DISCUSSION: Is the term “clean” harmful?

I read an article from Book Riot the other day discussing why the term “clean” is harmful. The author explains that sex, underage drinking, and swearing are not “dirty” things and so calling books that don’t contain those things “clean” is harmful.

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I understand the author’s point completely and, to an extent, I agree. My main issue with the article is that she ends with this paragraph:

Publishers and authors are in the business of words. I trust they can find a better, less holier-than-thou way to say what they mean. Unless, of course, this is exactly what they mean.

Honestly, this paragraph feels a little “holier-than-thou” to me, but that’s beside the point. My problem is that she never offers an alternative to the term currently being used. I live in a super religious and conservative community. We have patrons coming into the library EVERY DAY looking for “clean” reads. That’s just the term they understand and we have to call these books something. I’d love to use another term, but…what other descriptors are there? This is not a rhetorical question, I’d really like to know. I discussed this very thing with one of my fellow librarians and we were pretty stumped.

In library school, it was very heavily emphasized that a librarian’s job is to be discreet and that no patron should feel judged in any way for what they choose or choose not to read. With that being said, obviously no self-respecting librarian wants a patron to feel dirty or less-than if they choose not to read “clean” books. Because of this, I almost feel like if a better word were out there, then librarians would have found it already?

Another point where I kind of disagree with the author is where she says how all books that aren’t considered “clean” must, in fact, be dirty.

And the word “clean” when applied to books is a clear value judgement against books that aren’t clean. Not “clean” = dirty. “Those books” are deemed less-than, worthless, like a used tissue.

I don’t really think it’s that black and white and I don’t think that the existence of “clean” books necessarily implies that not “clean” books = worthless. The way I see it, the term “clean” is more a descriptor of what the book is than what other books aren’t. However, I can see the point that labeling a book “clean” may imply that the acts of sex, drug/alcohol-use, and swearing are “unclean” or “dirty” (which, again, is not how we want patrons to feel).

In the end, I agree that “clean” isn’t the best term, but I don’t agree that it’s the worst. Sometimes I feel like we’re in a world that is so sensitive about the littlest things (and this is coming from a POC who has lived for the last seven years in a very white community). I’m not saying we shouldn’t be sensitive to things, and I’m not saying that this specific example should be something we ignore. But I feel like every alternative to the word “clean” that I’ve come up with, could be argued as insensitive to someone, somewhere. And thinking about that makes me so very exhausted.

What do you think? Should we move away from the “clean” label? What would you use as an alternative?
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