Yesterday the writing world asploded into chunks of letter shrapnel flying all over everywhere because an app called CleanReader, created by some Concerned Parents, now exists to spiff up ebooks so virgin eyeballs won’t encounter any pesky profanity.
Chuck Wendig wrote about it here, the UK Telegraph wrote about Joanne Harris’s condemnation of the app here, and she posted CleanReader’s response to her blog (and her email back to them) here. Oh, and if you want a pretty hilarious picture of the app in action, go here. (tl;dr on the last bit? The word “vagina” is unsavory and needs to be called a “bottom.”)
Basically, CleanReader takes out swear words and replaces them with more “appropriate” words.
Kind of like the jackass in the 19th century who thought Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine needed a more neutral background.
The moral and possibly legal implications have been covered thoroughly elsewhere, but this whole thing brought up something big for me, and I wanted to hash it out.
I hate — and I mean haaaaaaaaate — the classification of words as “dirty” or “clean.” I hate when those terms are applied metaphorically to people. Or ideas. Or books. It pisses me the fuck off. Or, as CleanReader would have it, it “pees me the freak off.”
I like clean things. I like a clean room, I like clean sheets, and I like clean underwear.
What I don’t like is someone (or a large group of someones) deciding arbitrarily that words or ideas or people are unclean and therefore in need of bleaching.
I’ve talked about this on Twitter and Facebook a bit lately, but I grew up with two moms. My family is a complicated one, and over thirty years I’ve gathered a larger-than-usual group of parental figures in my life, but for a long chunk of it, I had two moms. Two moms who loved each other, who loved me, and who taught me to love myself. They were open about questions, frank about sex and bodily autonomy and consent. They were good parents. I am proud to have been raised by two wonderful women. Proud.
But the world around me sent me other signals.
The only representation of a family like mine I saw in pop culture was Heather Has Two Mommies — and that book was banned. I heard it ridiculed, punchlined, and argued about. That sent a very clear message that my family was not like other families and that it was something to ridicule, punchline, and argue about. Certain friends weren’t allowed to come to my house. I heard people whisper (and sometimes say to my face) that gays were dirty and sinful and wrong. I remember walking down a sidewalk with my best friends in Portland, and one of them said, “I just think it’s sad.” She was clearly parroting someone in her own family (we were 10 — and my moms were the only gay people she knew), and I remember feeling this deep confusion.
It didn’t compute for me. What made it sad? They loved me. It wasn’t like they were awful to me — if I’d been abused or beaten, sure, sadness would have been a thing. But a loving family and a happy home full of critters? Sad was not the right word for my family.
My. Family. MY FAMILY.
When we later moved to rural Montana, that confusion turned to fear. People there were less welcoming. I hid from telling anyone about my family. Turned inward. My one friend from California, also a recent transplant, knew and thought nothing of it. But for the whole first year and a half I lived there, I told no one else. When I did, “coincidentally,” my two best friends immediately stopped talking to me. For three years. Three entire years that started with sudden, sudden silence and a note a boy named Jeff found on the grimy floor in the cafeteria and handed to me — so no one else would find it.
Books were my escape. They were my safe engagement with other worlds, because I didn’t feel welcome in this one.
Later, I spent a few years in the bubble of evangelical Christianity, and it was there I heard again that my family was wrong. I even said so myself, so desperate was I to belong. I met ex-gays and listened to them, people said my testimony was powerful because I’d survived childhood among the gays, and those worming tendrils sank in, and they didn’t fit with the love I’d grown up with, with the supportive parents I’d had. With my memories of coming home from school and going straight to N to talk about my day, because she always listened, was always there with wisdom and kindness. Memories of the deck of animal cards she had — she is Delaware Nation and shared the earth with me.
In Christianity* there was this constant push and pull, this world where any grey was quickly shoved to black or white, where people were quick to judge in “love” and injure you for your own good. Clean or dirty. Nothing was allowed to just be. No nuance, because “compromise” was itself a filthy word. It meant you loved Jesus less if you actually bothered to act like him, to sit with the ones the church dismissed as dirty without dumping your bleach on them.
My virginity became a line I could cross of my own agency, because even though I hadn’t had sex yet at age 19, I was too experienced with other things to be clean by their standards. At 20 I made my sexuality my own and said a big fuck you to that line as I crossed it. It was a one night stand. It was beautiful. It was under the stars of a Scottish sky with the river beyond, and it was perfect, and it was clean because it was consensual and it was bright and warm and I was a person who could choose.
Still, though, that choice came out of my feeling I had to be just one thing. Clean or dirty, whatever the fuck either of those words meant. Someone else decided their definitions; I had no say in that.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t voice my own queerness until I was thirty. One or the other, one or the other, one or the other.
I left that world behind and I have never, never missed it. My morality needs no god; the compass of kindness I follow is based in humanity, of knowing that this life is never easy and that making it better for one person even in a small way helps us all. If you need some arbitrary soul-sorter in the sky to tell you to act like a human, you’re probably not a particularly good one and should practice learning some empathy.
If there is anything I have fought for over my three decades of life, it is my right to choose, and my right to be who I am. I am a woman who was raised by two remarkable women. I am bisexual. The words that I write in my stories are deliberate things. I am careful in my consideration of them. If “cunt” belongs there, so it will stay. If that word or any other bothers someone so much that they feel they have to take away or override my choice? Well. There are millions of other books that exist, and there are plenty that will avoid any use of profanity. Those people are welcome to go read those other books.
There is a video out there of a bunch of little girls saying fuck a lot (for the love of nachos, do not read the comments) — for a purpose. If the word fuck offends more than children going hungry or women facing a one in three chance of being beaten or raped in our lifetimes, I’m sorry. Those are some fucked up priorities. Don’t these people have something better to do with their time? Like reading the red letters in their Bibles? Like maybe having real conversations with kids about the power of words rather than pretending things don’t exist? Because that’s essentially what this app is — a coded tool that builds a bubble where women’s body parts between the thighs and hips are all a nebulous region called “bottom” and you can easily classify “dirty” and “clean” based on an algorithm.
So when I heard about this app and saw it in action, my first waves of fury flowed with the idea of someone taking the agency of my art away from me, of deciding they know better than me what belongs in my stories. But those waves crashed over me and into me, and they washed up this whole blog post because I’m really fucking sick of this dirty/clean dichotomy. The Madonna or the Whore. This ongoing, Puritanical value judgement I’ve faced my entire fucking life.
Leave my books alone, CleanReader. You don’t get to tell anyone what’s dirty.
SUPER COOL (not) UPDATE: I discovered today that my book, THE MASKED SONGBIRD, is available on CleanReader. Funny story, that book’s not available at all. As my rights have reverted and this book is about to be rereleased, let’s just say I am less than amused to see my book for sale on a retailer that feeds directly into this app. *combusts* I’m in contact with Harlequin and my agent and we’re working on getting this taken care of.
*Yes. Before anyone asks, #NotAllChristians. This is a given.
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