I found it hard to find a good title for this; the one I’ve chosen doesn’t really fit the bill. Our world is becoming more and more complex, and the modes of distribution wider and wider. The internet and digitization of material has meant that barriers to publication – once the purview of mostly wealthy, entitled white men – have been dramatically lowered. Censorship was never solely in the hands of the state. True, states enacted laws that limited what could be published (made public), but publishers and bookstores have always been able to exert control on what, in practical terms, saw the light of day. With a few, notable exceptions, this form of control resided in the hands of the privileged. And indeed some of those privileged entities did see beyond their own narrow interests and published and distributed works that reflected other realities, told stories of the unempowered, served as rallying cries to revolutions. But it was always dependent on their choice to do so.
I want to make this point clearly. Even when publishers like Grove Press chose to publish works that were deemed ‘obscene’, they weren’t obliged to do so. They were always the decision makers. Similarly, bookstores could choose whether or not to carry those books. Some stores may have chosen to – but they were in control of the decision to do so.
Our historical memory is often convenient and selective. Miller vs California, the landmark case that brought the subject of obscenity to the Supreme Court was not about whether it could or could not be published, but whether it could be sent through the US postal service. States have always employed middle-men to do their censoring for them.
The ability to write, format, upload and self-publish on the internet changed this. Yay. It’s not that you might want to read whatever is available to you now, but at least the choice lies with the reader, not with the middle-men. Mostly.
However, there are significant limits to this freedom. Huge online bookstores like Amazon DO make active decisions on what they will allow sold on their sites. And transaction processors, like Paypal DO make active decisions on what material they will process payments on. The state now rarely needs to prosecute a publisher directly. It can rely on commercial entities to act in fear of prosecution, or simply rely on them to act of as arbiters of what is ‘fit’ for readers to read. Very much like the U.S. Postal service in 1973. Similarly, servers can be pressured to ban customers who post obscene material – and do so regularly. It is fundamentally disingenuous to say that the acts of these commercial entities don’t constitute a form of censorship. And in the 21st Century, economic censorship has just as much teeth to stifle speech as the Committee for Unamerican Activities once had.
Yes, of course, a writer can choose to publish their works for free. But in a society where money has become the single, most important measure of value, this becomes a complex matter of perception. How can any work offered for free be of value? Oh, you may say it is the content that counts, but this attitude is not borne out by consumer behaviour research. A book given away for free is consistently rated lower than a book someone has paid money for, even when it’s the same book. So having a book for sale – even when its pricetag is $0.99 – is always going to infer that its contents are of greater worth.
A couple of weeks ago, Jenny Trout, an author, decided to express her disgust for an ebook called ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress: Werewolf Fetish Vampire MILF Sex Slave‘. I haven’t read it and, after perusing the other titles the author has on offer, it’s unlikely I will. Not really my cup of tea. But the irony is that the title is misleading. There is, it seems, one very short story that involves the subject matter in the title, along with a bunch of other short erotic stories having nothing to do with it. So, you get the idea: sensationalist title with not much follow up.
I think it is entirely appropriate to give a work, once read, a scathing review. Competent critique engenders debate and analytical thinking. It encourages readers to form their own opinions – positive or negative. I also think it’s very legitimate to take issue with the title, and critique it robustly, because for historical and humanitarian reasons, it seems gravely insensitive. In truth, it may be a worthless piece of crap. Or not. It may be a piece of post-modern satire. It might be the literary equivalent of Django Unchained. I simply don’t know. I do know is that the vitriolic nature of Trout’s post has ensured that the book has sold more than it might have. One has to wonder if a more measured approach would have been more effective.
What I know is that it is a piece of paranormal fiction. It isn’t a rewriting of history, or a non-fiction book that champions the perpetuation of a slave economy. It’s fiction. It’s fantasy. It might be highly offensive, but then, to a lot of people, so was Crash, by J.G. Ballard. And in its time, the explicit eroticization of a relationship between the female member of the British landed gentry and her gardener was also considered obscene. Not just for its sexual explicitness but because of its portrayal of a relationship between classes. It’s not my intention to compare the literary merit of ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress‘ with Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘, but to point out that we’ve never been good at measuring the literary merit a book at the time of its publication, especially when those books are clearly intended to shock and confront social norms.
What I do know is that using one’s influence to encourage a demand for a book’s removal from e-book stores is, in my opinion, a step too far. By all means critique it. Address the important socio-historical issues at play. In fact, the existence of the book on Amazon’s shelves offers us the opportunity to discuss why this sort of subject matter is problematic. By all means, let people know that you found the whole premise of the work offensive! But the minute you demand that it be barred from sale is the minute, in the 21st Century, that you are championing censorship. And to deny this is disingenuous. Moreover, removing a book from the virtual shelves robs anyone else of the opportunity to make up their own minds about it, including coming to the decision that eroticising slavery is in bad judgement and poor taste. If the book doesn’t exist, in the public sphere, then we are robbed of our decision not to buy it or read it, and robbed, as authors, of the decision not to write anything like it.
I am very glad that Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf‘ is available for sale at Amazon. It is a disgustingly racist screed. I’m sure there are people out there who read it and embrace its ideas, but for many more, it serves as a reminder that one ignores the published intentions of murderous madmen intent on achieving power at one’s peril. I am equally glad that Amazon sells ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion‘ because it serves as an exemplar of how a spurious piece of text can be used to encourage race hatred. Even when it comes to non-fiction, my stance is that it is much better to have the crap out there so you have an exemplar to push against, to rail against, to criticize, to engender discussion.
Censorship – whether by state, or by economics – treats grown adults like children. It is always a testament to how little trust we have in our ability to educate and encourage critical thinking. But it inevitably relieves us of the harder task of providing better education and producing more profound critical thinkers.
Lately, I have watched intelligent, thoughtful people reject nuance in favour of intransigence and absolutism. It is always easier to draw a hard line than to defer judgement, to live with what is offensive, to bear the disorienting fluidity of meaning. But it ensures our decisions, as consumers, and our discussion, as thinkers, are borne of choice and consideration, not force and ignorance.