Three years ago, I was asked to teach a course on pedagogy and the digital world. This was a graduate course, leading to a graduate certificate, part of a masters degree in Tertiary Teaching and Learning. Consequently, my class was wholly made of my peers, fellow university lecturers. The first class discussion I proposed was on the ways in which electronic texts differed from printed ones. Pause a moment to think about this. Sadly, most of my students did not. The best I could get out of them, over and over, was that you could not hold it in your hand. You can imagine that, if university lecturers were reluctant to give the consequences of the digitization of text much thought, the average consumer of novels gives it less.
The digitization of text, I argue, has had an enormous impact on our relationship with text; both the text we create and the text we consume. It has become infinitely portable, editable, infinitely copyable, deletable, searchable, taggable, redactable, mutable, distortable, parsed with great rapidity, it can be published in seconds, and a work can be purchased and returned in the space of a minute, etc.
The emergence of this new way of engaging with text works has vast implications, and I don’t want to dwell on all of them in this post. I want to focus on creative texts such as novels and the way we consume them.
Last year saw the emergence of a new reading app called the Clean Reader. This app scans the text of an ebook and compares it to lists of words the reader might find objectionable. It then generates a little overlay that blocks out the word, and substitutes it for one the reader might consider more acceptable. US copyright law prohibits the modification of a copyrighted text, so this little app is very clever. Take a look at the explanation Clean Reader sent to Joanne Harris when she contacted them about altering her books. It doesn’t physically alter the text; it inserts itself between the text and the reader on the screen, and generates a little opaque layer. So, technically it doesn’t contravene US copyright law. (Many authors and readers alike would say that this is disingenuous an apologetic for censorship.) Think of it is putting a piece of gaff tape on your TV screen to cover a station ID. You’re not interfering with the broadcast, you are altering the post-rendered appearance.
It does, however, contravene the Moral Rights of the author. This is part of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international agreement established in 1886, governing copyright and usage. If you are in the US, you probably aren’t familiar with the Moral Rights of the author, or perhaps you’ve heard it from time to time at the beginning of an audiobook, where the narrator intones: “The Moral Rights of the author have been asserted.” That’s because, in certain jurisdictions, these rights must be explicitly asserted, like in the UK. However, once asserted, they prohibit the alteration, distortion or mutilation of the work. Sadly, the US is not a signatory to this part of the Berne Convention. I find it infinitely ironic that China offers its authors more protection that the US does.
The Moral rights ensure that
Independent of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation (Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, September 9, 1886, art. 6bis, S. Treaty Doc. No. 27, 99th Cong., 2d Sess. 41 (1986))
What is indisputable is that Clean Readers do contravene the Moral Rights of the author. They do distort and mutilate the work, and they do effect changes to the experience of the work that are derogatory to the author’s intentions and reputation.
If an author uses obscene language in his work, she does so intentionally, as part of the creative act. As Chuck Wendig so eloquently puts it:
Profanity is a circus of language. It’s a drunken trapeze act. It’s clowns on fire. And let’s be clear up front: profanity is not separate from language. It is not lazy language. It is language. Just another part of it. Vulgarity has merit. It is expressive. It is emotive. It is metaphor. (Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters accessed 26, March, 2015)
Emma Adams tweeted this:
I would NOT recommend reading any of my Alliance books through Clean Reader because censoring completely obliterates the character voice.
— Emma Adams (@ELAdams12) March 25, 2015
Lilith Saintcrow posted a blog of her interactions with the company. It’s worth reading, if only to watch how the company makes its bland yet deft distinction between ‘changing’ text and covering it.
While a number of authors have railed against what Clean Reader promises to do to their text, many readers see it differently:
Wow! First Class! Thank you so much keep up the great work! You guys are the best! I have been waiting for an app like this for a while. I love the fact that I will no longer have to worry about Foul Language!*** 5 stars. Clean Reader is now one of my Top Ten Reading Apps! (Larkin Jackson, Five Stars, App Review) Please note the capitalization on ‘foul language’
Best ever This app has brought me back to reading and loving books again. Best app ever!! (Spencer Fry, Five Stars, App Review)
I love this app. We watch movies, TV shows that have curse words bleeped out. This is no different. We see photos of people and Children*** pixilated (sic). When you pay for a book, it is yours to do what you want. Blocking anything on your personal devices in your home is not censorship. It is your personal choice. I have a right not to see it, the same as others have the right to see it on thier (sic) devices. (Bernard Siddall, Five Stars, App Review) Please note the capitalization of ‘children’.
This last review is, I think, the most telling of all. Siddall says: “when you pay for a book, it is yours to do what you want.” He doesn’t understand that the writers on those shows have given very specific legal permission to have their words edited. He is viewing a book exactly the way he’d view any other purchased manufactured product.
And why shouldn’t he? Books are now sold exactly like other manufactured product. You can download them in bulk. Amazon will allow you to return an ebook that you don’t like, not because it has technical problems, but because you simply don’t like the author’s style, the characters, the language. It is basically treated like any other manufactured good that turns out to be not exactly the yogurt maker, television, or table lamp you thought it was. It’s as if you could return a half a bag of cookies to the store, not because they are stale, or contain nuts, but because you simply don’t like the taste of them. So why shouldn’t Mr. Siddall have a problem comprehending why the books he purchase shouldn’t be exactly to his liking, and why shouldn’t he have a right to alter them in the same way he puts more ketchup on his burger?
Before we lay all the blame at the door of publishers and retailers, consider that some genres of writing, like Regency Romance or Post-Apocalyptic Zombie novels abound with such precise conventions and tropes that, for many writers, they are essentially a formulaic recipe that can be repeated over and over again, with minor changes. Readers of this sort of work not only like this, they expect it, they demand it. They are the customer and have been taught to believe the customer is always right. More recently, with the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, sold as erotica, readers consistently punish erotica writers with scathing comments and one star reviews when they do not provide a central romantic plot and a happy ending, because those readers believe they are buying a manufactured product that will offer them the predictable experience they might assume from a Big Mac or a Skinny, Venti, Caramel Latte from Starbucks.
We have all participated and enjoyed the choice afforded to us by this consumer culture. The exchange of anything for money now comes with the implicit understanding that no one should ever have to pay for a single moment of unpleasantness or discomfort ever again. Indeed we are constantly exhorted to adjust things to our liking.
As a writer of erotic fiction, I am not in any danger of having Clean Reader decimate my work since they don’t carry any of it, but the advent of an app like this underscores my fears for the emerging transactional relationship many readers are seeking to have with the texts they purchase. My experience with customer reviews on Goodreads and Amazon – criticisms not of the writing but of the fact that it did not obey the conventions of a genre I was not writing into – has led me to believe that the only way for me to have some agency over the relationship I have with my works, and some control over the way I want to have them consumed, is to stop participating in the economics of the cultural marketplace.
I’ve decided that I will no longer sell any of my fictional works. This allows me the luxury of putting some conditions on the way my work is read. Basically, you didn’t pay for it: so, read it as I have offered it, uncensored and unconforming to expected genre conventions. A reader has the right to not read my work, or read it and hate it, or delete the file half way through, but no reader has the right to demand that I conform my writing to their expectations and sensitivities because my works weren’t ‘products’ and they didn’t pay for them.
Fan Fic plays into this. It can be argued that fan fic writers who take a writer’s fictional character and employ it to their own ends not only contravenes the Moral Rights of the author but also their rights to derivative works. E. Annie Proulx felt that way when fans took her cowboy characters, from her story ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ and re-wrote it with a happier ending.
I have mixed feelings on this – attribution and derivative works. I’d personally be very happy to have others write fan-fiction based on something I wrote, but I believe there ought to be a mechanism for authors to make the choice to allow it or not.
* * *
It was with gritted teeth that I downloaded the Clean Reader app. However, it became clear, pretty fast, that I could not perform a usage test on my own novels, because the app only allows a user to load books purchased from their Inktera online bookstore, and they don’t carry any of my filth.
It is interesting to note that the online bookstore contains a great wealth of ‘Christian Literature’ which, presumably includes various editions and translations of the Bible. And I find it staggeringly hypocritical that the very same people who rise up in righteous indignation when someone questions or seeks to revise passages in biblical texts, are so wholly supportive of using an application that macerates other works.
So, I bought a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, since Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy was considered obscene enough to incite several court cases. I wanted to see what this app would do to Joyce’s creative use of obscenity. This was harder than I imagined. The Clean Reader App kept crashing and stalling, making the book almost impossible to navigate. This is not usual – I’ve found no complaints at all about the app’s stability – and so I have to credit Joyce’s creative mastery of the English language with well and truly buggering this app into spasms of glitchy paralysis.
But I think what has given me most pleasure in the experiment is that Clean Reader may be able to blot out dirty words, but it cannot actually cope with this delicious, rich, perverse, transgressive passage below. Because real transgression doesn’t require ‘dirty words’.
Joyce’s metaphor and imagery can deliver up the rawest, most lascivious literary moments and Clean Reader doesn’t even blink because, much like its users, it is profoundly illiterate.
It occurs to me that it I am obligated to state what I think is a fair solution to this problem: I do not think iTunes should stop carrying Clean Reader. I would never call for its removal. There are, it seems, a number of writers who have no problem with this app, or allowing people to use it to filter their work. And I think therein lies a good compromise. Authors should not have to opt-out of being made available on Clean Reader. They should have to opt in. This ensures that reader who feel the need for a tool like this can have it, and can use it on books whose authors are amenable to having their work read in this way.