When I was reviewing romance novels for the Kindle Book Review, I once had a run of books in which it seemed as if the main characters were falling into bed on every other page, and the reader was treated to descriptions of what the two of them were doing as they fell. After a while, these scenes became humorous, not because of what took place, but because they were so repetitive. It occurred to me that I likely could cut-and-paste between episodes and no one would notice. I even decided that the cutting and pasting could as easily be done between books as within them. While there is certainly a market for these books, many readers are not interested in reading them, and they find themselves searching, instead, for “clean” books.
“Clean,” in this context, is one of those words whose meaning you might know, but whose definition you might find difficult to verbalize. A Facebook group to which I belong, Clean Indie Reads, is composed of about 2300 authors who have an interest in clean fiction. The founder of the group has verbalized her definition of “clean” with three criteria, and books posted on her blog and on the group’s page should meet each of the three.
1. They contain no graphic violence or gore. There should be nothing that paints a very specific and horrific image in the reader’s mind. Scenes generally described as appropriate for war stories, crime stories, etc. may be present.
The Goodreads Clean Reads Group is composed of readers who frequent Goodreads, a well-known site devoted to books and reading. The members describe themselves as “a group for people who love to read a good book, but don't want to have to put it down one chapter in because of things that, if it were a movie, would make it R-rated (or even a racy PG-13).” On the issue of violence, they note that “Violence in PG-13 films may be intense, but must also be bloodless – see Jurassic World or any Marvel Movie, for example.”
Book Scout, a group that reviews and rates books for cleanliness, writes that in a clean book, “violence levels are either No violence, or Limited, Non-descriptive violence.”
One really finds little disagreement with regard to what constitutes violence or gore, and in my experience, few mainstream books fail this criterion.
I do recall, though, Dunham by Mariah Jovan. In the first chapter, Celia Bancroft leads a mutiny aboard the pirate ship on which she sails. In the space of a few pages, the former captain is decapitated and his head hung from the bow of the ship. Blood gushes as one sailor’s eyes are cut out, another loses his tongue, a third is impaled in an iron rod, and a dozen or more are knifed or hacked to death.
Dunham is certainly not a clean book on this count!
2. They contain no erotica or sexually explicit scenes. There should be nothing that gives a play-by-play description of a sexual encounter or describes nudity in detail. Mild innuendo, reference to sensual or sexual activity that is “off screen” and not graphically portrayed may be used in some books written for adults.
Book Scout defines three “heat levels” for books they will list:
1 No Sex – The main characters do not have sex and have limited physical intimacy during the time frame of the book.
2 Sex Off the Page – The main characters have a sexual relationship which is not represented on the page. Physical intimacy on the page is limited.
3 Fade to Black – The beginning of sex scenes are represented on the page in limited detail but the scene fades to black.
“Fade to black” or “off-screen” was once THE technique for dealing with sex in motion pictures.
In one motion picture – I’ve long forgotten the name – the setting was a house beside the shore. It was night. A man and a woman, the main characters, began to kiss. As the action became more intense, the music rose and the camera drifted away, above their bed, focusing through a window on the harvest moon, its light reflecting on the ocean. The scene then cut immediately to the next morning and the woman was alone, walking on the beach. Only a clueless viewer would not know what had happened, but sex never appeared on the screen.
Here is a literary example from my first novel, The Reunion. In the story, Bill and Allison have been having dinner in her hotel room. He is preparing to leave.
Well, if you don’t mind…can I ask you to do me a favor? Would you mind rubbing my shoulders before you go?”
Bill smiled and nodded. “Don’t mind at all. I’m actually very good at this. Strong hands.” He flexed and wiggled his fingers, then interlaced them and bent them back, cracking his knuckles.
She pulled off her t-shirt, and Bill began to massage her shoulders…His hands moved toward her lower back, catching on the lower strap of her bathing suit as they passed.
“Bill,” she whispered, “if the strap is in your way, unhook it. Take it off.”
Bill left Allison’s room an hour later. She lay on the bed staring at the ceiling. Her eyes began to water. “I don’t believe what just happened,” she said to herself. “How could I have let it happen?”
This criterion is a little more controversial than the first one. Some people, for example, might not include all three of the criteria, cutting the definition of clean at level two or even level one. On her blog, Kay Dacus distinguished among various types of romance novels. She writes that a typical rule in sweet and/or inspirational romances is "nothing below the shoulders", or, "shut the door, don't let the reader into the bedroom. In the same vein, Clean Read Books.com writes “if there are bedroom doors in the book, they must be closed.”
3. The authors have curtailed offensive language. There should be no use of the “F-word”. Other words commonly considered as swearing and/or racially offensive terms should be used very sparingly, if at all. If such words are present in an effort to mimic speech in times of great duress for a character (and not just peppered in gratuitously) (they may be used).
Consensus is perhaps more difficult to obtain on this criterion than on either of the others.
The “F- word “is a deal killer in most cases, but not all. In citing the motion picture standards, the Goodreads group writes that any swear words have to be used sparingly, and, in the event of the specific obscenity we politely call the F-word, not used in a sexual context. They note that You can say “Oh, (BLANK) this!” in a PG-13 film, but not more than once, and never “I’d love to (BLANK) Denise …”)
Other forbidden words vary. Book Scout states that a book must not include the words, “F-k, C-k, P-Y, or C-t.” They acknowledge an inability to be a hundred percent clear without posting the words they would not allow.
Some readers will object to any obscenity or profanity, even if the word is totally in character or is uttered in an exceptionally emotional context. In addition to the obvious candidates for exclusion, some will be unhappy with those words which, while they have obscene or profane origins, are used so commonly that the links to their sources are murky for most people (“Go suck an egg,” for example, or the English “bloody”).
Finally, there are euphemisms, words that “stand for” other words and whose meaning is perfectly clear, but which, in and of themselves, are not bad. For example, in my novel, Those Children Are Ours, a reader would find this passage during a cross-examination in court. The attorney is reading from an account of what the witness said. Is it clean? Or not?
Kimi turned to the judge. “I’ll be using a few euphemisms here, Your Honor.” She looked back at the journal. “She pushed against my chest and she tried to hit me with her fists, but I caught her hands. She jerked away from me and growled like a wild animal. Then she screamed, ‘You take your flipping school and your flipping dissertation, and your flipping job, and your flipping children straight to flipping hell and you flip yourself.'"
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, “I know it when I see it.” Now, Justice Stewart was writing about pornography, perhaps the flip side of cleanliness, but his conclusion is valid here, too. Cleanliness lies in the beholder’s eye, and although we might quibble over some of the fine points (as we’ve seen), most of us know a clean book when we see (or read) it.