I had every intention of writing some flashfic for tomorrow. And then, dunDunDUN, I ran across the Clean Reader Controversy. If you haven’t heard about it, Chuck Wendig does a smashing rundown of the issue, with links to the original article by Joanne Harris and I recommend reading all about it.
The gist: some folks, worried about the delicate, shell-pink eyes of their teenager decided to write an app that scrubs all the words they consider ‘naughty’ in an ebook and replaces them with other, ‘less naughty’ words. Instead of, you know, talking about those words and having a discussion about what they mean and how to handle it when you run across something upsetting in a book.
It’s possible you can guess my opinion of the subject by now. I don’t generally use swear words in my books. The Maze Beset trilogy, as a series that takes place in the modern US, has a smattering of them. The rest of my stuff so far is fantasy, which is usually better served by not having most swear words. Although the word ‘fuck’ probably dates back to at least the 15th century, it still seems modern and out of place, especially when used to refer to anything other than sexual intercourse. Other, setting specific words are almost always more appropriate.
In Maze Beset, otherwise known among my friends as ‘The Dragon Books’, Bobby is a verbal gentleman, preferring made-up words over swearwords, because that’s how his Momma taught him. He says things like ‘heckbiscuits’ and ‘dangnabbit’. Until he doesn’t. In one very specific instance, he says ‘go to Hell’ to someone, and it’s used for specific impact. I didn’t toss the word ‘Hell’ in casually or cavalierly to make you gasp at the audacity of an author to dare inserting a ‘naughty’ word.
In the scene, Bobby is tied up and incapacitated but awake. In the next room, a woman he cares about is being threatened with violence of a type that’s implied without being specified. There’s nothing he can do to prevent it, and he’s forced to listen. The bad guys want information, and this is how they choose to try to get it. Bad guy asks a question, and Bobby, ever the gentleman, having previously chided other people for swearing or otherwise being a dick or a pain, says “Go to Hell”.
I’ve tried to imagine how that scene works when you read it with an app that changes the quote to “Go to Heck.”. My conclusion is that it doesn’t. There’s no reason for him to say ‘heck’ in this context. He might as well have screamed in wordless rage for all the impact it has. The correct quote tells you something about Bobby’s mindset. The altered quote is wasted space.
For the record, the books also contain a few instance of ‘fuck’, but Bobby is never the one uttering them. Several other characters have fewer qualms about swearing. It’s an issue of each character having their own voice and not being carbon copies of each other. Some people swear. Some people swear a lot, others a little, and still others avoid it due to choice or upbringing.
Also for the record, the original version had Bobby say “Fuck you” in that situation. When I revised it, I decided that strayed too far for him. Replacing it was my choice, done for reasons of character consistency, not any sense of prudishness over this word or that.
Now, there’s a point to be made about the inherent fuckery of selling altered versions of books, and Mr. Wendig, Ms. Harris, and others quote thoroughly cover that. What I suggest is that there’s no value in this kind of alteration, because what it changes is more important than authorial consent (although that’s pretty fucking important). The change disrupts character and narrative, which is the entire point of a story in the first place.