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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

in which I am thoughtful, but ultimately boring and unoriginal and probably not worth reading.

April 14th, 2009 (02:45 pm)

I never posted about AmazonFail over on Twitter. λ and I still have no computer at our home -- hers has been in the repair shop for two weeks and will be there for another one; it will be several weeks more before we can afford a second home computer for my writing -- and as a result my ability to access the Internet has been slipshod. So I was offline for a day and a half, and when I came back to Twitter, everything was flooded with the tag #amazonfail. And honestly? I spent most of my time rolling my eyes about it. There is a certain kind of Internet outrage for which I have little tolerance. It happened with Strikethrough '08 and it happened with the Open-Source Boob Project and it's happened in a whole bunch of other circumstances that I don't remember. In each case people have gotten furious and posted to blogs and/or Twitter, and then their readers have gotten furious and posted to more blogs and/or Twitter, and then suddenly the whole Internet has exploded, and no one talks about anything else for weeks, and I wind up wanting to shoot my monitor with a 12-gauge. Most of the time there is a real, valid reason for the original objections. And by the time it's over, the outrage has snowballed on itself until the original objections are totally unrecognizable. And everyone's howling for blood and feeding off one another and journals are deleted and Godwin is invoked and just the idea of going on the Internet while it is going on makes me want to take a nap. AmazonFail appeared to be one of those things. I was not interested in being a part of it.

So I haven't. But it's been percolating in a corner of my brain. I wanted to ignore it, but it won't really be ignored, and I guess there are a few reasons. One is that I'm a lesbian. And the other is that I'm a writer.

As a lesbian, my objections are pretty much what you'd expect. Amazon has a tag for "adult" products that it doesn't want to come up in its main searches for fear of alienating some consumers; somehow that tag got out of control, and although a great deal of material wound up getting deranked, the amount of GLBT stuff that got snuffed was highly disproportionate. This is part of an old, old scene, people. Ever since I came out I have struggled to make peace with the fact that I am someone that many parents do not want their children to know about. These parents would like to erase my existence from their children's universe entirely. I am seen as no more than a sexual being -- a woman who has sex with other women -- and parents do not want their children to know that I exist. I am "adult material", and I am reminded of it all the time. I am reminded of it when conservatives start vociferous campaigns to ban Heather Has Two Mommies from school libraries and curricula, so that children will not know who or what gay people are. I was reminded of it when λ and I went on our honeymoon and, as we walked hand-in-hand through the Magic Kingdom, a mother placed her hand over her son's eyes so that he would not see us.* I was reminded of it, again on our honeymoon, when λ and I were splashing around in the pool being lovey-dovey, as you would expect from any honeymooning newlyweds, and a man came up to us and asked us to "cut it out, just so my daughter don't see."

So I'm not surprised that someone mis-tagged queer materials as "adult" on Amazon. I understand that it was not a top-down policy, that it seems to have been part of an inept corporate game of telephone in which one person made the policy and another person implemented part of it and another person did a different part of it and somewhere along the line someone conflated "queer" and "adult" in their mind. I know how it happened. I live with it, with that conflation of "queer" and "obscene", every day.

What I think is funny is that a lot of people seem to think that the fact that this was not a top-down policy that Amazon implemented as a deliberate screw-you to the queer community somehow makes this all better. "It was a mistake!", I hear. "It wasn't a big conspiracy! For God's sake stop freaking out!"

I am not freaking out, but I understand why many people are. It is because we have lived with this ever since the day we came to understand who we are and who we love, and this is not about one random person doing one thing in isolation. The fact that somebody thought of LGBTQ materials as "adult" is the result of an entire society that reinforces that idea.

And it's not just about the idea. It's not just because we smell homophobia in the air. It's because literature provides us with a voice, and Amazon is the largest and -- we thought -- most democratized, egalitarian provider of literature in our society, and if these books are not available on Amazon, it takes our voice away. I literally got sick to my stomach thinking about some of the books that Amazon made unavailable -- thinking about what it would mean if there had never been a controversy and those books had quietly disappeared from the most mammoth bookseller in the world. We're talking Stone Butch Blues, the raw, agonizing book that blew a hole in the status quo and told uncountable transpeople that they weren't alone, and we're talking about Gender Outlaw, which blew the hole wider and shouted a challenge to gender binaries loud and clear. We're talking Maurice and Well of Loneliness, two books that came around three-quarters of a century ago and told the world that gays and lesbians exist. We're talking about queer YA books, which tell teenagers struggling to come out that it's okay, others have been through this, they'll get through it and they have a place in the world. We're talking about books on the history of homophobia. We're talking about self-help books on coming out. We are talking about books that have been huge milestones in the history of the queer movement, books that have meant so much to God knows how many people and that we have already fought the censorship of time and again and again and again. For decades people have fought to keep these books alive and visible and available. Recently they became unavailable through the default bookseller of our time. Oh, it was a fuckup, Amazon? You didn't mean to? Gosh, but I so do not give a shit. Get it un-fucked up. Now.

That's my rant on the queer-censoring aspect. Now for the other part.

LGBTQQIA books are not the only books that were censored. You hear a lot of talk like they were, because there was this huge proportion of them that were, and because, like I've said, as far as queer people are concerned, this is a new slice at a very old wound. But there are plenty of books that were stripped of sales rankings that plain-out contained sexual material. This means everything from books on rape and sexual assault (Men Who Rape: The Psychology of Sexual Assault) to Lady Chatterley's Lover. So let me talk about censorship in general for a moment, because although I'm probably not saying anything original, if they were things that everyone understood, this stuff would never happen.

The books that were stripped of their ranks were, almost without exception, books that were already well-known and controversial. The books that aren't well-known never hit high enough in the sales rankings to turn up high in the search results, I guess, and thus didn't merit being flagged as "adult". And here's what that did: it ensured that the books that were the most groundbreaking, the most important, got snuffed first. Books that attract controversy are books that tell truths that people don't want to hear. A romance novel with sex scenes full of milk-white breasts cupped in the palms of big, strong hands and climaxing explosions of hot, wet passion are not going to get censored -- as we can see from the fact that they didn't. Books about heterosexual sex that titillate a little bit, but present no further challenges to the pretty sunshine-and-posies world that we like to pretend we live in, just aren't going anywhere. And, you know, that's great. Those are fun to read as an escape. Sure. No problem.

But then there are the books that are scary to the mainstream. The books about little girls who grow up to dress as men and act as men and experience pure agony when they're forced into a woman suit that doesn't fit, and who get hit and raped and arrested and degraded in innumerable ways for it. The books that tell you that the nice, clean-cut, good old boy from down the street might just get off on forcing women to have sex with him. The books about people who, owning their own bodies as all of us do, decide to rent them out to make some money. All of the books about things that people condemn because they're scared of them, because they shatter the rose-colored glasses. Because when you murmur "Ignore it and it'll go away," these books and the people who write them get in your face and say "We will not BE ignored."

So that's what Amazon blundered into with their "adult" tags. And we see which side they picked.

I am currently writing a novel whose eventual reception I have often pondered with a lot of trepidation, because if it winds up attracting any attention or popularity, it will be very controversial. It's a book for teenagers, those people right on the cusp of childhood and adulthood -- the people that grown-ups want to shove back into childhood as long as possible, and who themselves want to careen into adulthood as fast and reckless as they can. And it's a book about rape, and sex: how we define the concepts and how we separate them and think about them and what we try to do about them.

This book is the first thing I've ever written that started out with an issue I wanted to address -- the first thing that's started with a concept around which I hung a plot and then later developed the characters. It took me a long time to work that out, to make sure the characters were real and that they drove the book, that it wasn't a piece of propaganda. But although I am comfortable now that it is character-driven, that the people in it feel as real to me as any I've written and that they will carry the book where it needs to go, I started writing it because I heard too many stories from too many rape survivors who were disbelieved and denigrated and ostracized. I heard too many stories of rapes that society refused to call rapes, and too many stories of people who were traumatized almost as much by society's responses to their assaults as they were by the assaults themselves. And I heard too many stories of people who fell into scary self-destructive behavior after sexual assault because they felt so worthless, and who were judged for that self-destructive behavior, and who fell into an awful spiral that takes one hell of a lot of fighting to get out of.

And this is not something to which people take kindly. People don't want to hear that they judge wrongly. They don't want to hear about ugly things like rape, and they especially don't want to hear that people may respond to rapes in ways that don't make a lot of sense from the outside. They don't want to hear that things may not be clean and easy -- that a girl may have had some drinks and kissed a guy and flirted with him and yet still not be responsible for her rape, that a girl who's raped by her boyfriend might not break up with him then and there, that a rape survivor may not go to the police because it's all scary and s/he's got enough to deal with. They don't want to hear that The Rapist of their dark imagining may in fact be the well-mannered, good-looking kid from down the street. They don't want to hear that the situation they understand and sympathize with, which is that a girl gets grabbed by her ponytail in a dark alley and assaulted at knifepoint, is not the only way things happen, and they don't want to be told that they need to stretch and try to sympathize with the others as well.

So you tell me. Is this "adult" material? According to you -- according to Focus on the Family -- according to Amazon.com? As I have read and thought about AmazonFail I have thought about my book and I have thought about how passionately I want it to be published so that these things that I think are so important will have one more small vent in society. I've thought about what it would mean to me to write this book because I feel so deeply that this needs to be talked about -- and then to see it cut off at the knees and essentially taken out of distribution because people don't want to hear this stuff. I've thought about what it would mean to do the best I could to reach out to teenagers experiencing a particular experience that makes them feel so alone, and to try to make them feel less alone -- only to have a book distributor shut that all down and leave the teens that I might have reached as cut-off and isolated as ever. The whole reason I feel this book needs to be written is because it's controversial, and if Amazon erases it from their search listings for that very reason, then -- well, what then?

Censorship is about free speech, but not in the sense of some dry legal principle. Censorship is what happens when society tells people either that they don't exist, or that they shouldn't exist, or that the things they believe in shouldn't exist. So someone or a group of someones gather the courage to stand up and shout for their basic right to an acknowledged existence. And society -- angrily or casually, actively or passively -- goes "Nope. As far as we're concerned, you aren't there."

Censorship is the denial of the existence of groups of people -- or of their choices, which are part of who people are and become more so as others define them by those choices. It's about making people invisible. It's about erasure.

Amazon decided to flag "adult" books. The trouble is that we don't live in a "non-adult" world. We don't live in a world where "adult" things do not exist and when we encounter them it is generally not because we choose to step into an alter universe of "adulthood". The things Amazon classes as "adult" are all around us, and some people's lived experiences overlap very little with such things, but for some of us, those things *are* our lived experience. This is why the fact that the tag was mismanaged to shut out LGBTQ material doesn't change the fundamental wrongness of the tag at all. There is no up side in preventing people from finding information that they are actively searching for. And there's nothing acceptable in whitewashing reality to help people's pretty fantasies of what the world ought to look like.

So. Yeah. Get it fixed, Amazon.

*And because she was watching us and not him, she walked him straight into a trash can.


Posted by: electric misfit love machine (eyelid)
Posted at: April 14th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)

It sounds like that was a very cool movement ;)

then the person who made the error in "typing things into a field" or whatever it was that Amazon claimed had to have conflated the ideas of queerness and obscenity.

I agree. Or at least, the way I could most easily see it happening is that Amazon workers labeled the books as gay/queer/whatever, and then one genius higher up the chain decided that gay/queer should be in the adult section. one keystroke later...

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