Go Ahead and Scrub my Mouth Out

The recent release of a new app, CleanReader, has created quite a stir in the indie writing community. The app replaces any profanity in a book with euphemisms, offering a choice between Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean settings.

Many writers are upset, complaining that their work is being censored and diminished. Try as I might, I can’t understand the consternation. Like any other writer, I give a lot of thought to the words I use, especially when I put profanity in my characters’ mouths. If it’s there, I put it there deliberately, to create a certain effect. So why am I not steamed that a piece of free software may go in and chop it right out?

Because it’s nothing new. Writers have never been able to control how readers encounter their books. You can’t keep them from reading the last chapter first. You can’t keep them from reading the whole thing in five-minute chunks while distracted by the TV. You can’t keep them from skimming your battle scenes, or mispronouncing your character names, or deciding that your ending sucks and the one they have in mind is what happened instead.

And you certainly can’t control the lifetime of experience they bring to your work, which will inform and distort how they perceive it.

Given all this, is it really that big a deal that you also can’t make them read fuck?

Perhaps the problem is that many a writer sees himself as the director of a movie—when in fact he’s really the producer of a script. You hand that script over to the reader, and she performs it, in her own mind. And like any performer, she is apt—and even entitled—to make alterations as they suit her.

In fact, it is almost inevitable that she will.

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