So. Clean Reader, then.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Clean Reader is an app designed by an American couple that replaces selected swearwords with a pre-approved list of acceptable replacements. Thus we have chest for breast and jerk in place of bastard and so on, and a lot of people have got somewhat het up about it. I refer you to Joanne Harris’ email exchange with the app-makers, and to Chuck Wendig’s exceptionally sweary post.
One of the main issues, as far as I can see it, is that these substitutions can be made without authorial consent. A work of fiction is going out with your name on it – but it does not consist solely of words you’ve written. Now you could argue that no novel ever consists entirely of one person’s words – editors, proofreaders and agents have all had a hand in it somewhere. But these changes were all made in discussion with the person whose name was appearing on the front. Clean Reader introduces changes without permission: is the resulting work truly the author’s?
Personally, I think the Clean Reader furore will blow over quickly and be forgotten: as early as 1807 Thomas Bowdler was releasing his ‘Family Shakespeare’, and his name has become little more than shorthand for stentorious censorship. Many authors have already campaigned to have their works removed and, fundamentally, Clean Reader is just too dumb to have much of an impact. It works as a simple ‘find and replace’ function and so you’re left with non-sequiturs like ‘chicken chest’. It doesn’t understand the historical context of words like bastard (‘the jerk Jon Snow’ doesn’t quite cover the meaning of the original term). And some of its substitutions only seem to make sense in Christian America. Is ‘crap’ really better than ‘shit’? Or ‘witch’ for ‘bitch’?
But it’s also true that writers require readers to do half of the work involved in creating a story. The words on the page are only a framework for the imagination. Every single reader builds their own world in their head and that world is influenced not only by what they’re reading but by their own knowledge, personality and background. A writer should work in collaboration with their reader. What Clean Reader shows is that some readers feel that they’re being left behind by the modern acceptance of profanity.
Swearing in fiction is an interesting issue. We may think that, as we become more and more desensitised to bad language, that this becomes less of a concern. But I still know enough people who are put off novels by profanity; shouldn’t they be represented too? People like Chuck Wendig would say ‘Sure, just not by me’.
It’s worth remembering that (good) writers don’t swear because they think it’s big or clever, but because real people swear. Profanity has weight; a well-timed ‘fuck’ can bring you up short, can create an impact that ‘darn’ simply lacks. Every single swear-word has been chosen with as much care as every other word. You might not like it – a reader, a reviewer or an editor might criticise, but it’s not there for nothing. Removing it changes the work and in some small way it becomes not the author’s, and you did not ask permission first.
Swearing has most impact when it’s used sparingly. It was beaten into me through my apprenticeship: a festival of fucks only anaesthetises. It’s the rare that carries the kick. Save the most powerful expletives for the real moments of emotional extremity. That’s when it works best. Use it when no other word will express the terror, the joy, the blind rage.
And then don’t touch it. Because it’s mine. That’s my motherfucker, and you don’t touch it without my permission.