Friday, October 18, 2013

Censorship and Banning Books: How Far is Too Far?

We've had some issues with the Author Spotlights in the queue--if you want to be featured in next week's "Know Your Hunt to Read Authors," feel free to send the relevant info to contact@hunttoread.com. In the meantime, let's talk a bit about a hot topic in the publishing industry for both readers and writers.

This week, an (CAUTION: VERY NSFW) article in The Kernel, a UK-based web publication, got a lot of folks hot and bothered about erotica, and not in the way that the stories' authors probably wanted, either.

The piece, linked above (AGAIN, NSFW), pointed out a wide variety of erotica titles offered for sale on retailer W.H. Smith's website involving "taboo" sex acts of incest, rape, and even bestiality.

This set off a domino effect, as Kobo began pulling a host of self-published titles from their site, many of which apparently had no sexual material in them at all.

For the record, none of my titles were pulled, nor do they contain "graphic" depictions of sex. I had to think for a moment before writing that last sentence because I'm sure certain people would quibble with that assertion, based on a number of factors, which, unfortunately, might spoil the book. Most of these assertions come from the comments sections of sites like The Passive Voice, which were filled with examples of popular indie authors (like David Gaughran) who had books without any sexual content pulled from the site.

Nonetheless, it got me thinking about censorship writ large. Here at Hunt to Read, we've already had to deal with this subject head on, when some titles that I would say are similar to some of the titles listed in the Kernel article, started popping up on the site with risque covers and "taboo" themes.

Rick and I are both staunch defenders of our First Amendment right to free speech. Because this site is hosted in America by an American company, our foreign members and visitors get to enjoy that same commitment to free speech that we so often take for granted in this country.

However, we started to receive some complaints that these titles were popping up on the random book generator on the front page and in the hunt, indicating that the controversial covers made the site "NSFW."

So, we had a bit of a crisis of conscience on our hands: we weren't too keen to remove the books, as objectionable as some might find them, because some people might want to find them.

Let me give you an example: I just finished Grand Theft Auto V the other day. The game involves all kinds of horrible violence, objectionable language, brutal crime, and a graphic torture scene in one mission that kept me glancing away from the screen, pretty viscerally, the entire time.

That all said, it was, on whole, one of the most enjoyable games I ever played.
How can this be? Given popular logic, shouldn't have playing GTA V turned me into a murdering psychopath of a criminal?

Of course not--much like in books, there's a separation between fantasy and reality that kicks in for most mature, well-adjusted individuals. With the game's age restrictions, those are the only folks who should be playing it, right?

Right?

...

[crickets]

Okay, age restriction enforcement issues notwithstanding, I would argue that the same should go for books: as long as the person consuming the material is an adult capable of making his or her own decisions, go ahead and read the craziest, most depraved porn out there, as disgusting as the rest of us might find it personally.

That's why, in the end, we decided that an adult filter that defaults "ON" is the best way to go. People browsing Hunt to Read who want to look at some of our "naughtier" fare can specifically go out and find it. Erotica authors and publishers should be okay with it because they want legitimate cover and blurb ratings from individuals interested in their books, and not panning take-downs from readers who would do so just because they disagree with the book's subject matter.

But here's where it gets tricky:

[Hold on a minute--let me put on my spiky boots]

...

...

Got 'em! So you're probably thinking, "But D.J., what about stories with pedophilia? What about bestiality? What about (insert crazy new freaky thing that I dare not consider)?"

Ah, the old slippery slope problem! We thought about this, as well, and as much as I'd like to make the opposite argument, "banning books generally is the slippery slope to fascism," I'll refrain from making that argument for reasons listed below.

Our library is growing, and it's tough for us to keep an eye on all of the books going up sometimes, so how do we know someone isn't slipping one of these past us?

I think we're handling it the way that Kobo, Amazon, W.H. Smith, and the other major retailers should: we rely on the community to flag these objectionable books, and then we can make a judgment call as to whether or not they have any redeeming value.

I know, I know, that sounds a bit too much like Justice Stewart's old "I know it when I see it" test for pornography. But what's the alternative? Take down random titles willy-nilly while your site conducts a "thorough investigation?"

It wouldn't be so bad if rankings, visibility, and sales momentum weren't so intrinsically linked on these sites. If my books would fall off the face of the earth for a few days for no good reason at all, I probably wouldn't carry on too much because it would just mean "Oh, a (relatively) few copies didn't sell" or whatever.

But there are two problems with this line of thought: (1) What's to say that one of those days that my books weren't listed wouldn't be "the day" when they started the long, slow climb up the rankings to the mythical land of "Being Noticed?"

More importantly, (2) for a writer like David Gaughran, who can sell thousands of copies a month, taking his books off the shelves takes real money directly out of his pocket. Not to mention that once the books go back up, ostensibly those days they weren't listed are recorded as big, fat goose eggs in the sales reports and algorithms, thus decreasing visibility for his books going forward.

Our system certainly isn't perfect; I'm sure there are a number of erotica authors on our site who would like more exposure for their titles, offended readers be damned.

But it's far better than a blanket quarantine or takedown of books based on no criteria at all that may have wide-ranging effects for their authors beyond those immediately apparent to the "internet outrage crowd."

So I ask you, what do you think of book censorship? Would you be offended if erotica covers popped up on HTR's front page? How should we balance preventing minors from getting their hands on these books with freedom of speech? And with the line getting pushed ever further with titles like GTA V and Fifty Shades of Grey, what exactly even counts as "objectionable material" these days?

Let us know in the comments. Until next time, happy hunting!

D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Check out his books on hisHunt to Read Profile. Contact him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.


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