“I know it when I see it”

Warning: This blog post will shamelessly use the L-word – literature. I did have a specific reaction to the news that a number of online retailers, including Kobo and Amazon, were removing self-published titles, and to express it I have to resort to discussing nebulous and contentious things like literary merit. But bear with me. The issue isn’t as cut-and-dried as it may seem.

The self-published titles being targeted involve unsavory topics including incest, child pornography, and rape. Some reactions I’ve read, via a blog post by Shannon A. Thompson, point out the problems with determining what is “inappropriate content,” the fact that these subjects exist in real life and not all readers are bothered by them, and our odd American attitude toward taboos. But I want to expand on one response that was mentioned briefly: the fact that these topics appear in traditionally published books.

So what makes the difference? Why does Speak, to use Thompson’s example, get a(n almost**) free pass, but other books don’t? In fact, why are some books with unsavory and even taboo themes heralded as literature? What gives them the literary merit, and what makes the self-published books, by contrast, pornographic trash worthy of censorship?

It’s practically impossible to describe the je ne sais quoi (yes, one of my college TAs actually used that phrase as a descriptor) that constitutes literature, just as people, even lawmakers,  have been stymied in the attempt to describe pornography (leading to the famous “I know it when I see it“). But here’s an example that comes to mind: A short story from Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection Four Ways to Forgiveness. An idealistic ambassador visits a planet which has recently won its independence from years of slavery. As part of his visit, he is invited to observe a coming-of-age ritual, in which prepubescent girls are drugged, laid out on the ground, and the boys participating in the ritual are made to have sex with them. The sex may have been simulated – I admit that I read the book many years ago and some of the details are hazy. But I was struck by how completely, horribly perfect this scene was from a writer’s standpoint. Few other scenes could have so succinctly demonstrated the dilemma faced by the visitor, how his idealized image of these freed slaves clashed with the ugly reality of their lives. Few other scenes could have shown the struggles faced by this society at this stage in its development, so recently released from the cruelty of outsiders, not yet ready to recognize or address the cruelty within itself. And there are many people who would call this story child pornography and demand its censorship.

I can’t pass judgment on books that I haven’t read, so I can’t say whether or not the self-published books that have been withdrawn by Amazon and Kobo possess the same sort of significance that I got from Le Guin’s story. But I would give a piece of cautionary advice. The ease of self-publishing doesn’t just encourage writers to toss up their unedited NaNoWriMo projects, full of typos and bad grammar. It also makes it tempting to publish writing that hasn’t really been thought out, writing that people just put on the page because they can, without asking themselves why they’re writing it.

I realize I’m treading on dangerous ground here. It’s a very short step from saying that books should tackle big thoughts, to saying that only books that tackle these permitted thoughts should be allowed. But I think it’s fair to say that being a writer means more than just putting words on the page. A real writer – and I think anyone who takes the job seriously, whether traditionally published, self-published, or not-yet-published, is a real writer – is someone who asks themselves why they’re telling this story. What they have to say, and why they have to say it. The answer can vary. It should vary. But there should be an answer. Only once they have the answer should they put pen to paper or finger to keyboard; only then should they click Publish.

** Speak is one of the most frequently challenged books in libraries. A challenge is an attempt by an individual or organization to remove a book from library shelves, as reported by the library to the American Library Association. Speak hits ALA’s list of 100 Most Challenged Books for the decade 2000-2009 at #60.

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