Last week one of my old brothers in arms asked me what I think about an app I guess he had run across. Leaving aside the innate hilarity of asking me about something to do with technology, nevertheless his question got me to thinking, and thus today’s blog. I’m not going to name the app itself because, as you’ll see, most of what I have to say is only tangentially about the actual app, and since I haven’t actually used the thing, I don’t want this to be construed as a review or a criticism of the product.
What the app in question does is allow you to filter out the profanity from any e-book that you read. Presumably it subs in some more sedate choices. At any rate my amigo asked me what I thought of such a thing. It turns out I thought rather a lot about it, which I guess is typical for me.
My first reaction was, as a writer, that I find it a little annoying. I choose the words that I do with care and for a purpose. If I have a character swear, it’s meant to convey something, either about the moment that they’re in or about the makeup of that character. I presume most writers do the same sort of thing. So, if you filter all that out, you’re not really reading what I wrote. That disappoints me as a writer, and I struggle to understand it from a reader’s perspective either – if you aren’t reading what the author wrote, what’s the point exactly?
However, it’s a valid question to wonder if it really matters if a character says ‘oh crap’ instead of ‘oh shit’ or (more radically) just says ‘get lost’ instead of ‘go fuck yourself’. Is there something about the profanity that is really important, so that something is genuinely lost when it is swapped out? As someone who tends to have a bit of a foul mouth at the best of times, I think there is. You convey something about a character who swears in certain situations. Heck, you convey something with a character who, in a world of profanity, never swears under any circumstances. And you can get across something about a character’s emotional state and reaction to a situation by having them swear when they usually don’t. If you filter out the profanity, you’ve taken those tools away from me, and I cannot help but think that the text will suffer as a whole.
It’s fairly easy for me to imagine a character who constantly uses profanity, but is even so really a very sensitive and kind soul. Perhaps the swearing is a defensive mechanism for them. Maybe they just think it’s fun. Either way, if I wrote a story with that character in it, and you filtered out the profanity, you wouldn’t meet the person I had in my mind. The character would be very different. I would find that unfortunate from a writer’s perspective, and I imagine it being disappointing from a reader’s perspective, too. Maybe not.
However that may be, it does seem that this experience of picking and choosing what words we want to read is very much in keeping with our overall expectations of media in general. We want to be able to choose the specific songs we want to buy, rather than getting the whole album. (And I remember a lot of anger from musicians when that first became a possibility) We want our TV shows on demand rather than according to a national schedule. Even the idea of waiting for 6 o’clock to get the day’s news is, by now, thoroughly quaint. You can get a recap of the top stories in HD basically whenever the heck you want it. You can customize the webpage where you get your news to only show you the stories you’re interested in, and have it hide the other stuff.
I don’t think any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a very user-oriented way of consuming media that I suspect isn’t going anywhere. So as much as the idea of having my words filtered and swapped out annoys me, I imagine it’s something writers will need to get used to.
We could get into a thing about Death of the Author and how what I intend to write doesn’t matter anyway – anyone’s experience of the text is just as valid as what I ‘meant’ the experience to be anyway, so why not get the experience you want? Possibly quite valid, although I have always found Death of the Author intensely annoying too. Of course (it seems to me) it matters what the writer intended the meaning of their text to be. That’s not to say you can’t read it another way if you want, but I think I will go to my grave believing that the meaning the author intended wins the tiebreaker.
However, if we’re going to start customizing texts to suit our needs, how far can or should it be taken? Would people like an app that lets you choose, say, the gender of the protagonist in a story? Probably something could be created to take out scenes of violence or erotic content, or at least briefly summarize them rather than provide the details. Or maybe the reverse – you could fluff out insufficiently steamy or fighty scenes with added colour!
This would be a whole different kind of reading experience, and a whole different kind of writing experience too. The story an author created might be very different than the one a reader actually sat down to read. I don’t know if I hate the idea or not. It may be entirely fanciful that things would ever get taken that far.
But messing around with fanciful ideas is kind of what I do, and so I can’t help but wonder…
Anyway, that’s what thinking about that app got me to. Now it’s a blog post. Hope you found something interesting in it.
I said in my last entry that I would get at least 1,000 words of the new project written in and around other stuff that needed to be done in the upcoming week. I had some unexpected difficulties to deal with on top of what I already knew was coming, but I got them done in the end. It wasn’t an idyllic moment of effortless creative endeavour, but there are 1,000 words on the page where they weren’t before.
Writing is difficult sometimes. It’s not labouring-in-the-salt-mines difficult, but it can be demanding and exhausting and a challenge sometimes. I mostly say this as a reminder to not be too hard on myself when I don’t have a very productive day and nothing flows and I have to rewrite a single line of dialogue eight times.
I try to remember one of my running coaches, who said ‘if running marathons was easy, everyone would do it.’ If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it. It isn’t easy. But we can do hard things if we commit to it.
I am also extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to commit myself to writing, and that’s another thing that I need to make sure I don’t forget.
I generally shy away from giving advice, but commit yourself to something hard. It’s gonna feel great when you get it done.