In 1977 Stephen King published a novel entitled Rage under the pen name of Richard Bachman. In this novel a troubled high school student kills two teachers using a gun and then holds his class hostage. The gun-toting teen and his hostages end up bonding and talking about their lives and the secrets they have been hiding. The end result is a twisted version of what happens in a movie that was made 8 years later: the teen classic Breakfast Club. I think Rage is a brilliant work with regards to its social commentary. However, insofar as horror is concerned the novel is really not a big deal in a genre that figures all sorts of monsters, psychos, and grotesque occurrences. The problem with Rage is that it made the leap from the fictional into the real. Some actual and attempted school shootings during the 80s and 90s were linked back to the novel when it was discovered that the perpetrators had read it and could have been inspired by it. The author was so shocked by this that he asked his publisher to take the novel out of print. So let me get to the crux of this post. If you found that a book you wrote was inspiring acts of violence, would you remove the book from circulation? We can even take it a step back. Would you write something if you knew that there would be the chance some disturbed person somewhere would use it as an inspiration to harm others? Would you censor yourself? In my next book of short stories, Spirit Women, there are stories where murders are committed. Should I publish it? What if I give ideas to some disturbed person? Would I want that on my conscience? Do I have a social responsibility as a writer? Should I stick to writing the wholesome family stories that are featured in my book The Sun Zebra forever? One problem is that deranged people will be inspired by the craziest things to carry out or justify their acts. Charles Manson and his clan took inspiration from songs by the Beatles (most notably Helter Skelter) and from the book of Revelations in the Bible when carrying out their brutal murders in 1969. Timothy McVeigh made a reference to the reaction of audiences to the blowing of the Death Star in the movie Star Wars to justify the morality of his bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. A sick or troubled mind will twist anything to justify preconceived beliefs. However, the cases above are “abstract” whereas the specific subject matter of novels like Rage is more explicit and therefore more prone to produce copycat behavior. And I do admit that when it comes to kids and guns the issue is way too emotional for me to deal with, especially after the recent Sandy Hook shooting. To answer the questions I posed above, I think that if I had written Rage I would have done like Mr. King and yanked it from the shelves if I had found it could have inspired acts of violence. But would I have written it at all? The puzzling answer is yes. I would have written it and then hoped for the best. The reason behind my apparent contradiction is that I believe stories like Rage are nothing but mirrors. What they show us may not be pretty, but if these stories are censored we would never see our reflection. In the case of Rage that reflection was a society that was ignoring abuse by teachers, bullying by students, and domestic violence in the community. Challenging the status quo always produces conflict and occasionally has tragic consequences, but is censorship and business as usual the alternative? What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Writing erotica has a stigma in our societies, so much so that most writers use a pen name. If you are a writer of erotica and your true identity is revealed you can get in trouble. This recently happened to a teacher named Judy Buranich. Judy taught English at Midd West High School in Middleburg, Pennsylvania, for almost 25 years. However, all those years of devotion and love towards her students suddenly went out the window when a group of parents discovered that she writes erotica under the pen name Judy Mays. These parents seem to think that teaching high school students and writing erotic romance novels on the side are incompatible. To be sure Judy has received a lot of support from people worldwide and from many of her current and former students and their families. But the damage has been done. At this moment it is not known whether she will be able to keep her job. I have written that freedom of expression is a two-way street. You have a right to write what you want but people have a right to not buy it, or publish it for you, or even to organize boycotts against what you write. But do people have a right to request that you be fired from a job because of what you write on the side? The problem with some jobs such as teaching underage students is that they often require a certain “presence,” a certain level of perceived compatibility with community standards. In the case of Judy I don’t think she should be fired, but isn’t this a matter of where we draw the line? Even if you agree with me with regards to Judy, suppose you found out that your kid’s teacher writes material where women or girls are gratuitously tortured, raped, and killed (and yes, there are these things out there). How would you feel about that? You may argue this is an extreme, but there are parents that feel this way about erotica. But going back to erotica, I don’t understand how the reasoning to fire a teacher who writes it works. Apart from the fictional elements, the nuts and bolts of the erotica Judy writes is no different from what many teachers do in the privacy of their bedrooms behind closed doors. So it’s OK to do it, but it’s not OK to write about it under a pen name? And what happens if somebody places a webcam in the bedroom of a teacher and then splashes what was filmed all over the internet. Do we then fire that teacher? Is the issue then not what teachers do or write but whether everyone knows about it? Also the central tenet behind this reasoning is that if you write erotica you are somehow a perverted person who is unfit to teach children, and this is just not true. Judy demonstrated that for 25 years before she was outed. You cannot unerringly judge the character of artists from their art. If you don’t believe me take my “spot the murderers” test. In the end I think that whether Judy stays or goes will be decided by how strongly the different factions within her community are able to influence the school board. Societies change and lines are redrawn all the time; you just have to be mindful about which side of that line you are on at any given moment.
As many of you know PayPal recently shocked the world of publishing by requiring Smashwords to remove books of erotic fiction that contained rape, incest, and bestiality. Smashwords quickly scrambled to comply in order to not lose the service provided by PayPal that allows readers to pay for books they buy online. After modifying the terms of service, Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, issued a detailed directive to authors of these books to remove them from the website. He even clarified that animal shape shifters, popular in paranormal fiction, could be depicted as having sex as long as they were “getting it” in their human form.All around the web cries of “censorship” arose. An author even published a book detailing what happens when a couple has sex “the wrong way” and ends up being busted by the “Private Authoritarian Yellow-alert Pervert Adjudication League” (P.A.Y.P.A.L.).
I have the following to say about this issue.
I think that moral absolutes do exist in our society. Their boundaries may be fuzzy and ever changing, but they are there. The proof is that companies are anxious about being associated with products that cross these boundaries. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of the line if there is a negative consumer reaction. PayPal’s main concern is making money. If PayPal thought our society was OK with rape, incest, and bestiality, I am sure that this wouldn’t have been an issue for them. PayPal’s request to Smashwords was merely the exercise of their right to not be associated with some books that Smashwords was selling. That is not censorship.
Now, you may argue that even if this was not a censorship issue the end result is the same. Authors of works of erotic fiction with rape, incest, and bestiality cannot publish on Smashwords anymore.
I believe that what we have here is the clash of two rights. One is the freedom to express yourself, and the other is the right of others to aid you in expressing yourself. No one is saying that writers CANNOT write books with the above topics. No one is saying that if they do, they should go to jail. If that were the case I would consider that censorship. However, granting you access to sites to publish your work is another issue. If these sites consider your work objectionable it is their right not let you publish. That, for me, is not censorship. *****
Update: PayPal backtracked on its policy and has clarified that: The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity: material that appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value).As I said above, I believe PayPal has the right to do business with whom it pleases. But the least I would expect from them is to do some thinking before putting out these kind of policies. This retraction indicates there was someone asleep at the wheel.