In Questionable Taste

Hello. It’s me again. Yes, just when you thought it was safe to come out of the water…

I have bad news for you. I am IN the water. (you remember those little ‘sea-monkeys’ adverts?). Anyway, it’s always been my charmingly annoying habit to ask awkward questions, in my books and in real life. I’m always amazed at the range of talent (verging on pure brilliance) exhibited in ignoring these. If we could only synchronize those la la la’s we could probably vibrate the earth into a new orbit. I’ve been stunned for years at the fact that I could suggest all sorts of anathema and get away with it (beyond the occasional sub-Harriet Klausner standard review from Publisher’s Weekly about bringing nothing new to space opera. That was kinda gifted for a book that 1) wasn’t space opera, 2)proposed an entirely different way of looking at plausible slower that light travel, 3)proposed the first workable bio-system in slower than light interstellar travel for large passenger groups that I’ve yet seen, 4)questioned the basic accepted premises of sexual politics, 5)asked awkward questions about that big bad no-no colonialism, 5) Asked exactly where a nanny state and group-think were taking us… and those just a few of them). I’ve just re-read Crawlspace and wondered why I’ve never had the utter outrage department attack me for asking – by example – why we always assume that victims (in this case of slavery) are good. The concept that victims are human and therefore both good and bad, and that this may have nothing to do with their being a victim is… well, not one I’ve seen elsewhere.

But then I read the outrage (particularly from comments) that Smashwords conceded to bad Paypal about incest, bestiality and rape. My favorite comment has to be this one (by L.K. Rigel , which I quote the latter part of so you can be aware of the terrible danger the writer lives in fear of – ‘The decision is only palatable because they’re cutting off stuff people mostly find abhorrent. What if they next decide they won’t allow stuff that glorifies liberal politics to be sold, or atheists to have accounts?’ I guess this is one of those delightful examples — like the outcry from traditional publishers about piracy, which proves (by their selling of e-books to which they do not hold the rights) that we expect our own moral standards of others (as these are two groups who have of late been very active in the censorship of anything we don’t agree with field). The cyclic nature of human mores is fascinating if you can look it dispassionately from the outside, as a smelly monkey like me can. It seems to be more about the dynamics of power than the ideology. Dominance breeds intolerance, perhaps? Or perhaps, more accurately, it is weak dominance? (more anathema – the _less_ powerful a dominant group is, the nastier it has to be. See Syria.)

The fact of the matter is that there are limits. Society’s mirror does still shine harshly on certain behaviors. You can argue (and I have) about the justice or logic of these mores. They will and do change. But the reality is they exist, and, as an author who often walks the line between humor and offense, and believes in the power of satire and true things said in jest, and, possibly more importantly, the entertainment value of that jest (see Terry Pratchett) I need to know where those lines are… (so I can cross them, of course. But hopefully cleverly, balancing things).

Of course those lines are individual as well as shaped by cultures and regions, age groups, sexes and whether you have a seagull on your head. But as a furriner (you know, with nasty un-American personal habits, the kind you’re allowed to sneer at, because I’m Western, male, heterosexual, and get sunburned and don’t belong to any officially sanctioned victim group. And I eat raw garlic and meat) who writes principally for an American audience, I try to work out what goes on the American head (because, let’s be honest it’s a shed-load more tolerant and friendly than the closed shops in many other ‘closer’ markets. I accept there are problems in the US, but it’s still way more accepting than the UK for example. Yes, I know, that could get me blackballed in both countries. Awkward stuff, truth.)

We are divided by a common language, but fortunately the US is 1)big 2)not monolithic. For years they said Sir Terry Pratchett wasn’t going to appeal to Americans. And I know some of his humor just flies straight past some Americans. But there are a lot of serious fans there too. It still makes guessing – from the outside – shall we say, interesting.

So today I was going to ask where those lines are? My experience suggests that Americans take quite seriously matters relating to the bathroom (the term itself is funny to us furrin types, on account of the bathroom being where… you bath.) You don’t make jokes about women’s frilly bits, or men’s dangly bits and priapism or that their shirt collars will not go stiff. Those sort of jokes and ones about sheep are for vulgar colonials. But you may seriously (and respectfully) refer to vaginas (even if you mean vulva) and penises (a word which most English colonials would blench from unless talking to their doctor) and BDSM is not just OK, it’s obligatory if you want literary merit. It’s all terribly confusing really… would this book be unclean if it used a different word? And should it win the the weirdest title of the year award?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “In Questionable Taste

  1. If that doesn’t win? The realization that it even has competition is unsettling. I might even have to read one of those. Out of sheer disbelief. Or maybe I’d be better off preserving my naivity. I’m not sure. I think I’ll run off and find the brain floss.

    And then read something healthy and uplifting. In fact, It’s about time to reread Dragon’s Ring, as the sequel by that delightfully sane writer will be arriving soon.

  2. I think that a lot of Anathemas are going to go away. Smashwords may not be able to publish certain things, but front-for-smashwords.sex-but-not-politics.cn could publish some of those. And no outrage from the US would cause their Chinese bank to block payments for things that are OK in China. I’m pretty sure the reverse is already happening.

    Now I am going to commit heresy. I am not sure this be an unalloyed good. When people are stressed they tend to revert to the things they practiced, or trained. Even if they trained on them just by make belief, such as reading books. I don’t trust another person to censor what I read, but I think I should censor it myself sometimes.

    BTW, here’s another view on political (in)correctness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pF3BomKYHLk

  3. Bah. Haunted vagina? A show that toured the country was Vagina Monologues. I always thought the ability to produce sounds down-below was akin to stuffing weasels down your pants, but the second is low-brow and the first is high brow. Though of course, they didn’t mean vagina monologues as such, but rather the wonderful specialness of being designated victims because you have vaginas. It’s mind boggling.

    The new ruling from smashwords worries me A LITTLE. What are they going to consider bestiaphilia? Kate and I have a long running series where one of the people is part rat/cat which we’re turning into novels. I have a lot of stories that allude to rape or other horrible stuff. It they’re going with ‘on screen’ that’s one thing. If not they’re going to hit sf/f hard, even for PG practicioners as — by and large — I am.

    • I believe the changeling issue was addressed – as in this is sex between humans and therefore OK. Personally I think it’s a storm in B-cup.

      The curious part is the fact that ‘prick’ has now become a PC acceptable but the equality squad don’t seem want the opposite – in the long term I predict the medical terms will become derogatory insults, and a new set PC words will be needed

  4. Lin W

    ::boggle:: I mean. Just. ::boggle::

    Smashwords is weird. The book you linked to is Rod Serling after being chained in the Playboy Mansion and fed hallucinogenics for the last fifty years.

    But, as has has been pointed out in other places, don’t like the way [large company] does things? Start a new one. PayPal and Smashwords are large. They got that way by performing a function, performing it well, and mostly staying out of people’s way.

    If they get “too big for their breeches” there will be any number of companies clamoring to do what they are no longer willing to.

    IMHO.

    But, that book! ::boggle::

  5. Luke

    Hey, we’re vulgar colonials as well!
    The sheep jokes here are mostly a regional thing. They’re generally applied to folks in Montana, students at Texas A&M, and the Basque (the last almost exclusively by other Basque–I’d recommend not going there unless you know the fellow pretty darned well).
    Implying that there’s an ulterior motive for Montanans wearing hip waders, that you can tell when you’re nearing College Station because the sheep start bleating Daaaaddy, or “Honest, officer, I was just helping the poor thing back over the fence” should all be pretty safe.
    But I don’t think many people would be “up” for anything more graphic than that.

    Use of slang for genitalia is pretty ubiquitous. Be rather more careful around the female half of the equation, as that’s where humourless scolds tend to take the most offense.
    In general, the more elaborate the epithet, the more entertaining. “Purple-helmeted yogurt slinger” or “the hairy hound of hedonism” tend to get more laughs than “wang”, “johnson”, “dick”, “willy”, etc. (At least, unless they’re conflated with an actual proper name for a low-brow double-entente.)

    Bodily functions are almost always a good source of humor. There’s a good deal of overlap on the Venn diagram between “pop culture” and “fart jokes”. Just don’t get very graphic unless your aim is other than humor.

  6. Stephen Simmons

    Dave, I know this is off-topic,but when have I ever followed rules? :)

    Just finished “Goth Sex Kitten And Other Stories”. “Jack” is simply awesome. And “Left Behind” and “If I Wake Before I Die” are considerably more than that (though i forbade my wife and daughter from reading either of them just yet, since we neglected to restock on Kleenex when we hit the grocery store this week).

    Bravo, Sir.

    • :-) Thank you. I need some encouragement. On days like today I feel I’m bloody useless, and of course the sales volumes don’t do a lot to dissuade me. I’m slowly coming to conclude I appeal to a smallish subset of humanity, possibly ones a little smarter than your average bear… That’s OK – if I could only reach all of them, as humanity is quite large. ‘If I wake before I die’ was an interesting experiment – me writing a female POV romance. I did it partly to see if I could, and partly to work on skills I need as a writer. And partly because various women had said men couldn’t do this. I also wrote it confirm my own suspicions – and thank you for doing that – that it is not the emotional nature of the story (or the POV) that puts off male readers. Admittedly, the story has non-PC elements and too much math to appeal to romance editors.
      And now… to the task

  7. Wow, that book actually sounds really fun and irreverrent. I have written some things in stories that were definitly of questionable taste, but they fit the story and the character, and so I’d say if you meet that critera then it should be allowed.