The short life and unlamented downfall of *Clean Reader* leads to musings on the reader-author relationship

The short life and unlamented downfall of Clean Reader leads to musings on the reader-author relationship

Blink and you might have missed the kerfuffle. The so-called Clean Reader app offered the chance to read without sullying your precious mind with rude words and profanity by covering them with an alternative deemed acceptable by the app’s creators. However, the backlash from authors including Joanna Harris meant that very rapidly the company was obliged to remove all books from its catalogue. The app seems to still exist (so perhaps my blog headline might be misleading) but I shall watch with interest the developments. I have a feeling we are not done with Clean Reader yet.

There were some excellent explorations about what the existence of such an app means, the best of which was here:

A conversation on Twitter set me to thinking about the relationship between reader and author. The one set out by Joanne Harris is one of dignified mutual respect. Yet another Harris, Charlaine, in fact, author of the True Blood series of books, received death threats over her decision to stop writing the series, and often received very abusive messages when fans disliked the turn a book took. This is the “the emerging transactional relationship many readers are seeking to have with the texts they purchase.” that Remittance Girl writes about so eloquently.

At its best, the dignity of the reader-author relationship that Joanne Harris mentions, is one of fully mature and enlightened adults. It’s one where the author has nothing to fear from readers, and readers can approach a new book by a favourite author and not throw a hissy fit if it is not exactly what they wanted it to be. The other relationship experienced by Charlaine Harris is a blight on the world of the printed word. It makes an author a slave to their readers, afraid and even unable to develop as an author, or explore other genres or techniques.

The realisation has been dawning on me that the power of this transactional relationship (ie someone has paid for a PRODUCT) and therefore demands a product rather than a work of imagination and creativity that does not fit neatly or at all into the box it was believed to have been in (but usually wasn’t) is a pernicious and worrying one. It undermines the integrity and security of a creative artist (author etc) to produce what their (and I hate the term) Muse brings to them. It boils down to this: if I write something that is hated by those who have previously loved my work, the relationship is over because it is seen that I have not provided the “goods” they have paid for. Making literature into a transaction where the buyer believes they have purchased a commodity that conforms to their expressed wishes is a dangerous thing. It means for a start that to survive authors have to tailor their work to the parameters dictated. You could argue that this is precisely what genre fiction already does, but I would disagree. For certain there are a vast ocean of books that could (and perhaps have been) written using a template so that they conform to the genre. However, within these guidelines the authors are free to write whatever tale they want. It’s a discipline, like writing a sonnet. Sonnets have a set number of lines, a required metre and rhyme, and if those are not conformed to, the poem is not a sonnet; within those constraints a poet is able to write about whatever he or she chooses. There is endless freedom within a rigid system.

That isn’t what I mean, though. What I mean is this: an author stops daring to write what wild and crazy and wonderful ideas that come, because they feel sure the backlash from readers will be so devastating it will wipe them out; because they fear the annihilation that comes with plummeting sales, of being dropped by their publisher, of the snide and abusive comments of former fans dripping vitriol.

18 thoughts on “The short life and unlamented downfall of *Clean Reader* leads to musings on the reader-author relationship

  1. Three cheers, I applaud you long and loud for this. If you want formulaic books with not so much as a ‘damn and blast’ in them, go buy a trad pubbed sweet romance…


  2. The use of words is pretty critical, and writers have allowed themselves to be persuaded to use the word ‘product’.alongside the marketing managers. That is where the rot begins. So too with ‘packaging’ ( covers and blurbs). Independent authors , self publishing, have bought into this because anxious to ‘compete’ with ‘traditionally published’ ( and what does THAT mean? Somebody else’s money?) with products as ‘professional’ as any.

    It is time to talk of books, creations, stories in plain old fashioned terms, and use language to undermine the ‘marketing speak’ and refuse it at every point. Slippery slopes are indeed slippery.


  3. Excellent article. We live in the time of the Cult of Celebrity that permits the invasion of our privacy, our rights as artists, our legitimacy and our moral authority to stay true to our art form. Otherwise we are manipulated, objectified and demonized. (I feel another blog coming on.)


  4. couldn’t agree more. If readers don’t like the way a series is aheading, they can just go and write their own fan fiction can’t they? I hear that’s a thing now…

    Seriously, this trend was inevitable when literature stopped being about art and purely became regarded as commerce. That the trolling and hatred of social media has now even reached the Controller of The BBC as well as authors just exhibits what a sorry state we are in. perhaps someone should write a novel about that…


  5. Thanks for this post and the link, Viviene. But thank you even more for tacking and examining the stagnant, ugly relationship emerging between some readers and writers in this marketized paradigm. I’m really glad to see writers talk about this.


  6. I think this is a really interesting, well argued point, Viv. But I’m not sure whether the increasing sense of entitlement from everyone to be able to interact and CHANGE what they don’t like is about the marketing of books as a product, so much as a symptom of the way the social media generation have been raised. They are now even regarded as clients or consumers before being pupils or students in schools and colleges – everywhere you go there are apps and forms begging for feedback on ‘our performance’.

    The boundaries have blurred so the extent that EVERYONE in the public eye who does something their fanbase dislikes, is open to abuse and/or death threats – from politicians to pop stars; from the head of the BBC to authors. I think the emergence of the Clean Reader app is part of this particular scenario, rather than something the is specific to the publishing business. That said, it still means it is an attitude we have to deal with…


  7. I think sjhigbee has some good points – the client/customer label that is used in such a broad way.

    Within art particulalry painting I have noticed anger at artists who change their style – or stop painting altogether, when they have been successful. One one level I have been aware that you can just end up churning out the things that people like but no longer inspire to make and might not leave room for the way that your art practice is going. But it can be broader, the “consumers” and other artists seem to invest in a particular artists and their worlds falls apart if the artist changes. It is quite astonishing.
    Somehow it also links into changes I felt in education, an expectation of a transfer of the appropriate knowledge, something the student [customer] felt was the right knowledge and useful and what was needed to get their qualification. Some students got quite difficult if they felt they were being taught the wrong things or weren’t being given it on a plate: my knowledge was their knowledge because I was there to serve their needs as students/customers.

    entitlement [from sjhigbee] seems to be looming big in the air as I consider this


  8. Pingback: Further thoughts on ‘ The short life and unlamented downfall of *Clean Reader* leads to musings on the reader-author relationship’ by Vivienne Tufnell | Catherine's Creations and Concerns

  9. I don’t buy books full of smut and stuff like that designed to make some readers continue, but as an adult I’d like the opportunity to do so if I chose.
    I had heard of these apps but always steered well clear of them.


  10. Excellent post.

    I don’t write to schoolchildren or sheep. An app that changes my language is a fundamental violation–I might apologize for cursing out loud in front of my mother-in-law, but every foul word I’ve ever put in print was there for a reason. As for readers demanding something specific–I try to tell the best story I can, and am always open to suggestion of critique, but if you’re going to come at me aggressively you’d better put your name and where I can find you, or you can just shut the hell up. I’d go back to manual labor before I’d become some sort of literary jukebox. Do people even know what jukeboxes are any more?


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  12. Viv, this is a topic I’d never really thought about until I heard of that app and saw the reactions to it. The relationship of authors to readers and authors to their works vs product is another angle I hadn’t considered. I must admit that self-publishing and handling all the aspects of creation through to selling has given me a different perspective than when I’d first started writing, though. I do have to make a more conscious effort to take off one hat and put on another these days. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


  13. Hmmmm … never really thought this through, tbh. Thanks for making me think, now, about what it means to write a book that conforms to readers’ expectations. The obvious question is, which readers and which expectations? Beyond very basic parameters, the author has to have freedom to move! xxx 🙂


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