Last week, my colleague Rachel mentioned a bit of a blow up the Internet had over a certain app last week. Rachel chose not to give any details, but I’m going to mention the gest of the app’s purpose because it relates to what I’m talking about. The app in question takes ebooks and censors out the naughty words. It’s that simple, yet that morally complicated.
At heart, it isn’t really any different from a broadcast TV channel bleeping out words in a movie, which they have, of course, been doing for decades in the United States. In fact, the channels will get fined if they don’t remove these “objectionable” words. So you’d think that Americans at least would be used to this concept and the idea that some people are just not comfortable with cursing.
However, many people are graciously offended that their works are being altered. The app doesn’t merely bleep, but actually replaces the swear words with more innocuous language.
I fully understand both viewpoints. On one hand, if the only way a reader is happy reading my work is if my swear words are censored, I don’t really mind it being censored. Yet, on the other hand, if I had meant to say “Golly gee!” instead of “F***!” I would have. Heck, I could even have censored it like I did just there if I’d wanted to.
The debate is more poignant to me because I write Young Adult novels and there is a considerable amount of debate as to whether cursing is appropriate in YA. In adult books, the argument is whether it’s tasteful and needed, but when teens are introduced into the mix, it becomes a matter of influencing young minds.
My attitude is, and has always been, that many teens curse. (And before you object that your child doesn’t, keep in mind that many who curse don’t do it in front of their parents. I’m still hesitant to curse in front of mine and I’m rapidly approaching forty.) That being said, I do put a lot of thought into each curse word I introduce.
One review of my first book baffled me because it complained of strong language. My first book, Pride, Prejudice, and Curling Rocks, is in my opinion pretty darn clean, so I can only assume that words such as “darn” and “dangit” count as cursing to this reviewer, even though they don’t to me. That or the single instance of the “f-word” threw her entire impression of the book.
About that “f-word…” It was placed there, removed, and put back more times then I can remember. It was in the first draft, then removed because I figured I could use a weaker word. Then I realized that the character in question wouldn’t use a weaker word in that syntax. He was surprised, alarmed, and upset; he wasn’t going to censor himself. This usually calm and collected character screaming such a word was meant to make an impression. In fact, it made the girl he yelled at cry. And it hopefully made the reader say, “Whoa, he’s really upset. What gives?”
Do I really want people using an app to remove a word that I spent days pondering the necessity of before deciding it absolutely should not be cut? No, of course I don’t. But at the same time, I’m not outraged over the idea, particularly not if it’s the difference between a young person being allowed to read the book and permission being denied.
Those for whom the app was created would likely tell me that I should have found some other way of conveying the depth of my character’s emotions. And it’s possible I could have, but the scene just seemed to lose credibility when I tried because there was no doubt in my mind what a seventeen-year-old boy would scream in the circumstances. As the scene has been singled out by multiple readers as a particularly “real” one, I have to assume I did the right thing.
I can only hope that if someone reads Pride, Prejudice, and Curling Rocks via a censoring app that their perspective of reality is different enough from mine that they think my character should have screamed something I would credit to a child ten years his junior.
As for my other books, if the cursing in I’d Rather Not Be Dead bothers you, I can’t imagine why the rest doesn’t, as there’s also sex, drugs, and alcohol use. On the other hand, in Of Fur and Ice, most of the cursing is replaced with the words “Expletive” or “Exing” because one of the character’s mothers is very anti-swearing and the character respects this. (It amuses me to think of other words in that book being censored when so much of it already was.) The difference isn’t because I decided to tone myself down in the third book, but because the characters are different and I try very hard to stay true to the language each would honestly use.
So what are my final thoughts on the app? I think I would never, ever use it. I also think that the people for whom it was created may have other issues with my books that this isn’t going to alter. But at the end of the day, if you want to censor your own experience of the world, I feel you have the right. So long as you don’t censor my reading experience.
And on the note of that last sentence, maybe apps like this are a blessing. Maybe they will allow more freedom of expression to the general public because “Well, you can always turn the censoring on if you need to.” The invention of the clean-lyrics-versions of music albums has allowed the adult-oriented versions I always purchase to “get away” with words that never would have made it to recording twenty years ago, and perhaps a similar approach to books will allow me to have what I feel is a more authentic atmosphere while not alienating the type of reader who censoring apps are designed for.