"Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all."-Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Makes a Book "Clean"?

Over the past few months, I've been on a "clean reading" journey and I've been asking myself over and over, What makes a book clean?  What makes it unclean?  Is there room in a "clean book"  for "taboo" topics or "darker issues" (For example:  Death and dying, alcoholism/drug recovery, divorce, death, disease, forbidden romance, crime, addictions, rape, infidelity, eating disorders, identity crises, crises of faith, you get the picture)?  And what about character traits?  Use of language, tattoos, killing in military or another uniform, piercings? Well, I'm still not sure on the answer, maybe each book is a case by case basis or maybe there's a hard and fast line, or maybe the definition of clean varies from person to person. What do you think?

A few months ago when I started adjusting my personal definition of clean reading, I looked to Deseret Book to help me out.  I knew if a book was listed on Deseret Book website, then it would steer pretty far to the clean side of the street instead of taking a nose dive into the gutter. That's where I found Edenbrooke, Second Chances, and other great books.  Unfortunately, I exhausted the website of new reading material fairly quickly. So I found new ways to find clean reads: adjusting the books I listed as "to-read" on my goodreads account and finding more friends with similar desires to read clean books on that site as well.  This is when I discovered we all have a differing idea of what makes a book clean or not.  

Let's Discuss the "Big Three": 


This is an interesting one.  It seems like you either really care about it or really don't.  There are probably a few readers in between these two extremes who are okay with a few "minor" instances of swearing in a book, but for the most part, it seems like readers are either in one camp or the other.  For me

I've noticed that there are a few LDS authors out there (some of whom I really like) who tend to write their non-LDS works under a different pen.  One author in particular (who shall remain nameless, because I like her and would never ever slam an author on this site ever) tends to have A LOT of swearing (both major and minor) throughout the entire book in both her new adult and young adult non-LDS works.  I'm not sure what I think about this. So this brings up another interesting question, Do you hold LDS authors to a different standard in terms of using language in their writing? I do.  For a few reasons.  First, I believe that it's possible to write an amazing book without ever having to use a a swear word. And second, if you're LDS I kind of count on you to write something that I can feel okay reading. There is a whole lotta smut out there that I already have to choose from without a fellow sister adding to it. Yikes, that sounds harsh doesn't it?  

Well let me step off my pedestal and say that I'm actually a pretty lenient reader in terms of language.  Minor language doesn't bother me as much as it does some, even widespread.  I am pretty forgiving.  I can even forgive the occasional "major" swear word.  That being said, widespread swearing of either minor or major words tends to get in the way of my reading experience.  In other words, when there are so many instances of profanity in a book I am so distracted by it that it detracts from the story.

Sexual Content

I haven't been shy about saying I love the New Adult genre.  But my oh my is it difficult to find a good clean book in this genre, especially in terms of sexual content.  This genre unfortunately, has become synonymous with the aforementioned "smut". Which, sucks. Really, it sucks, because  I love me a good college romance.  I'm pretty sure this love-affair with the NA genre, started way back when I was in junior high and started reading the Sweet Valley University series. Okay, I really don't remember what they were about, but I remember loving them  (that probably ages me doesn't it?).  So back to sexual content...  This is a pretty controversial one, isn't it?  For example, is it clean if it's a "closed-door" bedroom scene? Most would probably say sure, ya, I think that's fine.  Okay well, let's back up for a second, What if the couple isn't married?  Or what if the couple is made up of two minors?  Or maybe it's depends more on how it's portrayed? Now here's a more personal question... Why are you reading it?  Are you reading it because your addicted to the way it makes you feel? Can you enjoy a book if it doesn't have "that" scene? 

Here's what I think... I try to stick to the MPAA movie rating guidelines of a PG-13 level book.  Every once and a while a book will surprise me with a scene (usually at about 80% through the book) and I'll just skip over the pages with that content.  Since Fifty Shades came out a few years ago the industry seems to be flooded with books that I would consider pornographic or erotica.  I've even seen some of these themes and scenes showing up in YA fiction. Honestly, I've scene them on the shelves of my neighborhood library. That I am not okay with.  I'm not saying I think we should censure books, I'm just saying we should be able to have some rating system so we know what to expect in a book.  

Taboo Topics

This is what I have been mulling over for the better part of three months.  In LDS fiction, especially romance,  I've come to expect a "sweet read".  A book that doesn't deal with heavy topics, use language, or have sexual content (well maybe a chaste kiss).  But here's what I'm wondering about today: Can an LDS fiction (a book with LDS characters and/or intended for an LDS audience) book address topics of a less-traditional more taboo topics?  In earlier posts I've reviewed a few books that deal with more difficult subject matter: Becoming Bayley (bullying/alopecia), Mile 21 (death of a spouse/crises of faith), Taken by Storm (dating outside faith, the lines of sexual promiscuity), The Weight of Love (Forbidden Romance with a missionary/death of a spouse).  I've also read a few others: My Not So Fairy Tale Life (Unplanned pregnancy), Hidden in the Heart (Rape- done cleanly without sexual content) etc... All of these books I consider clean.  They were written without swear words, crossing the sexual line and most importantly these books didn't preach bad choices having good-consequences.  And I think maybe that's the key.  

I'll explain what I mean with a story... My husband is a theater actor/singer.  On the stage he has given many opportunities to play many different parts. We use a quote from Brigham Young to measure the roles he considers against:

'Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnamity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to sun it." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.243; Bookcraft, 1998)

What this quote essentially means is this: Portray good choices as having good consequences and bad choices as having bad consequences.  With each role he plays carefully analyze the role and see if it's something that meets this standard.  Now back to books, far too often I see the reverse of this quote happening.  Bad choices having good consequences... Drinking leads to meeting a cute boy and happily ever after- Not loss of the spirit and most likely making further bad decisions: promiscuity, getting behind the wheel leading to a car accident etc.  That's not good.  Of course there are many many other examples of what I mean by this quote, but I think you get the idea.  

For me, I enjoy reading LDS fiction that deals with these sorts of topics.  I want to see how LDS characters deal with mental illness, divorce, disease, unplanned pregnancy, addiction etc.  Of course it has to stay within the boundaries I mentioned above, but I think LDS readers are looking to read about issues with more weight.  What do you think? I'd love to hear! Do you have any suggested books?


  1. Hi Tiffany--I, too, have noticed a wide range of what is considered clean. I know what I believe and what I'm comfortable with, but there are others out there who would consider something clean that leaves me very uncomfortable. I think it's an individual case by case decision. I agree with a lot of what you said. Here are my opinions: Swearing. I can handle a few minor ones spread throughout, but give me the big one and I'm totally turned off. Or a ton of it--I'm reading a book now that is a little more than the minor ones and about 5 per page. Ugh. I do hold LDS authors to a higher standard, but yet, I appreciate it when they use another name so that I don't go into it thinking it's one way when it's not.
    Sexual Content: This is where I have problems. I have my standards and think that others should have the same--haha. I don't like it when it happens, even behind closed doors, when it's a teen and you know what they're doing. In books with teen pregnancy, that's fine, because it is an issue, I just don't want to know it's happening. I don't want to read about anything happening that couldn't happen if someone was around. People could kiss if others were around, but they probably wouldn't be in the bedroom or graphically touchy. I agree again--PG-13 movie ratings apply.
    Taboo Topics--This one is hard, too. I think that as much as I'd love for all books to be happy and perfect, they're not and life isn't. I think it's great when these topics are incorporated in a tasteful way, especially when they show the growth and change a character goes through. If they're depressing or graphic, I don't enjoy them. I agree with you--if they show that good choices lead to good things and bad/bad, all the better. I really like seeing the growth and change though. I think my favorites are the sweet, clean romances of two people meeting how they fall in love. Even if they have to go through a trial to get there. Sooo many stories have such a cute premise and could totally be written to my standard of clean and not lose a thing. :)

  2. I feel the same as you about language. I can accept a few (even the occasional big one) but too many gets distracting and bothersome.

    I HANDS DOWN hold LDS authors to a higher standard. If it's unacceptable for me to do that / say that in real life, then why would it be acceptable for my character to do/say it? I don't expect other authors to know/accept/follow my standards, but if you're LDS, you don't have an excuse. I remember reading a book written under a pseudonym and being shocked/horrified when I figured out it was a LDS author that I liked. On the flip side - I totally get that if you're writing a book for the country at large, that the main character will meet/interact with people that don't have my standards. That's fine. I appreciate it when the author writes things like "I stood there as he cussed at me". You get the situation without any of the actual words.

    I have ZERO problem with "taboo" topics. They are real situations that actually occur to people. That's one thing that originally drew me to Josi Kilpack's books. Her LDS ones deal with hard things, but in appropriate ways. Like her book that has sexual abuse in it - it all happened before the book takes place and you find it out later. Or her book on prescription drug abuse. Or internet predators. All fine and handled with grace.

    For me, a "clean" book is 100% about the smut level. For it to be clean, there is no sex. period. Ok, I can think of one clean book where there was actually sex - between a husband and wife, and the extent of the description was that they had lots of reasons to lock their bedroom door. That's it. Completely up to your imagination.

    Even too much kissing is too much for me to still say it's clean. I don't want my characters to imagining each other naked (or nearly naked). I don't want them to use major innuendos. You can dream of holding hands for the first time, or even a first kiss. But any major making out is no longer "clean" for me. And I prefer for anything like that to be introduced early in the book so I can decided right then to keep reading or not. I really REALLY hate it when there's nothing, then on page 189 they are stripping each other!

  3. First of all, thanks for finding me on Goodreads :) Fun to connect with new folks!!

    As to your questions...

    Language - I've always been frustrated with profanity in the books I read because I'm hearing my own voice saying the words in my head and that's so bothersome to me. I'm particularly sensitive to the Lord's name taken in vain. And I'm not a fan of the "big bad word". If a book is packed with either of those, I usually close the book and move on. Minor words don't really bother me much at all. I've always wished for some kind of rating system on literature, similar to MPAA ratings. Not as a means of limiting free speech, but as a tool for readers to be informed before deciding to read something. I use MPAA ratings and peer review to determine whether I want to watch a movie or not - I'd LOVE to have a similar tool to help me decide about the books I read!

    And yes, I hold LDS authors to a different standard. Maybe that's not fair, but I do. My cousin just published a book last year and I enthusiastically picked it up at the library to read it. I was stunned by the language and even asked my mom if my cousin wasn't an active member of the church any more hahaha! (We're 1st cousins but distant cousins, y'know?) I read his blog and he has an entry about language. His argument was that he wanted his characters to feel genuine. To that I argue... all the prime time television shows manage to create characters that feel genuine without using R rated language...

    Sexual content - I just do NOT want the graphic details. Blah!

    Taboo Topics - I like to read a pretty wide variety of literature and genres, and there are few topics I can think of that I would consider totally taboo, as long as the topics are handled carefully. I really love the standard you use when considering roles your husband will accept. I think that's a great standard to use! As far as reading goes, I don't want the books I read to sugar coat life. I enjoy slice-of-normal life reads, I enjoy deep subject reads, I enjoy romance reads, etc. As long as the stories are written well and sensitively, I'm okay with the "taboo" stuff.