Cleaning Up That "Dirty" Book

I was reading an article recently where the author talked about her fondness of an App that removes profanity from her favorite books. She admitted to qualms about its use, but because of her strict upbringing, she didn’t like profanity. As an avid reader, she found the App helpful, and highly recommended it.

Okay, I admit...I didn't know such a thing even existed. So I went to the Google site, where the Android version is sold, to do some research. I learned it essentially "sanitizes" e-books by removing profanity. The tagline for the App is: “Read books, not profanity.”

According to the description, it has three settings: “Clean,” “Cleaner” or “Squeaky Clean.” When the App finds an offensive word, it’s hidden from the screen with a gray box. You can click on a small dot in the middle of the box, and another, more “appropriate” word will be shown. (Makes me wonder how a book like 50 Shades of Grey would read. Would the entire book be blanked out?)

Personally, and certainly as an Author, I find this App offensive for several reasons:

1. Arbitrary, subjective and capricious.
Profanity is a cultural and geographical phenomenon, and changes over time. What’s “dirty” in one place is not in another; what was “dirty” a hundred years ago is not now. (e.g., The Canterbury Tales)

Profanity is also a personal matter. I have words that I see as obscene, while some don’t bother me at all. But my personal tastes should not cause a book to be edited. (For example, I’m deeply offended by racial slurs, but was appalled when a publisher produced an edition of Huckleberry Finn, without the n-word.) In fact, when a reader asked me about the use of profanity in my books, I responded with this blog post.)

Who determines what's a "dirty" word?
What criteria is used?
Why are certain words considered “profanity,” but not certain actions?
(e.g., a rape, or a torture scene)

When doing my research, I found some of the silly changes made in actual books:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D. H. Lawrence)
Before: ‘It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of sex.’
After: ‘It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of [love].’

Before: ‘She threaded two pink campions in the bush of red-gold hair above his penis.’
After: ‘She threaded two pink campions in the bush of red-gold hair above his [groin].’

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Before: ‘The girl is one step ahead of me in everything, even shitty luck.’
After: ‘The girl is one step ahead of me in everything, even [crappy] luck.’

2. Censorship.
A reader may not like what the author said, but free speech means the writer is allowed to write it. And the reader is free to disagree, be offended, gasp in shock...or read something else!

3. A violation of artist rights.
The author did not agree to these changes. Why should a company be allowed to take a writer’s book and decide what should be there and what shouldn’t?

In my second book, my editor didn’t like the nickname of my main character. She and I had numerous discussions, but I prevailed. I would be very upset she'd chosen to make the changes anyway.

I am not a lawyer, and know from my research that the company who makes the App disagrees (obviously), but as a writer, I believe that any and all changes to the book I wrote should be approved by me, not the decision of a programming code matrix.

4. Vandalizes the artist’s work.
I see this no differently than if someone decided to go into a museum and painted clothes on the nudes displayed, because they were offended by the nudity.

5. Changes the intent of the writer.
Once all the "profanity" is removed, are you reading the same book the author wrote? What is Catcher in the Rye without Holden’s expletives?

Trust me, I don’t think profanity should be used out of laziness, and if I wrote (or bought) children’s book, I would see profanity in a different context. (I also wouldn’t take my kids to see movies that contained excessive profanity or violence!) But as writers, we use the words we do for a reason. That should be respected.

6. It’s juvenile!
Come on. If someone is angry, and says “Oh, fudge,” we all know what they really mean. If I see a word blocked on my Kindle screen, and the substitute is “Oh, copulate,” my mind will fill in the blank. Grow up!

Clarification: Downloading the App won’t impact any books you have loaded in your Nook or Kindle. Books have to be purchased from their library, and I understand there are current legal problems with the vendor who has provided that service to them. There’s also evidence that the App is having difficulties due to accusations of copyright infringement and censorship, particularly in other countries that offer greater protections for artists than we are afforded here in the United States. At the time of writing, it’s still available for download, but by the time you read this post, it could all be a moot point, though I’m sure other apps will follow, offering the same “cleaning service.”

I don’t give a crap [shit] if an App recommends less offensive books, or rates books based on the profanity content. But when it comes to restricting/removing words, Oh, heck [hell] no. You can kiss my grits [ass]. I do care [give a damn]!


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