All right, I was going to write about something else today, but I stumbled across an e-mail from Mark Coker the Founder of Smashwords in my inbox. For those who don’t know, Smashwords is an independent author ebook publishing site. They serve some 30,000 + authors and help produce a boatload of ebooks. Here’s the problem: Paypal, a subsidiary of Ebay, recently gave Smashwords a surprise ultimatum: remove all titles containing bestiality, incest, or rape, otherwise Paypal will deactivate Smashwords’ paypal account. The problem is, of course, censorship.
Do I support bestiality, incest, or rape? Of course not. But I want writers to have access to the tools they need to tell their stories. To be fair to Paypal, the e-mail I read said nothing about “being shown in a positive light” or not. So, perhaps, Paypal is willing to let negative portrayals of rape, bestiality, and incest pass. If not, however, that is a serious problem. Let’s take rape, for example. Crime novels, where the crime is a rape, would fall under the wide brush of Paypal’s censor. That could seriously decimate the number of crime novels that would be permitted on Smashwords’ site.
But even if Paypal is only against “positive portrayals” of rape, incest and bestiality, I still think they should back off. What about a crime novel about a rapist that tells the story of a rape from the criminal’s point of view? If Paypal is against portrayals of any and all rapes, then this should be censored out. If they are just against “positive portrayals” of rape, then the issue is a little bit muddier. In the context of the entire book, it’s a given that the rape will be viewed negatively. But in the context of the isolated scene, the author will do his or her best to get inside the head of the rapist. Suppose he was abused as a child? That doesn’t justify the crime, of course, but it might soften the tone. I would be hard pressed to imagine a serious “positive portrayal” of rape or bestiality or incest—well, okay, rape I can’t imagine at all, but as Mark Coker himself pointed out, what about all that teenage-werewolf love that’s going on? Is that bestiality? And incest? What if I want to tell a story about the Pharoahs of Egypt? That wouldn’t fly either. The problem is that the lines of demarcation for such things, particularly in fiction, can be very blurry. Trying to prevent one fictional occurrence from happening will likely blot out a great deal of good fiction.
As a general rule legal forms of censorship are a bad idea. Most of the time, the brush is too broad to serve its goals effectively. For myself, as an author, I would never even consider portraying rape, incest, or bestiality in a positive light. But I have, in the background of a character here and there, used rape in the character’s development. And I don’t think I should have to deny myself access to other similar tools if the situation calls for it. I’ll probably never use them. But who knows? If it can occur in reality, it just might occur in fiction.
In the e-mail I received from Mark Coker, the Founder of Smashwords, he said that the push behind the effort was coming from the credit card companies. I don’t know where the financial service companies get the idea that they know enough about literature that they can set themselves up as censors, but that’s the way this is evolving. Anyway, here is a list of links (also provided by Mark Coker of Smashwords) for those of you who wish to let the credit card companies know how you feel about the topic.
Ebay (owns PayPal):
And with that, I bid you adieu.