Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

*Warning: this post contains spoilers on a recent novel. Read with caution.*

I heard something very interesting yesterday that I, as a writer, a Jew, and a scholar on the Holocaust have to comment on. When you read that title and saw the words “Nazi Romance”, what popped through your mind? Probably nothing good if you haven’t heard yet, and probably a ton of controversy and maybe some simmering anger if you have heard yet. In case you’re among those who haven’t heard, let me explain:

The controversy centers around a Christian romance novel called For Such a Time by a woman named Kate Breslin that came out last year. The novel has received nods for awards and positive reviews in that time, including a few from the Romance Writers of America. However, a lot of people are taking offense at the subject matter: it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the Book of Esther set in a Nazi concentration camp with a Jewish woman with Gentile looks and a Nazi commandant as the heroes. Long story short, the commandant thinks this blonde beauty can’t be Jewish and puts her to work in a supervisory role in the camp under a false name. Thus begins a strange, tension-filled romance that some have likened to sexual harassment coupled with Stockholm Syndrome (sounds a bit like my thesis Rose) that ends with the two heroes getting together despite all obstacles and, because this is a Christian romance novel, the heroine converts to Christianity (not like my thesis Rose at all).

Now I have not read the novel–I only found out about this yesterday, I’m not interested in reading a romance novel, let alone one trying to get me to look at Jesus in a new light, and even if I was by the time I finished it the Internet’s short attention span might have moved onto something else–but you can see why this sort of story might cause some upset feelings. The major criticism is that the novel co-opts one of the greatest tragedies in modern history, and the biggest tragedy in modern Jewish history, so as to advance a particular religious aim.

At the same time, some have come out in favor of the book. Anne Rice actually defended the novel, saying that writers should be able to experiment and that the almost extreme outcry rising on the Internet around this novel is akin to censorship and a lynch mob. The organization Romance Writers of America has said something very similar in response to For Such a Time getting two nods for major awards they hand out.

Now, I don’t like Internet confrontation. But like I said, I’m a writer, a Jew, and a scholar on the Holocaust, so I feel some need to weigh in on this subject. First off, I understand the point of view about experimentation vs. censorship. In several stories I’ve written over the years, including Rose, I’ve pushed boundaries of my own comfort zone and maybe the comfort zones of my readers in order to create a better story. Writers should be able to do just that, experiment and push boundaries in the name of creating a great story. To regulate what writers work on or threaten them if they write something someone finds offensive, which is made all too much easier by the anonymity of the Internet, does smell of censorship and makes me think of extremist vigilante justice using a new medium to intimidate people. Almost like a lynch mob, in fact.

Can you really make fiction–let alone romantic Christian fiction–out of a subject like this?

However, I do see why people are outraged over this book. Like I said, the Holocaust was a tragedy. Of the estimated 12 million victims of the Nazi genocide, around half were Jews. To take what was a horrific and defining moment for modern Jewry and use it as a backstory for a romance meant to draw readers close to Jesus is very insensitive to victims and survivors of the Holocaust who lost their lives because of their heritage, as well as those who carry that heritage today. The conversion to Christianity at the end is also very disturbing, because many Jews were forced to convert before, during, and after the war for survival and it sometimes caused trouble for them later in life. To portray it as an act of love…to say the least it seems unsettling.

Ultimately, I feel the best way to view For Such a Time by Kate Breslin is to view it as a teachable moment. While writers should be able to write and experiment as they wish, they should also be cognizant that writing about some subjects (like the Holocaust) requires more sensitivity and caution than others. When dealing with a subject such as this, it’s important not just to know your facts, but how people–particularly those affected directly by said subject–feel about it. That way when you write about it, you are writing it in a way that, while it may not please everyone, it will not cause the sort of outrage this novel has caused.

This was what I did with Reborn City when I wrote it. I’m as far away from the gangster lifestyle as possible, so I did my research to make sure I represented gangsters in a way that would do the lifestyle justice . So far, I haven’t had any complaints.

Thankfully Breslin has already issued an apology, saying she wrote it with the best of intentions and she’s very sorry for any offense or pain she caused to the Jewish people. And while others may not forgive her, I think I can. I think she’s learned form this experience. And when she puts out her next book, perhaps it’ll get the attention that every author wants their book to have, rather than the nasty kind her first received.

What’s your take on this subject? Is Ms. Breslin out of line or was she just trying to write a good story?

Should authors be more sensitive when experimenting with their stories? And is the uproar over this book overblown or justified?

Let’s discuss.

Normally I don’t wade into censorship debates, but this story caught my eye and I thought it would make for interesting discussion. Now, a lot of authors, especially self-published authors, have noticed that in the past couple of years there’s been an explosion in demand for erotica titles, and many self-published authors are making a lot of money by writing these works, which sometimes involve violent encounters between the characters. And lately there’s been a rising trend in what is known as cryptozoological erotica, which is sexual encounters between humans and legendary beasts such as Bigfoot and others (I know, right?). The example used in the story I’ve linked to is Virginia Wade’s Bigfoot series, which has been downloaded and read by enough people to make me wonder whether I should at least dabble in the erotica genre.

However, authors of these and other erotic works have been finding their works taken off the digital bookshelves by Amazon and other sites as of late:

In October, the online news site The Kernel published an incendiary story called “An Epidemic of Filth,” claiming that online bookstores like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, and others were selling self-published ebooks that featured “rape fantasies, incest porn and graphic descriptions of bestiality and child abuse.” The story ignited a media firestorm in the U.K, with major news outlets like the Daily Mail, The Guardian, and the BBC reporting on the “sales of sick ebooks.” Some U.K.-based ebook retailers responded with public apologies, and WHSmith went so far as to shut down its website altogether, releasing a statement saying that it would reopen “once all self-published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.” The response in the U.S. was somewhat more muted, but most of the retailers mentioned in the piece, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, began quietly pulling hundreds of titles from their online shelves — an event Kobo coo Michael Tamblyn referred to last month as “erotica-gate.” 

The crackdown was meant to target the obvious offenders — ebooks like “Daddy’s Birthday Gang Bang” and others that fetishized incest and rape — but in their fervor to course-correct, the online bookstores started deleting, according to The Digital Reader blog, “not just the questionable erotica but [also]…. any e-books that might even hint at violating cultural norms.” That included crypto-porn. Wade’s sexy Sasquatch, not unlike the elusive hominid beast of legend, vanished without a trace.

Now, there’s been a lot of talk about censorship such as this over the past couple of months. Authors of a lot of works that have been taken down have accused Amazon of not taking a good look at their works and using very vague criteria such as the titles of the books to judge whether or not they are offensive. Amazon’s wording of its policy as to what constitutes “offensive” doesn’t seem to help its case: “What we deem offensive is probably what you would expect.” Giving that people generally have different expectations on what is considered offensive, there’s been a lot of cries that Amazon is only answering to the expectations of a certain segment of its customers. And by having to modify titles or edit their work to be acceptable to these vague standards, they are losing customers and revenue. As one author complained:

Author Emerald Ice (a pen name) — who lives in southern Illinois with her husband, a Catholic high school teacher — is less concerned about offending Amazon browsers than being overlooked by potential paying customers. The first three books in her Alien Sex Slave Series — “Alien Love Slave,” “The Sex Arena,” and “Alien Sex Cove”— were runaway hits, she says. At least until Amazon pulled them from distribution and requested changes, once again citing content guidelines. That’s how “Alien Sex Slave” became “Sidney’s Alien Escapades.” “I hate it,” she admits of the new title. “I came up with it because I was in a panic about the books disappearing.” Her sales have since plummeted, and she isn’t surprised. “If I was a reader searching for hot alien sex books, I wouldn’t look twice at something called ‘Sidney’s Alien Escapades.'”

On the other hand, Amazon and other bookstores like it are private businesses. They can decide what items to have on their shelves and what items they want nothing to do with, especially if a large enough percent of their customers threaten to boycott the site if they hold items deemed “offensive” by whatever criteria these people use. So if Amazon deems a work or works unacceptable and uses no other reason than it threatens their own revenues, then that’s their choice, and there’s not much an author can do to fight back (unless you start a humungous letter writing campaign with a lot of your close author friends and a ton of fans, but that might be difficult to pull off).

Now, my own views on censorship is if a creative work isn’t blatantly encouraging hatred, violence, or other despicable deeds or beliefs, then it should at least be considered as a work allowed to be sold, distributed and enjoyed like any other work. And as much as I don’t like to speak badly about Amazon (mostly because it’s where most of my sales and reviews come from),  I have to admit that they should take a deeper look at their work in order to decide what is offensive and maybe revise their content policy to something that’s not so vague. At the same time, I should advise authors to be careful that the work they write might not be accidentally encouraging rape, incest, or other objectionable acts or could be misconstrued as encouraging those acts. I’m not trying to stifle your creative work, but it might avoid some grief later on if you make sure that someone can’t point to a particular passage of your work and show that it is terribly objectionable.

If you have anything to add to the discussion, please let me know. What do you think constitutes as an “objectionable work”? And do you think what Amazon and other booksellers is doing is justified, or are they overstepping their bounds or being unfair in their attempts to filter out unacceptable works?

Also, that comment I made about dabbling in erotica, in case any of you were wondering: I don’t know how I’d feel about writing an erotica story. If I did though, I’d be honest about it if I decided to publish it, even if I published it under a pen name. Anne Rice did that, and if she can do it, why can’t I? Besides the fact that she’s a huge force in the world of writing and I’m still trying to claw my way up, I mean.