Going Forward: Lessons in Freedom #censorship #erotica

March 13, 2012

However this situation turns out, no matter what PayPal decides, I hope that we have learned that the world has changed significantly since the 1st and 4th Amendments were the law of the land and since the Miller Test was the one by which obscenity was judged.

The digital age, the web, and a separation between sellers and payment facilitators has fundamentally changed the landscape of what we think of as freedom of expression and the freedom of the marketplace. Yes, the web allows many people to have a voice, but the sheer volume of information contained on it means that voices can easily get lost.

True, none of us lost the ability to publish our work, but we lost the ability to locate it in the places where people might go looking for it, whether we were charging money for it or not.

The fundamentals of a free market system is one of supply and demand.¬† If there are buyers¬† for a legal product and sellers willing to stock and sell it, then anything that interferes with that process renders the market ‘unfree’. This is exactly what PayPal did. Although they neither buy or sell the books, although they only transfer money from buyer to seller, they managed to manipulate the entire market.

We’ve learned that in the view of many corporations, we cannot expect our individual works to be judged on their merit. Labels can be used to relegate thousands of works into the dark closet of illegitimacy, simply because they deal with transgressive subject matter. And it makes no difference what the literary quality of the work is. Brand it and it’s dead in the water.

We’ve also learned that a single, ill-considered policy from a company can cause hundreds of small, independent publishers to consider whether they can survive. And here I have to pose a challenge to all these nascent presses: are you just slinging ‘product’ or do you care about bringing new and challenging voices into the cultural sphere? It is very much worth your while to read the history of Grove Press if you are considering becoming a publisher. If you ask yourself the question ‘Why am I going to be a publisher’ and the only answer you can come up with is ‘to make money’, then my advice is go into another business. You better love the books you’re publishing when the going gets tough. You better love them enough to fight for them.

During this sad debacle, I watched a lot of writers – some of whom I read, some of whom I had respect for – hang other writers out to dry. It shouldn’t have mattered whether THEIR books were on the line. It was our collective ability to CHOOSE what to write that was at stake. And if we win this battle with PayPal, it will be our collective ability to write without fear that will have been won. To those squeamish, superficial authors who let us go to the wall with a smirk and the stink righteous indignation, all I can say is: shame on you. I am ashamed to share a calling and a profession with you.

Finally, no matter what PayPal decides, I think we’d be stupid to assume this fight is over. If we are foolish enough to depend on a single mode of sale again, then we deserve all the misery we get.

It’s up to us individually and as a group to educate retailers, payment processors and readers as to the difference between ideas and acts. Between fiction and reality. Between writing about criminality and criminality in the real world. We need to make sure people understand that the value in writing in transgressive areas is that it provides a safe place for us to explore the darker aspects of ourselves as humans, not to give permission for people to do reprehensible things in the real world.

Please join me in thanking the members of this group, Rainey Reitman of the EFF and Mark Coker of Smashwords for their admirable their efforts to bring some sanity to the online sale of transgressive literature.