Has Clean Become a Dirty Word in Book Reviews?

Has Clean Become a Dirty Word: using clean in book reviews

I’m super late to the conversation, but I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. The first I’d seen of the discussion was a Twitter post positing that calling a book “clean” was the same as calling books with explicit sexual content or profanity “dirty”, which the tweet named as shaming language and not okay.

It takes me a long time to process things like that. I’m kind of a people pleaser by nature, so there was a part of me that wanted to go back through every post and page on my blog and replace the term “clean” with something more friendly and less potentially offensive.

Obviously, I ended up not doing that, partly because I could never think of a succinct alternate term. Still. Totally at a loss here. I’m open to ideas.

Trigger-free? Doesn’t that assume we understand all reader’s triggers and still leave room for offense? I don’t feel comfortable with that either. Explicit-free? That seems weird, too.

At some point, the whole conversation shaming bloggers/publishers/anyone for using “clean” to describe books made me a little angry, to be honest. I’ve worked really hard to try to make this blog space welcoming and open. It felt like I was being attacked for things I *didn’t* say rather than things I’d said.

Using Clean in Book Reviews

I’ve been using “clean” as a way to describe a particular kind of book, one without profanity, explicit drug or alcohol use, graphic violence, or explicit sexual content. But I don’t think anywhere in my blog have I ever reviewed a book with explicit content and called it dirty. In fact I’ve tried to be very careful to phrase any dislike on my part as personal preference.

It feels a little like if, as a parent, I tell one child she’s done something really good, and the other child immediately panics because she thinks I’m implying what she’s done is bad.

The solution, to me, isn’t to stop telling a child when she’s done something good. I simply explain to the other child that it’s an independent observation. That telling her sister she’s done something good has nothing to do with her own behavior.

It’s less simple to translate that across the reading sphere, though, right? I can model respect for books with explicit content by reviewing them in a non-judgmental way, and I strive to do that. But I worry that labeling some books “clean” may cause offense or mean that viewers assume things about me that aren’t true. Which isn’t fair and is frustrating.

How Readers Use the Term Clean in Book Reviews

A fair amount of traffic on this site comes from google searches for things like “clean books,” which also matters. Honestly, I’m not super concerned about the Google hits, but I want to take a minute and talk about why people are using that label in searches in my experience.

Lots of times it’s a parent or teacher looking for books they can have on a family bookshelf or in a classroom. If you’ve got children of various ages in your home, you may want to focus your book budget on stories that are accessible to the most readers in your home, and that’s not a bad thing.

As a teacher, you may also face limitations on what you can have in your classroom. A local high school teacher here has told me she’s not allowed to have books on her classroom shelves that have explicit sex or other types of content in them.

I also see parents and educators looking for books for teens who’ve sort of fallen between middle grade lit (which is aimed at kids 8 to12) and young adult lit (much of which is aimed at ages 15 to 18). As a parent of a child in the gap myself, it’s become really important to me to find books that both challenge my reader but meet her at her current maturity and level of comfort.

Using the label “clean” helps simplify those searches. You can find a book for your reader in the right age range and find content that you and your reader find appropriate.

I can’t stress enough how important I feel this is. We talk a lot in the YA sphere about freedom of speech and freedom to read books with whatever content we want, and that’s a freedom I really appreciate. I love that there are so many books in such a vast spectrum of topics and genres and ideas.

But we can’t forget that some kids aren’t ready to read everything today, and we shouldn’t shame them for not being ready or make it more difficult for them to find books that they can feel comfortable reading and fall in love with.

My Plan for Describing Books without Explicit Sexual/Violent/Language Content

I’m continuing to use the term “clean” at least for the present. It means something to readers who visit my blog. It feels to me like the word isn’t really the problem. The problem is a lack of respect that some bloggers have for books with explicit content in them.

To which I kind of want to say, okay, rudeness sucks. It really does. That’s not okay. So here’s what I suggest.

Vote with your mouse. Don’t click those pages written by a snooty blogger. Don’t visit that blog. Invest in relationships with readers and bloggers who appreciate the books you do.

There are lots of really amazing book blogger sites. Find some with values and a tone that you love. Follow them. Comment on their posts. Shop their affiliate links. Thank them for their hard work.

What are your thoughts on using the word “clean” in book reviews?

As a blogger or reader, are you still (or did you ever) using “clean” in book reviews? Do you think it constitutes shaming language or is offensive? Do you have suggestions for alternative descriptions? (Because I’m so open to ideas!)

What do you do when you find yourself on the outside of changing trends like this?

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

7 Responses to Has Clean Become a Dirty Word in Book Reviews?

  1. Pingback: Is “Clean” the New “Dirty”? – Sci-fi Fantasy Lit Chick

  2. Robert M. Starr says:

    I’ve not had a problem with ‘clean’ as yet. But I did have a review on one of my books that was similarly confusing. The book, A Walk in the Wilderness, is advertised as Christian fiction on Amazon, and the back cover description includes the fact that the two female characters are relying on God, a fact that the lead male character ‘barely tolerates.’

    The reviewer considered it “WAAAAAAAAY too religious” — but he read the entire book, anyway “skipping over the religious parts” and called it “an otherwise good book.”

    I’ll have to admit that I was tempted to ask: Which part of Christian fiction did you not understand? But I managed to restrain myself and simply sent him a note that I was sorry he was disappointed. He probably never looked at the back cover text before he downloaded the ebook.

    • That sounds frustrating. I bet you’re right, though, that the reader didn’t put it together from the back cover copy. I sometimes miss things like that, too. I think you did the right thing not commenting on it, though. I’ve seen those kinds of exchanges escalate pretty quickly sometimes. But I’m glad the reader enjoyed the book otherwise. Hopefully they’ll check the summary more carefully going forward! 🙂

  3. Rose says:

    Personally, I use it all the time. I know who my audience is and if they have an issue with it, they can go to a different blog. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t think that it should be offensive because it is just letting the reader know the contents of the book in a respectful way.

  4. Leah Good says:

    I think the word “clean” is fine. It seems like we are often quick to label words as offensive just because we disagree with the authors perspective. Sometimes there is just legitimate cause to encourage a more respectful approach and that’s fine, but sometimes it seems closer to censorship by peer pressure.

    Also, I’ve seen more sexually explicit books choose to use the word “dirty” in their advertising, so I’m not sure why reviewers would not.

    Personally (and as a book blogger myself), if a book goes beyond what I’m comfortable reading, I will just say, “I stopped reading this because the sexual content/violence/language went beyond what I am comfortable with.”

    Been reading your blog for years. Don’t let some harsh words on Twitter discourage you!

    • Thank you so much, Leah. <3 That means a LOT! I think your approach to reviews is great. I really appreciate it when reviewers list why they didn't enjoy or finish a book. It helps to know. 🙂 Great point about some books using the word dirty like an asset, too. I've seen advertising similar to that.