There’s been a lot of talk in the publishing community lately about a new app called “Clean Reader.” Clean Reader can be installed onto tablets and phones, and it replaces profanities in most ebook formats with “cleaner” versions of words. Some of these censored words are unarguably offensive (fuck.) Other words seem old-fashioned to remove (damn.) And some are downright bizarre (breast.) But what all these words have in common, from the objectively dirty to the puritanically outlandish, is that the author who wrote them chose those words.
I am so against Clean Reader I don’t even know how to put it into words, but I’m going to try.
This is my professional blog. When I started it, I had to make a choice. I weighed my options and made a choice to keep my language here largely professional. The choice was really tough to make because in casual speech, my mouth is shockingly vile enough to horrify a sailor. It’s incredibly rare for me to get through a sentence in normal parlance without having some profanity in it. It’s the way that I talk, and I choose to talk that way because I like it. I like how punchy and powerful dirty words are. I like how they can take a boring sentence and ramp it up to eleven. I like how it’s an instant signifier of casual, friendly conversation. However, sometimes I choose to talk in a different way. When I’m in a business meeting. When I’m talking to my parents. When I’m ordering at a restaurant. I could swear then, too, but I don’t.
This is the person that I am. I am a person who loves to swear, and when I’m around my friends or relaxing, I will swear your ear right off. I’m also a person who chooses not to swear in a situation where it might hurt someone. And the world is made up of people like me, and people unlike me. People who never swear. People who only swear when they’re really, really angry. People who swear no matter what and don’t care who hears it. All of these different people make up the world around us… and good writing mimics the world around us.
I use a hell of a lot of profanities… but I avoid slurs at all cost. I’ll drop f-bombs twenty words a minute, but you’ll be hard pressed to hear me call a woman a bitch. As a feminist, the slur that is the most toxic to me is the c-word, which I consider so vile I won’t write it here. It is an ugly, horrible word that makes a beautiful and normal body part possessed by half the world’s population into something bad and disgusting and negative. I hate the c-word. Saying it is the fastest way to get my finger waving in your face.
I use the c-word, in all its hideous uncensored glory, in my novel.
Why? Why would I write this word when I hate it so much? Well, because I am a writer, and I’m a writer for whom character is everything. What I strive for is characters who come across as real. Flawed and complex and ugly and confusing, just like real humans. And the c-word in my book is said at a time and by a character who would say it. I refused to blunt that moment. I refused to sanitize that character.
And I want my reader to experience that moment. I want them to be shocked. I want them to be uncomfortable. I want them to think less of that character in that moment. I don’t want a reader to choose to sanitize it. As an author, I included that word I hated so much because I wanted my reader to have the visceral, uncomfortable experience of reading it, and have them be forced to consider that the character who says it is not a good person.
It’s my right as a writer to impart the experience that I intend to my reader, and it’s my reader’s right to put down my book and not continue.
It’s also worth noting the other sides of this. My characters don’t all talk like me. My protagonist is clean-mouthed and will never so much as forget a courtesy, while his younger sister learned language from him, but is in a rebellious phase and occasionally says something scandalous for the sake of it. My tough as nails police woman has some rough language (lots of damn!) but rarely crosses a line because she’s a professional.
Just like in real life, my world is made up of different people. That’s the experience I want a reader to have — a world where a polite young man chooses never to swear while at the same time his boss says the worst word I can imagine. A world like ours, where you don’t get to choose what’s pleasant.