Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 1)

censor

Recently, in the horror and bizarro writing community, there’s been a bit of a ruckus kicked up by a certain author going on a tear, accusing his contemporaries of censorship, claiming that genre fiction is on the wane, and opining that the reason for said decline is this supposedly rampant censorship.

I won’t mention the author by name (let’s just call him the Odd Man Out), nor will I level any attacks at him directly. Partially, that’s because the man in question was one of the first members of the fiction community to see anything of worth in my own writing. He gave me a chance, encouraged me when I felt like giving up, and even went on to be the first person to publish some of my fiction. So I owe him. But another part of my desire to not smear him here is that, to a degree, I somewhat respect him for standing up for something he believes in with such uncompromising staunchness. I don’t actually agree with the things he believes, and I don’t agree with many of his tactics either (much of it admittedly reeks of self-promotion disguised as activism). I think he’s wrong. I think he’s behaved immaturely. And I think the cold shoulder he’s received from former friends and colleagues can be attributed directly to his own self-righteous, antagonistic approach. But, deep down, there’s a teeny tiny scrap of integrity in there that, yes, I do respect.

In any case, however you feel about the Odd Man Out, the question remains: Does he have a point? Are the spheres of horror fiction, bizarro fiction, weird fiction, and transgressive fiction dying? Is there really an “epidemic” of forced censorship in the genre fiction community, perhaps perpetuated by some foaming-at-the-mouth mob of hysterical, ideological, left-wing bigots who can’t accept any beliefs divergent from their own?

There’s a lot to unwrap here. So let’s get the bigger, more complex issue out of the way first. That would be the latter one, the issue of free speech versus censorship.

Before we get too deep into this, let me say a few things.

First, I should acknowledge that I consider myself a progressive liberal, as well as a sex-positive feminist and a secular humanist, and I have very little tolerance for racism, misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and the like. Second, despite that, I do in fact think that people in general need to lighten up and not be so damn sensitive, and I not only am entertained by but also believe there is legitimate social value in art that is deliberately, unapologetically shocking and offensive. Third, despite that, I recognize that, as a white hetero-leaning cis male, I can say all this from a place of privilege, having not had to deal with anything even resembling the kind of prejudice and stereotyping that might lead, say, a woman or a gay person or a person of color to respond more sensitively to things that I might ignorantly perceive as innocuous. Thus, I strive to be as empathetic as possible without sacrificing my own personal identity and values. It’s a delicate balance, one that I am still very, very far from mastering. But I hope it’s worth something that I recognize this fact.

Having said that, I must admit that I agree quite a bit (though not completely, not by a long shot) with We Need to Talk About Kevin scribe Lionel Shriver, who, during her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this year, argued against certain ideas which suggest that if a writer hasn’t experienced something him or herself, they have little to no right to write about it, and if they do have a right, then that right is conditional upon meeting the standards of… I don’t know… someone. The majority? Whoever shouts the loudest?

This is, of course, ridiculous. Fiction writing is all about asking oneself to imagine the world through the eyes of another. No one, not even someone who has legitimately lived that life, has any standing to decree that an author’s individual perception is somehow invalid, even if it is demonstrably inaccurate. Fiction writing, lest we forget, is not to be confused with news reporting. It’s less important to “get it right” than to fully express oneself, and that can include expressing such things as bias or privilege. Creative writing is a very personal art form, one that should reflect the worldview of its author, however skewed or just plain “incorrect” that worldview may be. It’s about subjective reality, not objective reality. Concerns like “respectful portrayal” and “cultural sensitivity” should barely even enter into it, if at all, and then only at the author’s discretion.

It’s okay if you disagree with me. Please understand, I’m not advocating insensitivity. I’m simply saying that sensitivity should not be dictated by some kind of majority-imposed “community standards.” All standards, both aesthetic and ethical, should be decided individually, from person to person. If you read a book and feel the author in question was not adequately “respectful,” that is your prerogative. It’s also you prerogative to make your opinion known as far and wide as you wish. But suggesting that the author “should” have done something a certain way to better meet your criteria, even if you have the masses behind you, is just plain egotism. And putting pressure on an author to feel ashamed or to recognize your own viewpoint as correct over their own is philosophically fascistic.

I suspect the Odd Man Out would agree with me so far. I suspect he would also agree with me when I say that I think contributing to a culture that would actively ostracize those who don’t meet its collectively decided standards is oppressive and backwards. After all, it’s one thing to openly share your criticisms of a piece of work; it’s quite another to argue that your criticisms are objectively correct and to try and scare up a mob of like-minded critics to browbeat the author.

Wait. Don’t leave yet.

See, where the Odd Man Out and I likely diverge is in our understanding of what constitutes legitimate criticism versus mere browbeating, as well as what constitutes a contribution to the aforementioned oppressive, backwards culture. Despite what you may think, I’m not one of those people who equates “freedom of speech” with “freedom from criticism,” as the Odd Man Out appears to be. Nor do I fail to realize that allowing for criticism inherently allows for criticism based on majority opinion, as well as (and more importantly) criticism that comes with real-world consequences. That’s something the Odd Man Out seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

Keep in mind, freedom of speech is very important to me, so much so that I have a framed copy of the Bill of Rights hanging on my wall. The idea of art in general, and writing specifically, being maintained as an outlet for unfettered free speech is also very important to me. But freedom of speech is not a one-way street. Freedom of speech not only protects the speaker, but those who speak in response to what that speaker has said. I have the right to say or write anything I want. You have the right to say or write anything in response. Of course, I also have the right to respond to your response, and you have the right to respond to my response to your response. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. As I said, regardless of what the Odd Man Out seems to want, freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from criticism or consequence.

Example: Let’s say you’re a big-time author, a New York Times bestseller. You have a deal with a successful, world-famous publishing house. They plaster advertisements for your upcoming book in widely circulated newspapers and magazines. They even pay for T.V. air time to run commercials. Then, a reviewer reads the book and posts a scathing critique talking about how they were offended by it. Other folks, similarly offended, speak up as well. Lots of folks, in fact. The cable stations refuse to run the ads. The newspapers and magazines do the same. Stores pull copies of your book off the shelves. Eventually, your publishing house drops you.

It’s not because they’re trying to stifle your freedom of speech. It’s because they don’t want their brand associated with yours. This is all, of course, very extreme and very tragic. But none of it is actually about suppression. Most for-profit businesses try to appeal to the widest possible audience, so as to maximize revenues. If enough people want something, they’ll be happy to sell it. If enough people don’t want it, then they’ll wash their hands of it. That’s all it is. You’re still free to say anything you want. Hell, depending on the terms if you’re contract, you can probably take your manuscript to a different publisher if you want.

This is an example of consequence. It is not an example of censorship. You have a right to free speech. You don’t have a right to a well-funded, corporate-backed, nationally visible platform. Sorry to break it to you. It’s not a “mind crime.” It’s business.

Likewise, let’s say you’re a Facebook user who posts a picture of a famous rock ‘n’ roll album cover. Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy as an example. Yes, the one with the naked butts on it. It’s not porn. It’s not explicit. It’s hardly even offensive to most people’s eyes. It’s Led Zeppelin for fuck’s sake! But, uh oh, someone reported it and now Facebook has taken that image down. Let’s go even further down the hypothetical rabbit hole and say that, unlikely as the scenario might be, your post results in your Facebook account being terminated.

Believe it or not, your freedom of speech has not been impinged here. Facebook, regardless of how it may feel sometimes, is not real life. It is not the be-all end-all of social media, let alone self-expression. Facebook is a service. When you joined, you ticked a little box that said “I agree with the terms and conditions blah blah blah,” something like that. I didn’t read it. You didn’t read it. Nobody read it. Doesn’t matter, though, because it’s still a legally binding contract. And if you had read it, you’d know that anything you post on Facebook is subject to Facebook’s standards, not yours. This is a right you gave them. You agreed to it when you signed up. No one forced you to join. Their house, their rules.

Again, these things are consequences. Not censorship.

One last example, for the road. Let’s say you have a blog. You go somewhere, to some kind of group event. You see someone there you find attractive and begin following this person around. Some call it stalking. You call it, simply, having a crush. For the purposes of this hypothetical, it’s irrelevant who’s right or wrong. What is relevant, is that when you get back from the event, you post on your blog about your experience, including the part about you following the person of your unrequited affections around the whole damn time. Some of your readers, of course, don’t find this anecdote as charming as you do. They pepper your comments section with insults. They really dress you down. The person you followed makes it clear that they felt harassed by your behavior, and friends of that person publicly suggest that you should take your blog post down. So you do. You just don’t want to deal with it anymore.

The thing is, no one forced you. You made the final decision. You’re the one who made the whole situation public in the first place. When you post something online, you openly invite the Internet to respond to it. You may not like the response you get.

Consequences. Not censorship.

Now, I know some of the things I’ve said in these last few paragraphs may seem, at first glance, inconsistent with things I said earlier. To wit: Before, I said it’s oppressive and backwards to put pressure on an author you don’t agree with. But now all of a sudden I’m saying that if someone does do that, it somehow doesn’t equate to censorship? That’s crazy, right? Except it’s not. Because, that’s accurate; it’s not “censorship.” It’s unfortunate. It’s shitty. I don’t agree with it, approve of it, or advocate for it. But I don’t agree with, approve of, or advocate for sheltering people from that kind of thing either. It’s an accepted risk we all acknowledge by exercising our free speech.

Listen. We live in tense, troubled times, caught between a new generation that is campaigning for massive, positive cultural change and an old guard that is confused and scared and holding onto the past. I don’t believe in political correctness. But calling out bigoted or predatory behavior is not about being politically correct. What some (including, to my chagrin, the aforementioned Shriver) dismissively refer to as “identity politics” I view as a major part of the ongoing battle for civil rights. This is about basic human rights.

I hate to admit that I would ever agree with Odd Man Out and his “anti-SJW” (*cringe*) stance, but I do agree, on a purely general level, that we could all benefit from taking things in stride more often, having a broader sense of humor, being less sensitive, recognizing that we are not arbiters of artistic ethics, dismissing “cultural appropriation” as a largely fallacious concept too often misused to hold back positive multiculturalism, disengaging with kneejerk outrage culture, and empathizing as much with our opponents as we want them to empathize with us. It’s true, sometimes those of us trying to be empathetic and inclusive try too hard. We can, on occasion, get overzealous and paradoxically err on the side of reactivity instead of understanding. But is that not better than erring on the side of passivity? Because sometimes, it’s not just a matter of an insensitive joke or wrong-headed character portrayal. Sometimes, you’re not dealing with someone who is merely oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes, you’re dealing with a straight-up piece-of-shit human being.

See, hate is not a difference of opinion. Racists, misogynists, homophobes, war-mongers, etc., they’re not just “opinionated” people. They’re bad people. They’re fucking monsters. Their ideas aren’t “controversial.” They’re vile. Unjust. Destructive. As I said, I’m all for taking things in stride and laughing it off, but there are times when letting something go is just as good as condoning it. When it’s something as indefensible as, say, sexual harassment or white supremacy, we can’t afford to let it slide. We need to be active and vigilant and committed in calling these things out, in standing up against them, in fighting back. The problem with the Odd Man Out (one of them, at least) is that he seems to see hollow, preening moralizing where the rest of us see right versus wrong, good versus evil. He’d probably say that sentiment is melodramatic, or that it’s indicative of delusions of grandeur. I would counter by saying that he is, in this instance, lazy and apathetic.

Maybe you’re like the Odd Man Out. Maybe you don’t agree with me. But remember when I said that everyone needs to decide their own aesthetic and ethical standards? Well, these are my standards. I respect that yours may be different than mine. I respect that freedom. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect your standards themselves, and it doesn’t mean I have to respect you. Nor do you have to respect me or mine. Once again, it’s not a one-way street. That’s perfectly fine.

I’m starting to lose my train of thought now (already been wrestling it like hell just to keep it from going off-track this whole time), and at almost 3000 words, I think this post has gone on long enough.

TL;DR version: Criticism and censorship are two different things, no matter how heated or even personal that criticism may get. How you react to it is entirely up to you. There’s no witch hunt here, Mr. Odd Man Out. From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like it’s other people in the genre fiction community who can’t handle differing viewpoints. From where I’m standing, it looks like it’s just you.

As for all the faithful readers out there with a taste for the outre, fret not. There is no slippery slope here. “Political correctness” (if that’s what you want to call it) has not had a chilling effect on horror and bizarro fiction.

I’ll talk more about that next time, when I post Part 2. But suffice to say, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of genre fiction’s death are greatly exaggerated.

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Horror in Times of Strife

d-z

It’s been about a month since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. I have been overwhelmed with shock and disgust, heartbreak and hopelessness, since finding out that enough of my fellow Americans support a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, corrupt, lying bully to get that man elected to the most powerful political office in the nation. Those feelings are only now starting to fade somewhat into the white noise of my daily life, not so much diminishing in their awfulness as simply coming to a point where they no longer outpace my ability to cope with them. I have to tell you, in the first few weeks following the election, I was a panicked, pessimistic mess. The only thing that helped me stay sane was a timely vacation in Providence, Rhode Island, with my girlfriend, which I had just begun when the Trump victory (something that felt like America’s death sentence) was announced.

It’s also been about a month and a week since I started this blog. I originally planned to follow up my first post, a rundown of five of my all-time favorite horror novels, with a rundown of five of my all-time favorite non-horror novels. But with the wounds of the election still so fresh, I didn’t really feel up to being the guy saying “Hey people, I know we’re all scared of this rising, regressive new regime which values violent self-interest and religious fundamentalism over compassion, logic, or basic human rights… but, c’mon, let me tell you why I like Moby-Dick!” I’m sure I’ll get around to boring you with my fanboy gushing eventually, but for now I think I’ll take this opportunity to bore you with some pseudo-intellectual pop psychology, philosophical wankery, and Cliff’s Notes-style genre history lessons instead.

See, while everyone (including yours truly) was pissing themselves over the grim possibilities of life under Herr Trump, Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer and fellow Pennsylvanian Brian Keene took to social media and posted the following message to his Facebook wall:

“A Message to Young Horror Writers:

Stephen King and Texas Chainsaw happened in the shadow of Watergate/Vietnam.

Splatterpunk happened in the shadow of Reagan.

Vertigo Comics happened in the shadow of Thatcher.

My generation’s success happened in the shadow of Bush Junior.

Now it’s your turn. Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it. Horror always does well in times of trouble, because people are seeking to escape from the very real monsters of the world, and curl up with safe, comforting, make-believe monsters. Don’t let those people down.”

Well said, and totally accurate, though admittedly small comfort (upon first glance) to those of us more worried about the well-being of ourselves, our loved ones, our country, and even the world as a whole than about the quality of the media we consume or the profitability of creating it. In that vein, Keene was deluged with negative comments accusing him of shrugging off people’s very real concerns in favor of quipping something along the lines of “Well, at least the horror genre’s going to be booming again, hurr hurr.” I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there’s a teeny tiny kernel of truth inside that response. Like I said, Keene’s words totally accurate but also, on the surface at least, not much more than a very minor comfort. In the grand scheme of things, it feels like a virtually infinitesimal, utterly petty comfort indeed. It’s hard to give much of a shit about make-believe monsters when you’re worried about losing your health insurance, your right to marry, or even your citizenship.

That said, I think a lot of Keene’s detractors were merely lashing out, taking their fresh pain and fear out on someone who ultimately didn’t deserve it.

Someone who ultimately was right.

Make no mistake, Keene was right. Horror does thrive in times of strife. These things are facts, not opinions. In addition to the examples he provided, it’s worth noting that the explosion of so-called “torture-porn” in horror cinema (embodied by the Saw and Hostel franchises) happened in the shadow of the War on Terror, which shoved the brutal realities of combat, as well as graphic videos of hostages being beheaded, into the faces of a previously sheltered young generation. In the ’80s, the horror genre, in all its various forms and formats, became increasingly fixated with displays of gore, transformation, mutation, and disease, all in the wake of this new ravager of human bodies called AIDS. In the ’60s and ’70s, as New Age spiritualism rattled the cages of established Western religions, the Satanic sacrilege of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, and the like reached a fever pitch. In the midst of the ’50s, when Cold War anxieties and McCarthyist oppression closed in on the American psyche from both sides, the pop cultural zeitgeist was under constant invasion from body snatchers, shape-changing things from another world, and unstoppable, absorbing, individuality-erasing red blobs.

Why? Why does horror thrive in times of strife? Are audiences looking to replace their real-life terrors with more easily conquerable fictional ones? Or maybe horror booms not because of audience appetites, but because of creator motivations. Is part of horror’s function, perhaps, to hold a mirror up to society and show us its reflection, warts and all? Certainly a genre preoccupied with “bad things” will have a lot to work with in times when bad things are in no short supply.

Is this all a meaningful form of self-expression, an act of political protest, an indulgence in escapism, or just fear-mongering opportunism? I suspect, in truth, the answer is “all of the above,” though the dreamer in me would like to believe that the overall mixture is such that the fourth option is in the minority.

When all is said and done, few genres of art and entertainment can capture the heart of an age better than horror, because horror is the genre that, more than any other, recognizes that said heart is often quite black. Fear is an ever-present puzzle piece of the human experience; we never feel truly and completely safe. In that sense, it is a common ground that unifies us all.

Of course, art in general is at its most vital when emotions are heightened, when sometimes love or joy, but more likely dread or rage, burn in your veins with such heat that you just have to find a way to let some of it out, be it onto the page or canvas or whatever. That’s why horror never completely goes out of style. Looking at those times when it most definitely is in style, however, one surely finds that not only its popularity but also its overall quality tends to rise and fall alongside the misfortunes of man.

When Keene pointed this out, I think some of his readers misinterpreted it as an attempt to latch onto some kind of flimsy silver lining. I think, in the haze of their hysteria, they saw a sleazy, insensitive bid to ring personal benefit out of a situation that could otherwise spell real horror for millions of innocent people. They saw encouragement for aspiring writers (like myself) to take advantage of others’ misfortune, spinning pain into profit. But they failed to see what Keene’s real intent was, or what I at least believe it was.

That is, he was making a call to action.

Keene’s political viewpoints are different from my own, no doubt. But his call to action is about as apolitical as one can be. It’s not unlike the calls to action others have made as of late: A reminder that, yeah, you’re scared and angry and bitter, but there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same way, people suffering under even worse circumstances than yourself, and what those people need right now is for someone to help them out.

Look, I get it. You’re frightened. Maybe you feel betrayed. You want to crawl into a cocoon of selfishness and just not care anymore. As I said earlier, I’ve been there. I’m still there, to a degree. It’s taken me a long time to shake off the worry and the hopelessness. It’s not just sour grapes because my “side” lost in this election. I genuinely feel like the bad guys won here, and I believe a lot of people are going to get hurt and that a dangerous precedent has been set. This election was not just any old presidential election; the stakes were real.

They still are.

Here’s the thing we have to remember: A battle was lost, admittedly a very big battle, but the war goes on. You don’t get to give up. You don’t get to just throw in the towel because things are about to get a hell of a lot harder. You do that and you’re no better than the people who got us into this mess. More than ever, we need to stand together and strive even harder to make sure things keep going forward, not back. We have to be willing to go farther than we’ve ever gone before. We have to protect the people we love, defend those who cannot defend themselves, call out corruption and deception wherever we find it, and anytime we lose we have to get back up and go at it again. The bad guys won’t stop fighting to mold the world in their image. Being a good guy means that you don’t stop trying to mold it in yours either.

“Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it,” Keene said. He wasn’t talking about making the best of a bad situation. He was talking about doing your best even within a bad situation. There’s a difference.

As different as his politics may be from mine, I know Keene isn’t a fool. He isn’t selfish or callous. Nor is he so consumed with being a writer that writing is all he cares about. When he said “go write” he wasn’t saying to do only that. He was saying to continue on, continue standing up for what you believe in, but also remember that, as a writer, you have an additional tool in your toolbox that a lot of other people don’t have. You have a forum through which to help your fellow man in a manner that is important and meaningful in its own way. You can engage with your own fears and the fears of others. You can be the comfort for someone else that you yourself have sought.

So go out and contribute. Do something. Campaign for positive change. Donate to charities. Protest against inequalities. Run for office. Raise awareness. Stand vigilant. Speak out. Volunteer. Vote. And through it all, write. If you’re a writer, you write. That’s what you do. Take all of your anxieties and use them as fuel for your own fiction. Take that fiction and use it to attack the demons plaguing the world we live in, or use it to comfort readers who feel alone in their terror. Better yet, do both!

Don’t just crumble under the weight of your fear, sorrow, and rage.

Do something about it.