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App That Aims To Make Books 'Squeaky Clean' Draws Ire From Edited Writers

Writers lowered the boom on the broom — metaphorically, of course.
Writers lowered the boom on the broom — metaphorically, of course.

In a stroke of irony fit for fiction, an effort by two Idaho parents to clean up their daughter's books has dredged up a fairly messy controversy. Clean Reader — an e-reader app designed to ferret out, and block, profanity in novels and nonfiction — drew significant pushback from some authors amid its recent launch.

In the face of that criticism, the folks behind Clean Reader have now backed down, announcing their intentions to stop selling books directly through the e-reading platform.

"Many authors do not want their books being sold in connection with Clean Reader," reads a statement this week on the app's Facebook page. "We have therefore taken immediate action to remove all books from our catalogue."

For all the hubbub, Jared and Kirsten Maughan, the couple who founded Clean Reader, say the app began innocuously enough. Their daughter had returned from school one day upset with the language in a book she was reading for class.

"We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less-offensive words," they explain on their website. "To our surprise there wasn't an app like this."

The three settings of Clean Reader at work: "clean," "cleaner" and "squeaky clean."
/ YouTube
The three settings of Clean Reader at work: "clean," "cleaner" and "squeaky clean."

So with the help of the design firm Page Foundry, they made one themselves. The platform allows readers to load their e-books into the app, and from there use one of three settings — "clean," "cleaner" and the uber-strict "squeaky clean" — to find, block and even suggest replacements for words they find offensive. The app also directly sold e-books in their unedited form, taking a small commission from the sales, according to The Washington Post.

Blogger — and romance novel aficionado — Jennifer Porter has drawn up a rundown of the common replacements for words the app deems profanity. Among some of the noteworthies: from "whore" to "hussy," from "badass" to "tough" and, somewhat confusingly, from "vagina" to "bottom."

The Response

Although the Maughans may have initially found there was no app for that, so to speak, there was precedent: Thomas Bowdler, who in the 19th century nipped and tucked a collection of Shakespeare's work, with the hopes of rendering it more appropriate reading for women and children. In the years since, the attempt has accrued a fair bit of infamy, and the term "Bowdlerize" is now something of a dirty word itself for many writers — a sign, perhaps, of the pushback that was to come for Clean Reader.

Joanne Harris, seen here at the London premiere of <em>Jack Reacher,</em> has been a vocal critic of Clean Reader.
Ian West / PA Photos/Landov
PA Photos/Landov
Joanne Harris, seen here at the London premiere of Jack Reacher, has been a vocal critic of Clean Reader.

Arguably, the leader of that angry response was author Joanne Harris, best known for her novel Chocolat. In several scathing blog posts, Harris decried what she called "censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority."

Harris added:

"Well, we've been down this road before. We should know where it leads by now. It starts with blanking out a few words. It goes on to drape table legs and stick fig leaves on to statues. It progresses to denouncing gay or Jewish artists as 'degenerate'. It ends with burning libraries and erasing whole civilisations from history."

The Society of Authors also took issue with Clean Reader, saying, "Our concern is that the app contradicts two aspects of the author's moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution."

For their part, the Maughans have defended the app on legal grounds — saying the filtering system makes no changes to the e-book's original file — and on moral grounds, too. In one blog post, the founders equated the filtering system with the relationship between a chef and patrons who might not like elements of a dish.

"Is the chef offended when I don't eat the blue cheese? Perhaps," they wrote. "Do I care? Nope. I payed good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right."

To which novelist Margaret Atwood responded, bringing Beethoven into the mix.

With Clean Reader's announcement Thursday, the bookstore component of the app has been removed. It also plans to make further changes to the app in the future.

Harris, in response, has taken a moment to relish the announcement. "It is a small victory for the world of dirt," she told the Guardian. "And a wise move on their behalf. ... A lot of people don't want to see books tampered with."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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