Read With Mother

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by Petunia Winegum on March 30, 2015

Hands up who sought out the dictionary in the school library to find the ‘dirty’ words. Somehow, their presence in such august pages seemed to legitimise them and also contradicted the stance of teachers when admonishing pupils for using them in the playground. I even remember, prior to that, stumbling upon the verb version of the F-word in one of David Niven’s autobiographies that my dad was reading on holiday. The thrill of seeing a word in print I uttered every day in the company of my peers (bur daren’t in the presence of my parents) was quite liberating, showing that literature had the freedom to say what prime-time television and non-X certificate movies didn’t.

I wasn’t to know then that this was a relatively recent development, stretching back only as far as the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 – though the written word had enjoyed similar freedoms two-hundred years previously, before a puritanical rot set in and quietly swept those pox-ridden rakes of the Georgian era under the Victorian carpet. I suppose the blunt eighteenth century wordsmiths never envisaged a future time when their bawdy honesty would be censored, and I’m equally certain the radical novelists of the 1960s and 70s never anticipated that another century would see their libertine gains rolled back yet again.

Perhaps proof that the arrival of the eBook isn’t quite the great leap forward that those with a vested interest in it would have us believe came last week with the introduction of an app called ‘Clean Reader’. What this cyber nanny does is essentially Bowdlerise the book you’re about to read and replaces any word considered ‘offensive’ with something that would be suitable for your mum, you gran and little Junior. And we’re not just talking so-called profanities either; we’re even talking proper non-slang terms for body parts as well – censorship imposed without the consent of either the author or the publisher. An author can labour over one whole paragraph for days to ensure the rhythm of the prose is precisely how they want it, and that is especially important when it comes to dialogue. One wrong word and the passage just don’t work in the same way. This is why the gestation of a book can stretch from months to years.

Anyone who lived through British broadcasting’s first moral clampdown in the late 80s will remember those unwatchable TV versions of movies that were badly redubbed so the films could be broadcast for all the family; this situation eventually became so ridiculous that even movies that were never intended to be mainstream fare, transmitted well after the watershed on BBC2, were butchered. I particularly recall an edit of Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’ in which the F-word was reborn as ‘Flippin’; a word those of my generation associated with Tucker Jenkins being put in the mouths of American actors was at least bizarrely entertaining, but when Channel 4 left the language alone, their even odder compromise was to place a permanent red triangle in the left-hand corner of the screen. What seemed ludicrous at the time seemed utterly laughable within a year or two, and the famous pre-emptive announcer’s warning concerning ‘Strong language and scenes of a sexual nature’ took over – though this itself was a throwback to the 1950s, when ‘Quatermass’ was preceded by advice that the programme was ‘not suitable for children or those of a nervous disposition.’

Not suitable for children? Good Lord! That’s discrimination, isn’t it? We couldn’t allow that now; children have to have access to everything – and in order to enable this access, age equality comes into the picture, where every reader or viewer is treated as though they are the same age, roughly roundabout ten-years-old. If you don’t have any children, tough shit (sorry, I meant tough poo); your opinion doesn’t count. Pornography must be banned because it’s not suitable for children; adult books must be doctored because they’re not suitable for children. Of course they’re not bloody suitable for children! They’re not for children! Whatever happened to books specifically written for them? Oh, yes – they’re read by adults now, thanks to Harry bloody Potter.

Call me a paedophobe, if you like; but I actually believe there should be a clear division between art intended for children and art intended for adults. For one thing, it serves to preserve childhood for its proper duration; for another, the allure of adult art, whether books containing rude words or films containing sex scenes means there’s something exciting to look forward to once you grow-up – something a little more exciting than a mortgage and a pension plan. A book aimed at a children’s readership wouldn’t feature any rude words, anyway; and what child would want to read Irvine Welsh?

When the PMRC launched the moral backlash against the music industry in the mid-80s and initiated parental advisory stickers on albums, the thought that something similar could happen in publishing would have seemed inconceivable; in fact, it has taken technological advances to bring this situation about, emanating (perhaps inevitably) from the US Bible Belt. There may not be any profanities in the Good Book, but there are some pretty horrible things that happen in the Old Testament, as far as I can remember, far more horrible than the odd swear word. It would appear we’re back to that old chestnut again – a small minority of people within a society deciding what the majority receives; only, this time they’ve been very sly about it.

Prior to the advent of international intellectual copyright, authors such as Dickens lost a small fortune thanks to pirate copies of their works being sold openly in foreign markets, particularly America. One could argue an app essentially rewriting an author’s book without his or her permission is a modern take on such an artistic liberty, with the notable difference being it doesn’t alter royalty payments; what it does is worse. It bastardises a work of art and presents it to an oblivious ingénue as the actual article. This is the literary equivalent of a fig leaf on Adam and Eve’s naughty bits. And it’s not the publishing industry or even a broadcaster butchering art: it’s the people – or a self-appointed select group of people forcing their own blinkered agenda on those who didn’t ask for it.

When free speech is bandied about by politicians who spend most of their time undermining it, the context tends to be in relation to newspapers or magazines, not so much books. There was a bit of fuss surrounding a novel called ‘The Satanic Verses’ just over twenty-five years ago, lest we forget; but a piece of technology that can substantially alter the text of a book against the wishes of its author is as effective in judging which words are acceptable and which words aren’t as any headline-grabbing bonfire organised by Nazis or Radical Islamists. And one cannot help but wonder how Clean Reader will be utilised by those who have the authority that its inventors do not. How long before an Education Secretary decides to make it a tool of the national curriculum?

If the internet had been around in the age of Mary Whitehouse, one shudders to think how she and her disciples would have exploited it. But the spirit of the clean-up-TV housewife has outlived her lifetime and is slowly filtering into all facets of public life, and in ways that would have been pure sci-fi during that lifetime. She may have begun her campaigning by targeting television, but she quickly widened it to theatre, cinema and literature; she would no doubt have wholeheartedly approved of Clean Reader, just as she would most likely have approved of the equally outrageous ‘Trigger Warnings’. And in an age in which virtually anything is accessible via the click of a mouse, the scary thing is that some will think Clean Reader is a lot of fuss about nothing, a silly irrelevant novelty that can be ignored. I prefer to regard it as the thin edge of an extremely worrying wedge.

© Petunia Winegum

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