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?