According to a piece in the Guardian, and on Joanne Harris’ blog, Clean Reader has announced that it will no longer be selling books. The app will remain available – presumably for the customers who have previously purchased books to read on the app.
If there is a silver lining to this whole debacle, it has been to enliven the discussion on what kind of relationships authors, novels and readers have with each other. This, in the face of a stealthy but almost universal productivization of creative works, is a discussion worth having.
Here’s Ms. Harris’ take on that relationship:
We have a relationship, you and I (you being the reader). I like to think it’s something deeper than a simply commercial one. I don’t want to be a product. I don’t believe you really want to be simply a consumer. By sending my book out into the world, I’m giving you entry to my heart. It is a gesture of trust. And I expect you, in return, to trust that what I write is as honest and true as I could possibly make it. That means trusting me when I say that I have thought about every word; considered each one carefully. If they shock you, it’s because I felt that the story needed to shock at that point. Stories are not always comfortable. The heart has many chambers, some of them very dark indeed. (J. Harris, Clean Reader: An Epilogue, http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/post/114743217621/clean-reader-an-epilogue, accessed 27 Mar 2015)
Although I admire this form of the relationship, I find it very ‘authorial’ and quite passive. I write, you read, we respect each other, done.
My concept of this relationship is, perhaps, more complex. Firstly, once a reader has embarked on a reading, I don’t feel that I should feature much in it as an author at all. I do believe that I have a right to determine the way the work is presented to the reader, but past that, I hope I fade from the whole event. It may very well be that my heart is in the story I’ve written, but that is not a burden I feel it is appropriate to put on a reader. Their relationship should be with the text, and not with me. I believe that reading is interactive. As a writer I cannot possibly bring everything onto the page, and so I depend on the reader to bring their lived experience to the reading process. So the relationship becomes a dialogue between the reader and the work. It is a conversation, not a one-way proclamation. And like any good conversation, it is profoundly rude to muzzle one of the parties. Nor do I think any real or valuable conversation can be had when one party comes to the conversation with a list of topics they refuse to discuss.
What Clean Reader did was sell the illusion: that a reader could enter into a conversation with a book while muzzling the book, while filtering out the ‘unpleasantness.’ The Bern Convention was a far reaching and incredibly erudite instrument that had an astonishingly nuanced understanding of what a written work is. Not a collection of words, strung together in a certain way, but ideas that spring up from the writing and reading of the words. When we buy a book, we aren’t buying (hopefully) a glossary of words, or a series grammatically correct sentences, but concepts, worlds, characters, events that are born out of that magical conversation between a reader and the novel.
When I write a story, and I publish it, it is no longer quite mine, but it also does not belong wholly to the reader either. It is an interactive experience, wonderful, terrible, burdensome, violent, but never a simple act of the consumption of some words on a screen.
We are living in a society that tells us that we can have all the taste but half the calories, or all the aroma without the caffeine, absolutely safe sex, or a Joanne Harris book without the profanity. But you know this is a lie. The low-cal cookies are never as good, the coffee is never as rich, the sex is never truly safe and, with the profanity blanked out, it’s not the book Joanne Harris wrote anymore.
I’d argue that this is the whole point. This cycle of fantasy – of false promise and disappointment – makes us all the more rabid in our consumption habits. We’re frustrated by our failure to find what has been promised to us, thus we buy more things, hoping to get just a little closer to what we want. But it is a series of disappointing illusions and it leads us to bitterness and apathy.
When it comes to the censorship of books, I think Clean Reader was always selling an illusion. The truly transgressive ideas in a book seldom reside in its profane language, but in profane ideas. If you are worried about what your children read, do the work and read the book yourselves. If you feel it is inappropriate for your children now, put it on a shelf for a time when they are old enough to be critical and engage with those ideas themselves. There is no app that will make you a better or more moral parent. No app that will shield you from transgressive ideas. If they bother you, you must develop the internal fortitude to reject the ideas, not the words, yourself.
P.S. If you write, I’d love to know how you conceive of the relationship between yourself, the text and your readers.