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


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.