Censorship, Branding, and the Indie Issue

Book BurningIt seems that many writers are having difficulty in understanding censorship. If you’ve missed the latest news, UK bookseller WH Smith was recently embarrassed by the media when it publicly discovered that its on-line bookstore contained titles not suitable for the family reading hour. Most of these “offensive” titles were fed to their system via Kobe and in order to get a do-over, WH has temporarily closed its website while it removes self-published titles. Independent authors have responded in a few ways. The loudest response has been the shouts of censorship, but many authors also agree that certain “types” of stories should not be allowed. Both arguments are problematic.

Censorship seems like a straight forward argument and it is when it involves a government. But booksellers are not the government. They are private companies who also have a right to protect their brand’s integrity. They are not under any legal obligation to carry goods or provide services that they believe harm their brand image. Companies “censor” things all the time. McDonalds does not sell Pepsi products, Goggle deletes certain pages from its search engine, Apple censors apps from the App store that don’t meet its standards and Nike stores don’t allow its employees to wear Adidas apparel. WH Smith made a decision to inspect the content of the books it offers for sale and to remove those that do not fit its particular brand image. That’s not censorship, that’s a brand image and product decision. Authors who write material that does not fit into the WH Smith brand are not being prohibited from writing, publishing, distributing or making the material available for sale. They are being told – we don’t carry that type of content. If consumers want the type of content no longer available on WH Smith, then they can shop elsewhere – much like if you want a Pepsi you need to go to Burger King instead of McDonald’s.

Some folks have written that they agree with the removal of the “offensive porno” and others have also noted that there are differences between “erotica” and “porno.” While I don’t advocate the insistence that a company be forced to carry material of an erotic nature or any nature, I stand firm against any of these other “value” based discussions. Here is what one person posted on a blog:

I think the time has come when we need to define the difference between erotica and porn; and yes, there is a difference. I know, because I’ve read the books. Erotica has a real and definite story, with what you would call x-rated sex scenes. Porn has little story to it, and is all about the graphic sex scenes. And books that contain incest or rape, for entertainment value, are just sick and deserve to be removed. I personally avoid those books.

I find WH Smith’s actions to be far less fearful than this comment. This is the real slippery slope of censorship, when people decide to “define” what is “sick” and what “deserves to be removed.” The problem is that we will never have complete agreement on “sick” let alone on “who” should decide for “everyone” what “anyone” can read or purchase. We may have some areas of agreement – but even “rape” is not one of them. It often, too often, appears in movies and books, but it more often appears in life. So should we make entertainment “prettier” than life? Should we not allow in books or movies things that actually happen, but that we rather didn’t happen? Are we to create a panel to decide when such things are “purely for entertainment” versus those that provide real value? And who decides that?

I don’t advocate “incest” but even states have different definitions of what constitutes “incest.” And if we don’t allow “any” incest type stories then shouldn’t we ban the Game of Thrones books and take the HBO series off the air? Should we remove any “Classics or Mythology” that mention rape or incest?  Is it okay to reference it, but not describe it? Or are we to now decide what is “tasteful” rape and incest. Should people opposed to abortion have to accidentally read a book where someone has an abortion? And we all agree that adults having sex with children is a disgusting and a bad thing – but is it less bad or disgusting when the adult is a 150 year old vampire who looks like a teenager?

At issue is the definition of “obscene.” In art, obscene to one is beauty to another. Rated X is simply a term developed by the movie censorship industry to ensure that children and adults understood “what” the former could not view and what the latter were buying admission for. There is probably no agreed upon way to differentiate between erotica and porn, anymore than we can understand why some people are sexually attracted to shoes, or pain, or whipped cream.

Censorship by governments is wrong. A company’s right to protect their brand’s integrity is legitimate. Making proclamations of what is “sick” and suggesting that “thing” not exist because one doesn’t like it or agree with it, is the type of dangerous thinking that leads not to a society of higher morality, but one of limited liberties. A society doesn’t improve morality through rules, regulations or restrictions – it only improves its morality when people decide on their own to live, act and behave in a positive manner. I think the author of the comment discovered the real answer to the issue when she wrote, “I personally avoid those books.”

Personal choice is really the only form of  book censorship any of us can agree upon. As authors and as readers our choices should be limited by our own preferences and hopefully by a sense of morality that supports a positive society, not by the thought police. It is admirable to wish to protect others, to protect especially our children, but in seeking such protection we should not choose the easy path of censoring books, but the more difficult path of personal understanding and choices over those things that help rather than hurt our humanity.

5 replies »

  1. OK, here I am again, commenting. I can’t help myself…I agree with you on this entire article. One person’s “ick” is another person’s “wow,” whether it involves books, music, movies or anything else subjective. And people will scream for censorship until it hits something they like, at which point censorship will become bad in their eyes. I don’t want my liberties taken away any more than they already have been; whether I read, listen to, or watch that which I consider to be absolute crap should have no bearing on whether someone is allowed to produce it. I may not like it, but I can only stop it from coming into my home, which seems to be exactly what WH Smith is doing.

    • Lol you’re supposed to comment otherwise I’m just talking to myself 🙂 I do believe there are people who think the world would be better if everyone was forced to think like them. It’s always “trust me this is for your own good” and then they light the match and burn the witch at the stake.

  2. Yeah, this can be a sticky issue. Booksellers don’t want to lose customers, so sometimes that means they may have to do some things that will upset self-published authors. Then again, I agree with the writer who says we should differentiate between erotica and porn and get rid of books that use things like incest or rape for entertainment. That’s just sick.

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