Clean vs. Dirty?

This might be a rant, and if it turns out that way, I intend no deliberate offense to any fellow author, even though I’m offended enough by this issue to write about it.


I’ve noticed a trend lately among authors of several different genres. They include an emphasis in their marketing on the fact their material is “clean” or “safe.” What they mean is there’s no sex (gratuitous or otherwise), no “bad” words, no alcohol, etc. To me it seems these authors have set themselves up as paragons of virtue, i.e., it’s safe to read their books; it’s not safe to read books that aren’t labeled as “clean.”

Isn’t that underhanded censorship?

That’s fine. You want to write books without sex or violence or cursing, do so, but don’t be sanctimonious about it. Sex isn’t dirty, except in the minds of people who like to judge. And I ask you, if you’re writing about a subject or an era where violence is prevalent, how do you get around that? Do you pretend it didn’t happen, like a lot of white people pretend slavery was fun for the enslaved? And it’s fine, too, if that reflects your lifestyle; thank goodness for a while longer at least in this country you can more or less live how you please, read the books you want to read, or not read books you don’t want to read.

But understand, if you plant yourself on the moral high ground of cleanliness, what does that make the rest of us who portray life as it is not as you wish it could be? Does that make us dirty?

I Do Understand, but…

I get it. You want people to buy your books, and you don’t want them to be offended by the content. Because, let’s face it, we live in a social media dominated world wherein one person being offended by the smallest item in a book can work up a whole anti-book movement.

I mean, when someone buys one of my books in person at a book event and he or she is excited that I have a strong female protagonist as a role model for his or her daughter, I always issue a caveat: Let her read it when she’s at least fifteen because there is non-gratuitous sex, there is violence pertinent to the story, and, oh my, there is cursing because when something goes wrong on a mission, spies–or anybody–don’t say, “Oh, shucks.”

My beef is that in the way you carelessly use the word “clean,” you’re denigrating those of us who write realistically. My written work is not “dirty.” It’s realistic. It reflects real life. My characters behave like real people not saints from icons. They’re flawed and passionate and far from abstemious at times. Because that’s the way most people are. No, that’s the way everyone is.

I mean, we’re writers. We have the words, a lot of them, at our disposal. If a cozy mystery writer marketed his work as “suitable for audiences of all ages,” I understand exactly what that means. That’s cool. That doesn’t set this fictional author up as some prig. And I don’t feel that I’m being sanctimoniously patronized.

Pot, Kettle, Black?

Well, you say, aren’t you being sanctimonious about your position on this issue? Yes, I’ll own it. Here’s the thing: writers, in particular independently published writers, should support each other regardless of genre and shouldn’t create artificial barriers between us. When you say, “my work is clean and safe,” you lose me because I feel as if you’re excluding me from your elite club. You see, life isn’t clean. Not by any means.

Yes, but, you say, writing also lets us and our readers escape into worlds unlike the hell we might be living in. True, and, trust me, if it weren’t for science fiction I read as a teen I wouldn’t be here now. Write exactly how you want to write, what you want to write, but don’t try to imply your chosen genre or content is better than anyone else’s because it’s “clean.” Whatever that means.

I get there are readers who don’t want to read sex scenes, violent scenes, or scenes where people drink too much, and I get that authors want to attract them to their books that don’t feature such scenes. All I ask is you remember some of us write stuff as good as yours but we choose to reflect life as is. And we’re not “dirty,” nor are our books. Try to understand your use of a descriptor such as “clean” implies that the rest of are “unclean.” I would never dream of marketing my material as “dirty” to con readers into thinking they’ll be reading porn. There are enough readers out there for all of us to appeal to; we don’t have to be divided into “clean” or “dirty.”

So, rant over. I need to go do some dirty writing.

I live for your constructive comments.

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