Keeping literature dirty

David L. Ulin
Book Critic
The Clean Reader app would have allowed squeamish or morally didactic readers to remove profanity from books

I was almost sorry to see the developers of the Clean Reader app — which would have allowed squeamish or morally didactic readers to remove profanity from books — take “immediate action to remove all books from our catalogue” last week, in response to authors outraged about their work being expurgated. Not because I want my literature tampered with, but because the issues raised, about who owns a piece of writing, remain pressing and relevant.

For anyone who hasn’t been following along, Clean Reader is the brainchild of Jared and Kirsten Maugham, a Christian couple who created a filtering program after their daughter “objected” to language she found in a book assigned for school. In some sense, I suppose, that shows restraint, since parents often try to remove such books from classrooms, but it’s a slippery slope from here to there.

At the heart of Clean Reader, after all, is a misapprehension about literature, about writing, about what it means and how it operates. It assumes that language is secondary to story, when in fact, it is the other way around.

“The fact is that we readers would love to hear some of your creative stories without the icky unnecessary junk language,” an advocate of the app insisted last week. “… There are some really great and important literary works that are eliminated from our study because I’m not willing to compromise our standards. Not for myself or for our kids.”

Too bad, I say. That’s your loss. Sorry to be harsh, but there it is. Writers choose words, choose language, for a reason: to suggest a tone, to create character, to give a sense of how they think about, and move within, the world.

This is not to suggest that writers do not write for readers; of course they do. Literature is a dialogue, a conversation, in which a book, any book, comes to life only when it is animated by the intercession of a reader’s mind. It’s true too that readers change — or more accurately, adapt or reinvent — the books they read at every level, emotional and intellectual.

In his marvelous meditation on John Updike, “U and I,” Nicholson Baker makes the point explicit. “I couldn’t possibly read Updike chronologically through right now,” he tells us, explaining why he did not fill gaps in his reading to prepare for the project: “It would irreparably harm the topography of my understanding of him.”

What Baker is saying is that the books and authors we love exist most fully in our imagination, that in reading them, engaging them, we make them ours. This is the argument some Clean Reader supporters have used in favor of the app — that it is not affecting the books themselves, which would be bought and downloaded unexpurgated, but rather managing our experience of them. 

“The writer has no right to dictate how the reader must read,” Cory Doctorow wrote on Monday in the Guardian. “I can’t celebrate a parent’s inspired, genderswitched Bilbo Baggins or Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles novels — which started life as an extended piss-take of the Wombles — without defending the rights of readers whose changes I disagree with.”

Doctorow is right about the facts, although not the analysis, which mistakes control for creativity. A novel such as Pat Murphy’s “There and Back Again,” about which he wrote in Boing Boing a year or so ago, is a radical reinvention — “a retelling of ‘The Hobbit’ as a science fiction story in which all the characters are female,” born of a desire not to curtail but to celebrate.

That, however, is not what Clean Reader has in mind.

Instead, its intentions are closer to those of the Alabama-based publisher NewSouth Books, which in 2011 issued a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Such a project was problematic for many reasons, not least because one of the purposes of Twain’s language is to discomfort us.

This too is the point of literature — not merely to tell a story, but in so doing to challenge our perceptions, our preconceptions, to provoke an unexpected empathy, which begins with the linguistic landscape the author constructs.

Or, as Joanne Harris, author of the novel “Chocolat,” wrote in a blog post late last week: “My book, my rules, and that includes my words. ALL of them.”

Twitter: @davidulin

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
44°