Book Burning: It's Back (2013), by John Kersey

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Book Burning: It's Back
by John Kersey
Published on the LA Blog, 18th October 2013

Didn't we go through all this business of why we shouldn't ban books fifty years ago, with Lady Chatterley? It seems that we need to revisit the issue, for the past fortnight has seen some rather disturbing suggestions that would amount to a return to literary censorship.

It turns out that Amazon.com stocks a rather wider range of books than I had imagined, despite being a regular customer of theirs. I see that the titles that I have most recently purchased from them are Alembic, Timothy d'Arch Smith's novel of the esoteric, Heligan: A Portrait of the Lost Gardens, and the most recent Jamie Oliver cookbook (largely to see if it is any better than the last one).

But I have been missing out. My book collection, though already straining the available shelf-space, is bereft of such works of fiction as My Mother, My Fuck Toy (Incest Taboo Erotica/Mind Control Sex) (My Family Fuck Toys), Shaving My Lesbian Daughters (Sister Erotica/Family Sex/Mind Control Taboo), Forced To Fuck My Family: A 3-Book Erotic Bundle ( (Taboo Family Sex Mind Control Erotica Bundle) and indeed, Relax And Take It For Daddy: A Rough And Reluctant First Anal Sex And Punishment Short, Between Stepdad and Daughter. All these, and much, much more, have been available via Amazon's Kindle store.

I must confess that this sort of thing is frankly not my cup of tea. As an Englishman, I find the majority of literary descriptions of sexual activity to be either embarrassingly inept or unintentionally funny. As a Catholic, I consider virtually all of them to be decidedly immoral. Given that my time and energy is limited, I would far rather read Dornford Yates or Kipling for pleasure - neither of whom are terribly interested in what their characters do in bed - than authors whose purpose is merely that of vulgar titillation. The concentration, nay, obsession, with incest and non-consensual acts in these titles leaves me somewhat baffled. I suppose these must be the last taboos left to us in an increasingly jaded world.

But that is not the point. My tastes are those of someone of my particular outlook, education and interests. I do not expect others to share them, and if I sought to impose them upon others, I would rightly be resisted. Most especially, I must be wary of condemning that which is unacceptable merely because it is expressed in the vernacular rather than in what an educated man would consider proper literary terms. In short, when it comes to artistic expression, it is both right and civilized to acknowledge that others may see merit where I see none, and that I should be prepared to tolerate - but not to condone - those things that I may profoundly oppose, providing they are within the law. No-one is forcing me or anyone else to buy these books or the many others of their ilk.

And this brings me to The Kernel. This online magazine, which has not been a stranger to controversy in the past, relaunched in June after paying off its debts. Its senior staff writer, Jeremy Wilson, describes himself as "a retired clarinettist and failed log merchant" - terms which I am afraid I took for a moment, in light of his favoured topics, to be bizarre sexual metaphors. Mr Wilson seems to be sending out some rather mixed messages. His "smut list" is "a list of the most disgusting amateur sex fiction shorts available on Amazon," presented without editorial commentary, indeed naked and unashamed, and doubtless enjoying popularity in the search engines among those looking for the sort of thing that he features therein. Elsewhere, however, his opinion is not difficult to discern. At "How Amazon Cashes in on Kindle Filth" it becomes obvious that Mr Wilson's chief objection to "tax-dodging online retailer Amazon" is in fact that tired old bugbear of the Left. How they hate the fact that Amazon pays only the minimum tax required by law and does not voluntarily donate largesse to the State! Moreover, Amazon employs clever people to ensure that this continues to be the case, thus ensuring that their goods remain affordable to those who wish to buy them. How heinous!

Of course, Mr Wilson may well be right when he says that Amazon "cashes in on depraved amateur literature that glorifies rape, incest and child abuse," but perhaps the most significant word in that sentence is that little sneer "amateur". You see, just like me, Mr Wilson clearly has his own standards of snobbery. He is outraged that "the authors of these works are setting up fake publishing houses for themselves, which can be as simple as paying $200 for a set of ISBN prefixes." He seems to consider it an affront that anyone - even ordinary people - can self-publish their own work these days and sell it through online retailers;  a publishing house is "fake", it would appear, simply because the content it produces is not to his taste. Indeed, it would be much safer to allow writers only to publish through the "official channels". While we're about it, what about all those nasty blogs where people write exactly what they feel like writing, without the undoubted benefit of the censorship of the elite?

Mr Wilson then extends his remit to considering "Gay eBay: porn, casual sex and filthy undies". As he points out, "The open, non-age verified gay porn product category on eBay is restricted to stickers that advertise a love of the genre and documentaries about porn stars. It does not carry any pornography. But surfers who know the lingo can access full-frontal male nudity on demand by browsing the underwear section of the site or by knowing a few key phrases." He goes on to suggest that "the ready exchange of email addresses and photographs outside eBay’s normal messaging system" might lead, horror of horrors, to men actually meeting in real life and - avert your eyes - having sex with each other. As if unaware of the contradiction, he then tells us in his article "With Etsy, BDSM has gone bespoke" - whose URL appends the telling words "here's the best stuff" - "On the grounds that there is presumably nothing wrong with a bit of messing about between consenting adults, here are twelve of the, err, “best” bondage items currently available."

I find it difficult to tell whether Mr Wilson's articles are an attempt to position himself as the Mary Whitehouse de nos jours or simply a voluminous exercise in provocation. It is, after all, some years since Channel 4 broadcast the memorable Ban this Filth, in which elderly middle-class women presented "what not to watch" - a review of programmes with nudity or pornographic scenes, with their times and channels given especially so that viewers could make sure to avoid them.

Nothing Mr Wilson has found would appear to be actually illegal. Most people will no doubt deplore and be revolted by some or indeed all of the subject matter in question. But rape has been presented in literature, art and on the stage for centuries. Wikipedia, that fount of all modern knowledge, tells us that "A 1974 study [of women] by Hariton and Singer found that being "overpowered or forced to surrender" was the second most frequent fantasy in their survey; a 1984 study by Knafo and Jaffe ranked being overpowered as their study's most common fantasy during intercourse; and a 1988 study by Pelletier and Herold found that over half of their female respondents had fantasies of forced sex." The article goes on to make the extremely important point that what is being referred to is fantasy, in which the subject is in full control, and that this is not at all the same as being subjected to non-consensual sex in real life. It is not surprising that people want to express this fantasy in artistic forms.

Nor is there any proven connexion between fantasy and individuals acting out what they have read or imagined. Someone who reads any one of thousands of mainstream crime novels is not likely to engage in impromptu torture and murder. Even the popular novels of Richard Blake depicting the grandeur that was Rome are not without their share of gore and sexual violence. Likewise, the reader of Lolita - considered one of the 100 Best Books of All Time - is unlikely to emulate the unfortunate Humbert Humbert. The horror film genre consistently depicts the seamier side of life and conjures up the fantastic, grotesque and debauched for our entertainment. Yet its fans seem to me to be on the whole well-balanced and often highly moral individuals. If we have not the escape of literature and the arts for the darkest recesses of human nature, what price sanity?

The works discussed by Mr Wilson most likely lack the nuance of Nabokov or indeed of Richard Blake. They express themselves in crude words and stark, brutal descriptions. But that does not make them any less works of artistic expression for the fact that they are vernacular in style. The poor have the right to their fantasies just as much as the rich. Perhaps we have not moved on so very far from the days when "pulp fiction" and "penny dreadfuls" were condemned by literary men on the grounds that they were an affront to decent society.

It seems that Mr Wilson has the ear of the print media, for the Daily Mail has used his articles as the basis for two pieces that strike the accustomed tone of moral outrage well-known to its regular readers. In its first, it points out that Amazon does not advertise these titles for general sale, instead displaying them only to visitors who search for specific content, and also points out that at least some of the titles contain explicit warnings as to their content, such as "Warning: this story contains scenes of dubious consent and graphic sex scenes. It is written for discerning adults (18+) and is FANTASY ONLY." According to the Mail, one of the authors - or "amateur authors" as Mr Wilson would call her - is  an "occupational health nurse for the US government who lives with her husband and four children in Indiana and who writes erotic fiction". The Mail also confirms that this material does not contravene the law, "Written to satisfy the depraved desires and fantasies of the individuals buying the books, they tiptoe the line of illegality by pronouncing the subjects of the novels are ‘over 18,’ according to The Kernel, and confirmed by a MailOnline search. Also, as both The Kernel noted and MailOnline’s search discovered, the fathers said to be raping their daughters in these Kindle titles are not blood related, and are often step-parents." However the Mail may dress it up, it would appear that the authors have been careful - even responsible.

No matter, because as soon as these books have been featured in the articles above and drawn to the attention of Amazon - which has declined to comment - they have been removed from sale. This is a nifty little piece of censorship. Amazon and other online book retailers do not want the media at their door, and there is no reason why they should want to defend controversial self-publishers, whose deal with Amazon is hardly a generous one in the first place.

The reader will be wondering whether I am now going to warn that this is the thin end of the wedge, and that unless we defend the rights to free speech of the authors of self-published rape fantasies we may face worse to come. You should not think that I enjoy defending the obscene and depraved. Such, however, seems to be the lot of the libertarian these days, and we must go where we are needed.

That becomes all too apparent when we see where The Kernel and The Mail have gone next. First, it is the banning of sexual fantasy fiction. Now it is the banning of revisionist history, white nationalist texts and material that is critical of the Jewish people - in other words, we have now moved on to political censorship. It is pointed out by the Mail that books of this kind are already banned in several European countries, and they seem to feel that we should follow suit over here, and essentially outlaw any author who would question established wisdom on these issues. As Mr Wilson opines, "Anti-semitism is also being more widely observed in mainstream commentators and Left-wing public intellectuals. Against this backdrop, it is appallingly lax of Amazon to stock material that gives succour to extremists, agitators and fantasists and which promotes anti-semitic pseudo-history."

I know a number of our readers have strong views on these last topics in particular, and so rather than expand on them further myself, I will leave it to them to vent their spleen in our comments section. What I will say, though, is that what we have here is an outbreak of something that seems all-too common in our day and age: self-important puritanism. When we start banning books that take unpalatable, unfashionable or simply wrong-headed viewpoints, we can forget about freedom and indeed about any semblance of civilisation. Those who seek to censor what we read, and even what we fantasise about, are tyrants. They should not be permitted to go unchecked and unresisted.