I Fear for the Fucking Future: Let’s Talk about Clean Reader

So maybe I’m late to the party (it wouldn’t be the first time), but just this week, I heard about this app called Clean Reader. Basically, what it does is take a book and search it for any words that might be offensive. It then replaces them with euphemistic alternatives. For example, if a book contains the word “fucking,” Clean Reader will replace it with something like “freaking.”

This program was started by a couple from Idaho who didn’t want their child to be reading offensive language, so they decided to substitute it out and simply use what words they find acceptable, instead of what words the author deemed necessary.

To give you a more thorough breakdown of what words get substituted out (and with what), here’s a lovely description from The Guardian:

“Profanities such as “fucking” and “fucker” became “freaking” and “idiot”, “hell” became “heck” and “shit” became “crap”, according to an analysis of the app by Jennifer Porter. It was not only swear words that Clean Reader scrubbed out of books: Porter, who ran a series of romance novels through the app, found that body parts were also replaced. “Penis” became “groin”, “vagina” was swapped for “bottom” and “breast” changed to “chest”. Exclamations such as “Jesus Christ” became “geez”, “piss” became “pee”, “bitch” became “witch” and “blowjob” was switched with the euphemistic “pleasure”.”

Unsurprisingly, this bothers me on many levels.

First, it bothers me as a reader. When I read a book by a certain author, I expect the words I’m reading to have been composed and approved by that self-same author. I assume that whatever words they chose, they had a reason for, and if someone’s writing style or language choice is not up my alley, then I simply don’t read the bloody book.

It also bothers me as a reader because, in the quest to clean up an author’s language, some fascinating substitutions (and by fascinating, I mean terrible) are made. For example, Clean Reader assumes that someone using the words “Jesus Christ” must be using it in an offensive way, so it will block it. And apparently, the app even looks for words like “lick” and “cock” – lots of things can be licked and it not be offensive, and what if a rooster is crowing in your character’s backyard and they want to talk about it?

Let’s say we take this method and apply it to a literary classic such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. If we used an app like Clean Reader to “squeaky-clean” it up, what would be the end result? Besides the language now being different, we’d also face the problem of a book not being true to the time in which it was written, much less to the characters about which it was written. That doesn’t mean this language is not offensive, because most certainly it is. But a great part of the power of Huck Finn comes from this very offensiveness.

Second of all, Clean Reader bothers me as a writer. When I write, I choose my language- my words- very carefully and very precisely. And I don’t take kindly to the idea that someone can (without even reading my book first) go in and essentially mark out whatever language I have found important and essential, just because they find the words offensive. You are welcome to not read my books if the language offends you, but I don’t think that gives you the right to censor my words and replace them with words that you think are “good.”

Which leads us to the point of what is a good versus a bad word anyway. Who has decided that one word, such as “bitch” is any more or less offensive than a word such as “witch”? Historically speaking, I’m pretty sure “witch” has much worse connotations of stake-burnings and hangings and devil-worship and what-not. And by the way, in no universe does “bottom” mean the same thing as “vagina” – not to mention the fact that vagina is just an anatomical word.

Now of course there are some words that you don’t say in polite society, unless you just give zero fucks. However, that doesn’t mean that you get to go in to something that I have created, that I have worked hard to produce, and say “that’s not good language, this is what good language looks like, and I’m going to arbitrarily impose these standards on you.” And if they can do this with single words, what’s to stop someone from rewriting entire scenes that they find offensive? What if someone writes over a sex scene with a scene where the characters hold hands and just fall asleep instead? What if someone decides that the mere existence of an LGBT character is offensive, so all references to that character’s sexuality and romantic interests, etc, are simply erased- or even worse, replaced to make the character straight?

In my own writing, I don’t use a whole lot of what others may deem “unacceptable” language. There are generally a few well-placed words here and there when it’s necessary, but believe you me, it is sometimes most certainly necessary. For example, in one of the key scenes in my most recent book, my main character uses a word that I never use in my personal life. I had a good bit of debate with myself over whether this word was truly necessary. The more I thought about it, however, the more I recognized that it was essential. Just because I wouldn’t use the word in my personal life, doesn’t mean this character wouldn’t use it in hers. In fact, quite the opposite.

Now I also think because my pages don’t happen to be littered with “unsavory” words, that when I did find it necessary to use this word, it made it that much more powerful and impactful. So while I may not care for books where every other word is of the four-letter variety or some creative variation thereof, I recognize that no one is forcing me to read those books.

As a final illustration of my point, let’s think back to the film Gone with the Wind. If in the closing scene, Rhett Butler had told Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn,” is there anyone who thinks it would have had nearly the same impact as when he actually said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”?

That’s it for this week. May your tales be bawdy, and your language be your own.

Blurred Lines between Inspiration and Infringement

It’s a bad day for artistic creativity and expression.

A jury has found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke guilty of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” in their song “Blurred Lines.” I find this not only appalling, but frightening as well. Copyright is important, let’s not have any confusion about that, but what I would argue is even more important is creativity.

An artwork of any medium (musical, lyrical, visual, written, etc) is utterly interdependent on other artwork. If we take even the briefest of looks at history, it doesn’t take long to figure out that artistic movements occur in reaction to each other. One poetic movement grows out of a previous one, another poetic movement arises as a response to and a reaction against that previous one. The same is true for music and sculpture and visual art.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say there is some similarity between these two songs; whether you want to say that similarity is a bass line, the beat, a mood/tone, whatever, is up to you. Is “Blurred Lines” so similar to “Got to Give it Up” that it should be accused of plagiarism rather than simply artistic inspiration? And it’s not about the money that Williams and Thicke will have to pay up for this supposed infringement; it’s about the bloody principle of the thing. What is the line between inspiration and infringement? Or between sharing and stealing creativity? Of course sometimes people outright steal creative works from other people, and that is beyond terrible. But I think what happens far more– and what should be allowed to continue to happen– is that artists are inspired by other artists. They “take something [they] love and build on it.” That quote is from a TED Radio Hour excerpt, which you can listen to here:

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/322721353/why-would-more-than-500-artists-sample-the-same-song 

This is the short version of the TED Radio Hour with Mark Ronson, on “What is Original?” and is pretty much all the proof you need. To put it briefly, Ronson explains how Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” is a foundational song, from which a number of artists took inspiration, including: Beastie Boys, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, Kanye West, and plenty of others. In other words, to quote Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Velazquez’s Las Meninas

And a Picasso version of Las Meninas, inspired by Velazquez’s work

There are no original ideas. I feel like that’s a pretty well-established fact. There are unique spins, new combinations, etc, but no one’s going to reinvent the wheel. The wheel exists, and we just put our own spins on it (see what I did there?). So when you have a musician like Taylor Swift try to copyright some phrases from her lyrics including “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989,” we run into a real problem.

Manet’s Olympia….

…. Inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino

There are many great things about the primacy of the individual in our society. This court finding, however, is an example of its dark side. We are so concerned with our individual thoughts and ideas and work that first off, we fail to acknowledge how dependent we are on the artists and thinkers who came before us, and how we couldn’t have come up with any of the thoughts and creative works that we have without those who paved the way, and they could not have come up with anything without the work of those generations before them, and so on and on. And secondly, we fail to share in the community of creativity where others can inspire us, and where we can inspire others to pass on this deeply human drive and desire to create.