Tiffany Jenkins: New app should leave books alone

Pictured, Danny Boyle's 1996 film version of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting
Pictured, Danny Boyle's 1996 film version of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting
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A controversial app that removes profanities and sexual content from books draws the displeasure of Tiffany Jenkins

‘Read books, not profanity.” That’s the sales-pitch for the Clean Reader app, for e-readers. If you find yourself offended by expletives and rude words, as you skim though a novel or a work of non-fiction, you could use this app and all of a sudden the bad words would disappear. You need never know the obscenities were there.

The app hides offending words and replaces them with ones that are cleaner, more moderate. And you can choose just how sanitised you want it all to be – the app operates on a sliding scale from a “clean” setting, which searches and replaces bad language, if you are feeling only a little sensitive, to “squeaky clean” which removes pretty much everything that could be perceived as an obscenity – it will even delete “damn” if you are especially fragile.

If you are prudish, body parts will be scrubbed out. Anything named in the female genital region, is turned into “bottom” and “breast” becomes “chest”. “Whore” is turned into “hussy”. Apply it to 50 Shades of Grey, by EL James, and you will get a very different kind of novel, a shorter, even more boring one, I would guess. Use it on a cookbook, and you could learn that chicken chests are delicious with garlic, which could be confusing.

The Clean Reader app was developed by Jared and Kirsten Vaughn, two American Christians (which is why, when using it, “Jesus” becomes “gee” and “Oh my God” becomes “Oh my goodness”), when their daughter came home from school upset that a book she’d read had too many expletives.

“We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with,” they said. “To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this. The more we thought about this idea the more we wanted it to be a reality.”

It’s an innovative response. One that is potentially funny – it could lead to some amusing mix-ups, such as when “bitch” becomes “witch” (it won’t be able to detect if the writer is referring to a woman or a female dog).

But there is also something serious at stake.

As a reader, you shouldn’t be able to choose between what the author wrote and what you would like them to have written, especially if you are reading the book at school as was Vaughn’s daughter.

Changing words and replacing them with cleaner versions misses the raison d’etre of the written word. Take the novel. Fiction is not just about something – it’s not only plot. The writing – the actual words, including profanity and sex – are integral, a point the author Joanne Harris eloquently made in response to hearing news of the app’s success: “Most writers think very hard about the kind of language they use. Some of us are well-nigh obsessive about our choice of words – and those of us who are published in the US often have to fight to retain our British spellings and vocabulary,” she wrote on her blog. “We do this because we care about books. We care about language. And if we use profanity (which sometimes, we do) it is always for a reason.”

By all means choose lighter, cheerier reading material if you want, maybe a children’s book, something for the under fives, but don’t participate in changing the actual text – it’s disrespectful to a writer’s craft.

If you want to keep it clean, maybe you should stick to Jane Austin and the Famous Five. Actually, this might also be tricky, as even with these novels there are problems. Bad words and ideas are contained within, to do with race or gender roles. Indeed, if we were to take this app’s approach to its logical do-it-yourself censoring conclusion, a great deal of writing is potentially offensive, ugly and inappropriate – to someone. Whole libraries could go.

Where will it end? Even the story won’t be safe. Choose to read Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, and, with a low-setting of the app, it could start: “Choose a life. Choose a career. Choose a freaking big television”. But if that was too much, a more strict setting could clean it all up, the whole shebang, so it instead reads something like: “One upon a time, Renton, Sunshine Boy, and Begbie all lived happily ever after. The End.”

Now this is just one app, created by one couple, and the furious response, especially from writers who are also concerned about copyright, has been heartening. It looks like Clean Reader will either be taken off the market, or subtly amended. So should we still be concerned? Is this more than a storm in a teacup?

Yes. unquestionably so, because the frightened approach towards the novel and non-fiction expressed in this app, the idea that we need protecting against words and ideas, is a not a one-off. It is spreading like a virus.

Here in Scotland we recently heard that the award-winning play Black Watch was not being taught at one school, due to concerns about its language and sexual content. More disturbing still, is the growing trend for trigger warnings: warnings which are placed on books and reading lists to alert university students to the potentially distressing topics, such as domestic violence or war, which may come up in their courses. This is especially worrying because the demand for triggers has come, not from religious conservatives, or from the authorities or institutions, but from students themselves who want university to be a safe space.

If you want to expand your mind and imagination, you have to challenge yourself. A good book should not make you feel safe and secure – it is not a comfort blanket there to shelter people from words or thoughts they do not like. It is a portal on to another world from which we should not hide.