Authors: end to censored versions of books is ‘victory for the world of dirt’


Chocolat author Joanne Harris is claiming a “small victory for the world of dirt” after an app that blanked out the profanities in books, replacing them with so-called clean alternatives, removed all titles from its online catalogue following a week of angry protests from writers.

The Clean Reader app, launched by a couple in Idaho in the US, has announced that after significant feedback from authors, many of whom did not want their work being sold in connection with the app, it has “taken immediate action to remove all books from our catalogue”.

Clean Reader set out to enable customers to, in its own words, “read books, not profanity”. A filter could be applied to ebooks purchased from its online store, which exchanged words that were judged to be offensive with alternatives.

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”.

Harris had led the charge against the app, with a blogpost entitled “Why I’m saying ‘fuck you’ to Clean Reader”, explaining why she felt the filter was “censorship, not by the state, but by a religious minority”, and that it “misunderstand[s] the nature of fiction writing” and gives a “toxic message” to young people.

Jared and Kirsten Maughan, the Christian founders of Clean Reader, came up with the idea after their daughter objected to the swear words in a book she was reading at school, and worked with the Chicago firm Page Foundry to create the filtering programme. This came with three settings: clean, which “only blocks major swear words from display”, cleaner, and squeaky clean, the most restrictive setting, which “will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms”.

Harris was joined by a host of authors in attacking the premise of Clean Reader. The science fiction novelist Charlie Stross described himself as a writer who “deeply resents the idea of his books being mutilated to fit the prejudices of a curious reader’s blue-nosed and over-protective parents” on his blog. The Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood asked on Twitter: “Could you take the kettledrums out of Beethoven because you don’t like loud noises and still call it Beethoven?” The novelist Chuck Wendig tweeted: “Personally I think #CleanReader is a bunch of HOT JEEPERS MCGEE and a bucket of MONKEY FLOPPING CUPCAKE BATTER oh gosh they got to Twitter.”