Clean Reader – why censoring adult books doesn’t really protect children

I was only vaguely aware of Clean Reader until I heard Joanne Harris talking about it on Radio 4. Whilst I generally like the idea of making my books accessible to people  who wouldn’t normally read them, I object to this app – partly on the grounds that I don’t want someone changing the words of my books (no ‘you can opt out’ isn’t consent), but also on the grounds that it’s such a misguided idea.


I’m not a stranger to the idea of protecting kids from unwanted influences. I grew up in middle class Sri Lankan society in the 1980s. Conservative? You betcha. For a while there was no kissing allowed on Sri Lankan TV screens. People moved in for the kiss and then Blip – it was over. There must have been kids who thought that white people kissing (we got a lot of old UK, US and Australian stuff) was some sort of time warp generator. Sex scenes got cut out entirely or you got a short burst of static. I went to an all girls’ school. I wasn’t allowed to read any Sweet Dreams or Sweet Valley High books in case I got ‘ideas’. It was all culturally normal and it was massively pointless. You can’t get away from love stories. Getting ‘ideas’ is what teenagers are programmed to do!

Besides, even if you cleaned up the rude language in books, would you really be protecting kids from anything? I gather that words for any genitalia are replaced with the word ‘bottom’. One of my books (Dr January) contains a date rape scene. Apart from the word ‘nipple’ and maybe the word ‘body’ the app wouldn’t replace any words, so it’s relatively ‘clean’. It’s still a rape scene. It’s horrible and upsetting. It’s meant to be.  Replacing words would have protected no one.

Say the app removed the scene entirely. The ambiguity of date rape is a key plot point. If the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene and feel Beth’s confusion, then Beth goes from being a woman finally acknowledging that she’s in an abusive relationship, to either being a willing victim or plain hysterical – either of which could be actively damaging to a kid who didn’t realise that date rape was a real thing. Without that ambiguity, you’re left with ‘no bruises, no crime’.

If everyone played by the same rules, the world would be a lovely place, but they don’t. Pretending that sex doesn’t happen outside of marriage, or that people who would take advantage of the innocent don’t exist does NOT protect people. It merely makes it harder for vulnerable people to talk about what is being done to them because, if someone manages to get them into bed, to do stuff they’re not entirely sure ‘counts’, then it must all be their fault, right? So, how can they ask for help?

How on earth does that protect anyone?

Sex education is important. It won’t give kids ideas and urges that they wouldn’t have had anyway. But it does prepare them for it. Books are like dreams. They let you practise emotions so that if you have to deal with them for real, you have some idea what’s going on.

If you don’t like rude books, that’s fine. Don’t read them. If you’re worried about your kids reading books they’re not ready for, talk to them about it. Please don’t mess about with books written with care, certainly not without asking the author first.

7 thoughts on “Clean Reader – why censoring adult books doesn’t really protect children

  1. This is something that interests me, because I’ve had a couple of comments on some of my Stargate novels complaining about the ‘language’. It turns out that the complaints are about what the readers consider to be blasphemous language – i.e. characters saying ‘God damn’. I understand that this is something that clean reader would replace with ‘Gosh darn’. Bearing in mind that, in my books, it’s usually said by a US Air Force colonel, usually in the heat of some kind of crisis, ‘Gosh darn’ would not only sound ridiculous but would also be hugely out of character. (And since these are based on the TV show so writing ‘in character’ is very important!).

    What irritates me is that it’s imposing one person’s set of cultural/moral/religious values on the rest of us. This is how people in the real world talk – you can’t censor life, so why censor books?


  2. Well said, Rhoda! Yes, “Doctor January” would be pointless — or its point would be horribly skewed — if someone messed with that scene, or the individual words. And it’s not the only one. What would a “Clean Reader” makeover do to “Anna Karinina”? Or “Madame Bovary”? I don’t even believe in a rating system. If someone has bought a book and finds it offends them, then fine– let them throw it away or go through it with a Magic Marker and scribble substitute words in the margin. If they’re concerned about their child’s reading, let them take the intelligent course and either talk with the child about it or vet any book meant for adults before allowing the child to read it. But don’t let the child think she’s reading what the author wrote, when she’s actually reading something her parents have bowdlerized!


  3. I’m with you–being able to change the words in books risks changing the meaning or feel of a story. I’d rather books come with ratings like movies do before venturing to something like this. That way, if a book was ‘rated R’ or came with a language warning or something like that, readers who want to avoid the language, sex, etc. in it can.


    1. I like the idea of a rating, although it’d be impossible to devise a perfect rating system. I’d use it more to see if I wanted to read the books, rather than vet my kids’ reading.


      1. Yes, it would probably be hard to develop consistent ratings. I saw an article on FB earlier today that said the couple who made the app have now pulled all ebooks from it. So it appears authors have had a victory!


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