I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.
So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.
While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.
But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.
Censorship. Let’s talk about it, shall we? Or, more precisely, the people who enact censorship.
Recently a budding author, Amélie Wen Zhao, pulled her debut young adult, or YA, novel, Blood Heir, from publication after an internet ruckus decrying it as “racist”. You can read more about it here.
Kosoko Jackson, also a budding writer, also had his debut release canceled due to internet mobs. I admittedly don’t have much sympathy for him. He participated in the campaign against Zhao, and, according to his website was “a vocal champion of diversity in YA literature, the author of YA novels featuring African American queer protagonists, and a sensitivity reader for Big Five Publishers”.
While the author’s intentions were noble, his actions in regard to Zhou demonstrate otherwise. After what he did to her, the cancellation of his book is just karma if you ask me. The other information will be pertinent later.
I was reading Drew Nellins Smith’s “Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene” and found myself making faces at the article. It’s unimaginative, to say the least.
The first problem the author has is that they haven’t read. There is plenty of (gasp!) fanfiction which has provocative and wonderful sex scenes. The same is true with the Romance genre of fiction. Both provide sex scenes that are crucial to character development.
(If you feel the need to mock Romance, bite me. It was one of my staples growing up, right next to James Joyce.)
And that’s the second problem the author seems to have: the inability to recognize that character development and sex go hand in hand. They focus so wholly on the matter of sex in literature they never mention the characters. How are they feeling about this?
I wrote here about the publication of His Aura, an anthology of transmasculine erotica. I am not an erotica author, but I had a few pieces I’d written for a friend’s project which didn’t pan out and thus needed a home, so I submitted them. I was accepted. Gleefully, and trustingly, I signed the contract. And then waited. And waited. And waited. Payment was supposed to happen a few months prior to publication, and include copies of the book. The publication happened. The payment never did, and those copies never came.
The editor of the tome is “Shaun J. Phree” or Shaun Peterson, though, both could be pseudonyms for all I know. It is convenient he vanished from the web after the publication. He made promises to authors by email to pay us, but never did.
But just so you know. If ever a guy wanting to publish trans fiction appears and has the same name, tell him to go fuck himself rather than submit any work to him. And, as always, for authors working in any genre: be careful as you can.
The only reason I bring this up after so long is that I have the energy to deal with it now, and it I feel obligated to warn people.
ETA: Apparently he now lives here and publishes the book through his personal site so he doesn’t have to pay the authors, the snake.
Dear 22-Year-Old Me:
After getting over the shock of discovering your older self is, in fact, a man, and hairier, smellier, and grubbier than you currently are, I expect you might be a tiny bit disappointed. (But not with the impressively groomed facial stubble.) I know that you didn’t expect your life to be like this, thirteen years in the future. I think you expected to be a university professor by this time (ha ha), rather than some dude who works part time as an adjunct. I think you also expected yourself to have written and published a few novels by now, and might look on this scruffy character — who will be you — as something of a failure. Not only is he one short bastard, and not only has he not even finished a single novel, he does not even give two shits about writing novels anymore. He has all these — novellas and short stories — just simmering away on his mental burners. But what does he really have to show for those thirteen years’ time, creatively speaking?
So I am working on the fourth draft of my novella, Bloom. I am discovering a number of things about the project and earlier drafts.
I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white or white-passing. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.
I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.
This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.