Lately, a lot a writers have been buzzing about the “Clean Reading” app. What this app does is take an ebook or other digital piece and filter out objectionable “dirty” words and substitute a cleaner version of the word on your screen. (Movies edited for TV do something similar) The reader can even select the exact substitutes he wants. The app doesn’t actually alter the document, and thus avoids claims of copyright infringement. The app simply changes the way selected words are displayed to the reader.
Now a lot of authors, and even a lot of readers are outraged that readers would mess with the purity of the author’s vision, thinking it’s like painting a veil on the Mona Lisa. “If you’re not mature enough to handle a few dirty words,” they say, “you shouldn’t be reading books with adult themes”. Besides, language helps define character. You cant have a Mafia hit man talking like the Duke of Wellington. Real people use rough language, so real characters should as well.
While I understand these arguments, they seem, to me, to be missing the point. I doubt that many people object to a few stray profanities in a story. The problem, I think, is that some authors lather it on so thick that it’s mind-numbing, and seriously gets in the way of the story. A character that uses the f word as noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, and all around filler in everything he says is like a character that sneezes, or says “ya know” between every word; boring, annoying, and tedious. Yes, there are real people who speak this way, but I wouldn’t shell out good money to listen to them. I think this is what the readers who embrace the clean reading app are saying, and I think it is a message that writers should not ignore.
A quick burst of profanity at the right place can be shocking and provide emphasis, as when Rhett Butler said “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Yes, I know that’s a movie, not a book, but the same principle holds.) And when straight-laced, proper Marge Simpson was at the end of her tether in The Simpsons Movie and yelled out “Homer, just throw the goddamned thing!”, it was hilarious because it was so unexpected and so out of character. Contrast this with a movie such as Goodfellas, an otherwise superb film, but one in which the relentless barrage of f words came so thick and fast they threatened to bury the story and probably made the film 20 minutes longer. But what about authenticity? Authenticity through language is overrated; all the Japanese in Memoirs of a Geisha conversed in English, but the story didn’t suffer in the least.
So, if you’re a writer, maybe you should look at what you are writing and make sure readers don’t feel the need to use a filter to read it. Getting people to read your work is hard enough; don’t put in obstacles and turn offs.