Clean Fiction vs. Dirty Fiction?

Blue book with a faucet of water flowing from it, beside a brown book with dirt smeared over it

I’ll admit when it first came to my attention a few years ago that the “clean” label for fiction is offensive to some, it surprised me a little. But, I understand the concern. (Mind you, while romance and young adult fiction are the focus of the article I just linked to, the overall discussion of clean fiction is broader.)

A movie clapper with the ratings G, PG, PG-13, and R on the front of itI wish books had a standard rating scale, like movies. And nowadays, since I’m realizing what “clean” can mean to different people, I personally opt to use the word “wholesome” instead, when I can. Or I refer to certain books as mild or moderate in content.

Or, hey. In an informal capacity, I just go ahead and use movie ratings to describe the content levels of books, and folks get my drift.

However, I think it can be easy to use and take the word “clean” out of context when it comes to books. Yes, as the article I linked to says, words mean things. Even so, most words in the English language have more than one meaning or sense. And not every sense is an equal or fair comparison to every opposite or contrasting word.

A jar of honey beside two lemons

The article above mentions that “not ‘clean’ = dirty.” In the context of books, I tend to disagree. For instance, consider two other words, as common as clean and dirty: “sweet” and “sour.” People often use them as opposites or contrasts. But when it comes to a particular fiction category, sweet romance, does “not sweet romance = sour romance”? Or is that equation a poor one in the context of romance books?

A bottle of champagne beside a baby bottleThen there’s the other end of the spectrum. People often say that a certain book or movie contains adult or mature content. Does that mean they’re saying “not adult = childish” or “not mature = immature”? Are they implying that all books and movies without adult or mature content must therefore be juvenile or babyish, or inferior in some way?


“Adult” and “mature” aren’t value judgments meant to belittle milder books. The words are content descriptors to help audiences make informed choices. And the descriptors are meant to be used and taken in the context of content, not value.

A little kid finishes his dinner at the table, and his mom says, “Wow, Joey, that’s a clean plate!” Is she telling Joey that his plate isn’t dirty? No. Joey’s “clean plate” is indeed a dirty dish, and somebody’s going to have to wash it after dinner. But Mom is telling Joey that his plate is clean of (or free of) the food he ate. That’s all.

A full plate of tacos beside a near-empty plate with only crumbs

In the business of publishing, I don’t think the “clean” label for books is meant to be a value judgment, or meant to say that all books that aren’t clean are therefore dirty. “Clean” is a content descriptor to help audiences make informed choices, and the descriptor is meant to be used and taken in the context of content, not value.

Of course, an official movie rating will often come with a bit more fine print for a given movie. For instance, PG: for some mild sensuality, and brief incidental language. Likewise, authors or publishers will often have to give a bit more information to clarify the content labels for specific books. But in general, a reader can expect a clean read to be free of certain kinds of material. Just as a reader can expect a mature read to contain certain kinds of material.

Clean, mild, wholesome, gritty, adult, mature—each of these words has more than one meaning. If someone is using or regarding the “clean” label for books in a holier-than-thou way, they’re using it in the wrong context or regarding it in the wrong sense. Clean doesn’t equate to “good,” and mature doesn’t equate to “bad.” Clean isn’t better than mature, and mature isn’t better than clean. They’re descriptors to help readers find books according to their personal preferences or to let them know what kind of material to expect. That’s all.

Two columns of multicolored books sitting side by side

Still, whenever I opt to say “mild” or “PG” instead of “clean,” it’s because I see both sides of this issue and don’t want fellow book lovers to think I’m passing judgment. 🙂

Anyone else wish that books came with standard ratings?

Speaking of content ratings for books, I must say that Book Cave and their related site, My Book Ratings, are great with that.

Also, while my quasi-conservative, ChristFic-loving self doesn’t worry much about content levels when it comes to distinctly Christian fiction (I mean, hey, even The Holy Bible contains sex and violence and other mature stuff), Fiction Finder is rather clear about the different content levels in ChristFic books there.

Go to Nadine's Books of Hope and Inspiration

8 thoughts on “Clean Fiction vs. Dirty Fiction?

  1. Guy Worthey says:

    Lovely discussion, Nadine.
    Unlike the article you cite, which offers (very mild) outrage but no solutions, you’ve thought out the pros and cons and angles. Personally, I think ‘clean’ should be taken in context, as you suggest. More things that are not, actually, clean: Clean slate. Clean plate. Clean machine. Clean bill of health.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Hey, thanks, Guy. 😀 Now my hope is that the little Joeys out there don’t see this blog post and twist it the wrong way.

      “JOEY! Go clean up your room NOW! I could’ve tripped over all your stuff and broken my head!”

      “Well, Mom,” Joey says as he picks his toys up from his bedroom floor, “in the context of whether or not you’ll trip on stuff and break your head—” And he dumps the pile of toys on his unmade bed, wiping his hands together as he leaves the room. “Ta-da!”


  2. ireneonorato says:

    I found the article you cited to be highly abrasive and felt it expressed more outrage than I would consider “mild.” I agree with Guy’s post (above) when he said the author of the article offered no solutions to the perceived problem. Further, if we disagree with her, we are “sanctimonious” and “holier-than-thou.” Once the name-calling starts, I shut it down.

    When I pick up a book that’s marketed as “clean,” I expect there would be no depictions of on-screen (on-page, I should say) sex, and that curse words, if any, would be of the mildest varieties. When I asked my teenage granddaughter to tell me what constituted a clean read, she said pretty much the same thing.

    I think you are spot-on when you wrote, “In the business of publishing, I don’t think the “clean” label for books is meant to be a value judgment, or meant to say that all books that aren’t clean are therefore dirty. “Clean” is a content descriptor to help audiences make informed choices, and the descriptor is meant to be used and taken in the context of content, not value.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      My expectations of books labeled as “clean” run along similar lines as yours, though I’ve found that people’s expectations of the label pretty much run the gamut.

      When I started reading adult fiction in my early adolescence, I was reading books by authors like Jane Austen and historical ChristFic author Janette Oke. Someone else coming from a reading background that mild might be thinking, “Clean reads shouldn’t have any cursing/profanity, no sex scenes or crude sexual references, and no violence beyond maybe an indignant or incidental slap on the cheek,” while someone who’s been used to reading much grittier material will think, “As long as the author doesn’t use the F-bomb more than a couple crucial times, name any ‘pink parts’ during the sex scenes, and all the descriptions of violence are necessary to the plot, it’s clean.” 😀

      So it’s helpful when websites and promotions give some details of what clean or mild (or another label) means for that particular site or promo. When there aren’t any specific guidelines, my reader and/or author self just guesses and hopes that my PG to PG-13-ish scale will be a good fit for the place or event. 🙂


  3. AuthorIrisChacon says:

    Reblogged this on Author_Iris_Chacon and commented:
    Well expressed, Nadine. People who prefer “clean books” are not holier-than-thou readers to whom any book not labeled “clean” is Evil with a capital E. I look for “clean” literature to avoid explicit sexual content and to incorporate mild language. Other readers prefer literature that expresses the “gritty” side of life with the kind of language and imagery that might be encountered in society’s bleak underbelly. Readers know what the world is like. They simply differ in the way they like to see the world portrayed when reading for entertainment. Some want ultra-realism no matter how dark, while others want to escape the dark side of life and read sunnier stories.
    I choose my reading matter for what entertains me, and I do not condemn someone who chooses different reading matter for themselves. However we label it, none of us have the right or qualifications to condemn someone who prefers a different style.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Indeed, Iris, readers know what the world is like, and I appreciate it when authors demonstrate trust in readers’ intelligence.

      That’s not to say that authors who choose to include explicit content don’t trust their readers. Nothing wrong with painting an intentional picture. 🙂 But I sometimes hear “G to PG-13” authors’ concern over their works in progress, wondering if readers will appreciate the implications of certain scenes or character traits. The authors have to be reminded, basically, “Readers don’t need to be spoon-fed every detail to know exactly what you’re talking about.”

      It’s a part of understanding the power of what’s left unsaid—that oftentimes, subtlety and leaving something to a person’s imagination or discernment is even more powerful than being overt. Knowing when you don’t have to spell out what’s already self-explanatory…

      But that’s another discussion. 😀


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