in at CCU had its own terms.*
Accountability. Outreach. Conviction. Love on. Intercession. Stumble. Temptation. Testimony.
Accountability at my university was something that sounds rather normal on the outside — being accountable for one’s actions is generally a good thing to be — but in practice it became something insidious. Students were not only expected to watch one another’s behavior, but to report it if it fell outside the university’s “Lifestyle Covenant.” A friend comes out to you and you don’t report it to the authorities? You get in trouble. For what I remember, the same amount of trouble as the person who “committed the offense.” (In this example, the offense of being queer. No joke. If you outed someone, you’d get a pat on the back. If you kept their confidence like a decent human being and someone else outed them, you would get in trouble.)
Yeah, fuck that. No.
When I was 19, I went to Scotland for the summer. I came back and moved right onto campus, scattering some random tchotchkes on my dresser and running out to take care of some business. When I returned, I didn’t see anything was amiss…until one of the RAs knocked on my door that evening.
They’d entered my apartment (without my knowledge or consent) and gone into my bedroom, where said tchotchkes were out on my dresser. They’d found an empty souvenir bottle of whisky I’d kept because it was cute.
And they wrote me up and suspended me from occupying any campus leadership positions for an entire year. I had to write a three page paper on why underage drinking was wrong. (Never mind that the alcohol had been consumed in Scotland, where I had been legally able to drink for almost two years.) My paper ended up being one of the most exceptional piles of triceratops shit since Jurassic Park, making alcohol out to be a slippery slope of titanic proportions and basically saying that drinking would cause the apocalypse.
That was the way things worked there.
When I was a junior, one of the RAs (smart woman) realized that a shocking number of students knew literally nothing about sex. (Surprise, surprise.) They held an info session for about thirty co-ed 20-22 year olds, and we all crowded into her apartment. I went, curious about what people would say. At that point, I wasn’t a virgin, and I just had no idea what to expect.
I was floored by the level of ignorance.
People didn’t know basic anatomy, let alone the mechanics of sex. Someone said “clitoris” sounded like a pretty name. In their early twenties, one of the women asked (after we’d split off in gendered groups) if jumping up and down after sex would really prevent pregnancy.
I suppose you could laugh if you want, but I couldn’t find it funny then, and I still don’t now. These were grown women who had been actively kept from any knowledge about their bodies, how they worked (for pleasure OR reproductive OR health-related purposes), and I left the room feeling sick, if hopeful that they were finally getting some sort of actual information.
When I think of insulated spheres, I think of that world. If people ventured out, it was for missions or “outreach” or ministry, with the sole goal of bringing people IN. Not to engage, not really. Not to learn or explore. No curiosity, just an on-going assumption of us versus them, where they were these wayward sheep who needed herding away from the dangerous lava flow of mainstream culture and the perils of impending hell.
It’s that same feeling I got this week looking at all the CleanReader stuff. That feeling of “we know better,” while not allowing for diversity of input. If someone is so vulnerable to an errant four letter word that it makes them go tumbling down a slippery slope into apocalypse, like I so melodramatically pearl-clutched in my three page paper on the evils of alcohol, honestly, that’s…kind of their problem. The response of “LA LA LA LA CANNOT HEAR YOU” is, to me, something that also belongs in a sandbox along with words like “bottom” and “poot.”
If your beliefs cannot stand against challenge or questioning, how firmly are they truly held? If they fall apart under scrutiny and when laid side by side with facts, why is evolution of belief such a horrific idea? Ultimately that is what drove me from the church — my questions were not welcome, my desire to be a part of the world around me was repugnant (be in the world, but not of the world was the motto of the Bubble, which seemed to mean build a bunker and only engage with “clean” and “pure” believers who feel really bad about “sin” and confirm all your biases).
If, when confronted with art that someone made a certain way, your first impulse is to actively change it to make it palatable to you instead of engaging with it as the creator intended without consent or leaving it altogether alone and finding something you’ll enjoy, what does that say?
All of that said, when the desire to remain within an insulated sphere becomes actions that end up breaking that sphere wide open, as we saw happen this week with the uproarious response to CleanReader, a response that seems to have been wholly unanticipated, it makes me think a lot about how we go through our day to day in our little worlds. We all do it to an extent, but in this case, it’s something that is pervasive throughout American culture.
Not only was this app designed by people in an insulated sphere who expected seemingly no pushback, but it was designed to cater very specifically to an incredibly narrow group — a group that speaks their language. But I doubt it was meant for a narrow audience; it was meant for wide consumption, yet so tone deaf in its composition and conception that it would appeal only to that narrow audience. There was an assumption of palatability, that this was just a fine thing to do.
And that’s what happens when the Bubble gets burst. “Wait. People are upset about this?”
The other and final aspect that I latched onto to write about today is the legal part. While what they’ve done with this app may toe the letter of the law, it’s clear from their statements that they know there’s a legal issue with altering the words of authors. They are adamant that what they’ve done has circumvented copyright laws by laying something on top of the text instead of changing the file itself. It’s like the kid who knows he wasn’t supposed to have cake, so he stole pie instead. “Perfectly legal” because someone hunted around for a way around copyright law is…sort of like offshore tax shelters.
If you read any of the hilarious examples of the app in action, it’s pretty damn obvious the blanked out words change things and the suggested words hugely alter meaning and context. I mean, running a find and replace that makes no account for actual context is bound to turn out silly. “Bitch” is an accurate word for a female dog. “Witch” makes zero sense substituted for that. “Wiener” — yes, the app targets that word — is a common alternate appellation for dachshunds. Though “groin” dog is pretty fucking funny to me. Changing meaning and context opens authors up to criticism for things we didn’t write or say or mean. We choose our words with care. I personally don’t feel like ever having to defend a CleanReader version of my work — and if I’m unable to ensure my books stay off, I’ll be happy to just say that any CleanReader version is no longer my book. It’s a bastardized (jerkized?), unauthorized spoof. Because frankly, reading the CleanReader excerpts felt like the authors were being punk’d.
In many other countries, a creator’s moral rights are as heavily protected as copyright. Those rights include rights to the integrity of the work. CleanReader obviously violates that — one look at the unintentional hilarity of their suggestions is enough to show that an author’s intention and their artistic integrity has been swiftly erased.
Basically, the creators don’t care for the people who create works and look at books only as a commodity, like a salad at a restaurant, to be altered at will. Never mind that that analogy falls apart considering their dislike for bleu cheese is not equivalent to making a moral value judgement and deeming bleu cheese inherently “sinful” or “dirty,” nor are they crusading against bleu cheese for religious reasons. They don’t care for an author’s moral rights, and care for copyright only insofar as their lawyers advise them they’re just on this side of violating it. Phew. They care absolutely nothing for authorial consent.
Add to all of this the fact that their product makes human bodies “dirty” and vague (chests and groins and bottoms are all we have, and women just have chests and bottoms) and pushes a single, narrow, cultural take on the world out of this Bubble they live in, and, well. Congratulations. CleanReader officially takes the “fix it and reel it into the Bubble” culture I left behind years ago and plops it right back in front of my face. In their failure to anticipate reactions from anyone outside of their insulated sphere, they’ve crossed a whole bunch of lines, including, as it seems from the shot below, going after an objecting author by doxxing her on their page. So that’s cool.
Clean. Yeah. Okay.
I think I’ll go wash my hands of this app forever, at least until they try and violate my authorial consent or moral rights again.
And I’ll end with this, which pretty much sums it up. Joanne Harris is prettay rad.
Lots of love to the fab folk of Twitter today for helping to keep the dirt in books. Without dirt, nothing would grow… #CleanReader
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) March 27, 2015
*Requisite #NotAllEvangelicals. I think we all know this, but since if I don’t say it, someone will piddle themselves….yes, we know not all ANY group is the same. There exists a spectrum of humanity under every label.
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