Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

Who will guard the guards themselves? It’s a question that’s never asked by those who want to prevent the “wrong” people from being published, or protect people from reading something that will upset them (as in the case of the idiot fad for “warnings” on everything – although in at least some of the fanfic communities I frequent… well, intermit, because I’m not there that often… it’s being turned into a joke because as often as not canon characters get included in the warnings. I’ve yet to figure out if that’s serious or not, but it’s funny as hell).

Sharon Lee has some good comments about the whole question, although she looks at it rather differently than I do (and let’s just ignore some of the rather political things she clearly hasn’t realized aren’t things everyone thinks). Her points about the many different things people can get out of fiction and the fact that there is a reader who is interpreting every word in the light of his own experiences and potentially putting his “bad thinks” into what he’s seeing (not to mention – hopefully – many many readers per author, all of them doing this… it rather limits the amount of bad-thinkness a given author can slide in there to be overridden by the reader bad-thinks).

I’m completely in agreement that no author should be prevented from writing because of her opinion. Why? Times change. Every author will reflect at least some factors from her time because she can’t help being a creature of her time. She, like the rest of us, is not isolated. Her perspective is affected by her life, by all the people she’s known, and by her experiences. All of that is affected by the time in which she lives. We have to look at the common beliefs of her time and her culture before we can say whether or not she was bound by those beliefs or reached beyond them – and we also have to realize that in her time and culture things that we consider normal may well have been unthinkable. Literally unthinkable because there was nothing providing the scaffolding that would allow those thoughts to exist (Orwellian touch, but quite true: if someone has no concept of freedom, he can’t think about it. He can only think about changes to his state of servitude that will make it more or less bearable).

Similarly, I totally agree about the whole warnings thing being idiotic. We already have a de facto ratings system for fiction. If they’re in the children’s section they’re probably about things that kids will enjoy reading about, and they’re probably using language that’s appropriate to a young child. The teen section will have different topics, and more sophisticated language (just don’t get too close to the teen paranormal romance section. The vampires there sparkle). Some places split even further when they categorize books, and of course, the rest of the store or library categorizes by subject so if the thought of romance gives you hives you can always avoid that part of the store. Or library (honestly, I’m still mourning the bookstores deciding to move horror back into the general – or sometimes SFF section. I keep finding it when I don’t want it. When it had the nice big labeled section I could avoid it unless I was in the mood for being creeped out).

All of it comes back to the question of who guards the guardians. If certain people are to be prevented from being published because they’re horrible people or their writing is so wrong and icky as to justify this, who makes that decision and who verifies that the decision is not being made on the biases of the decision-maker? I’ve had arguments… erm… spirited discussions with people who could not understand that allowing someone to ban books they thought were horrible, evil, and wrong also allowed whoever was in that position to ban books they thought were wonderful and good. Because the power in question is “to ban books”. The decision on which books to ban is done by individual or committee (if committee the tendency is for that which offends nobody to proliferate, where individual you’ll get what the individual likes/approves of – even if all the censors are honest and doing their best to be unbiased).

Of course, you can take the position of turtles – or guards – all the way down, and have someone to watch the person who’s watching the guard. And someone else to watch that person. And so on. It gets unwieldy fast, and the result is a kind of giant circle-jerk where everyone is watching everyone else for missteps – and that’s the good scenario. The bad one is more like your Communist regime with informers making up between a fifth and a quarter of the population and filling the secret police archives with reports of how Johnny’s mom makes him capitalist lunches with – horrors! – bananas.

The alternative is one that’s already happening in fanfic communities around the Internets: authors typically try to make their description/blurb as accurate as possible, try to give the piece an accurate rating (Fanfiction.net has ratings from G through M and discourages explicit material, other places allow it but give it a separate rating), and an accurate “genre” (trust me, fanfic “genre” is quite a different beastie from what bookstores and libraries use). Between that, the number of reviews (because people tend not to review a piece they don’t like, they just drop it and go on – I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of negative reviews but there are loads of positive ones), pieces people want to read bubble to the top of lists quite quickly and the rest… don’t.

Which, while pretty much uncontrolled (the Fanfiction.net admins periodically go through the site deleting explicit material and anything else they think is against the terms of service), makes it fairly easy for people to find things they want to read and avoid things they don’t. Coincidentally enough, this also answers the complaints of those who lament the absence of gatekeepers in indie publishing: any system like this (which isn’t that different from Amazon’s rankings and tags) allows the pieces that readers like to become visible and effectively buries the pieces readers don’t want to touch with a ten foot iPhone holder – and at the same time, turns the whole issue with guarding the guards on its head: you don’t need to appoint special guards if everyone watches out for their own turf by ranking the things they like.

Scary thought, yes? Someone should write a book about that…


  1. Well, we could go back to the days of the mimeograph and peddle our books one page at a time. Of course, you could get arrested for selling pages out of an unlicensed book.

    I don’t think anyone would riot over selling loosie pages though. Readers don’t seem to get quite that upset.

    1. “Excuse me sir, do you have a license for those pages? You don’t? I’m going to have to arrest you for unlicensed creative output.”

      Hm. There’s a story in that. And I am not going to write the bloody thing.

  2. I mean, this is what anarchists have been saying all along =D. People come up with some pretty darn clever ways to get everyone what they want when there aren’t any top-down authorities. If you want a technical term for the honest committee’s problems, Mises has got you covered with the Economic Calculation Problem. Even if they are well intentioned, they simply lack information about all the endless permutations of backgrounds and preferences of the subset of possible readers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem

    1. It’s rather like predicting the weather. Any model sufficiently detailed to allow prediction would have to have close to 1:1 correspondence with reality – there’s too much data to properly forecast or filter. Characteristics of a self-organizing system.

  3. I’ve yet to figure out if that’s serious or not, but it’s funny as hell.

    Oooh, I actually saw one of those that was useful! An author doing a more realistic Avatar: TLA take (Vathara’s “Embers”– it kinda spun out of control.) had a couple of chapters where she warned at the start that Azula was going to show up. (Also one about, um, that chapter alluding to the bad stuff that happens when you have a bunch of single men invading a foreign country and interacting individually with young females.)

    For a kids’ show, makes perfect sense. And her Azula is pretty scary.

    That said…. oh, can I see that becoming an easy joke!

    1. Yes, indeed. And some characters are just so… well… themselves, they tend to derail things (which leads to some of the funniest fanfics out there).

  4. We can’t have people deciding for themselves what they want to read. That way lies madness. It could mean the end of divine right and the death of nanny government. How will these petty tyrants feed their desires for power is ordinary people become accustomed to deciding things for themselves.

    1. It’s terrible, terrible! How will they ever survive when I take over the world and leave it ruthlessly alone?

          1. I wanna help!
            Can I be deputy assistant undersecretary of the department of noninterference?

  5. What on Earth happened to wait until someone else reads it and writes a review? I mean, I knew more-or-less exactly what I was getting with the Con books–everybody talks about them here or over at ATH–because I didn’t get them when they first were published. (Which, um, look, I’ll read nearly anything. I only have high standards for what I pay for.)
    If you’ve got some matter that’s extremely troubling to you personally, read reviews before you open the cover. I don’t think that’s too much to ask the portion of society that has such issues to do to protect themselves. Treat it like allergies and stay away from the thing that makes you ill.
    Books could be rated like movies, but then, they already are, only the terminology is different. Stick with the picture books if you need something rated E. Don’t visit the adult shelves until you can handle M/NC-17/R. (I don’t know which is the heaviest rating–I don’t watch many movies.) I do like it when NPR, which is the best radio news available here, puts a warning on, but theirs is along the lines of “This story may contain material not appropriate for all listeners.” But if they didn’t do that I could always avoid the children hearing stuff by not listening at all.
    And maybe that’s the answer to these folks: if you can’t handle reading even one sentence that bothers you, don’t read. Get a therapist instead.

    1. I’ve been tempted to use the movie ratings on my book blurbs on Amazon, like I give word count on the short stories. Although an R for violence in a mil-sci-fi or alt-history book is probably very different from that R on a craft cozy (“Contains graphic description of murder-by-knitting needle”?).

      1. So the alt-history where individual disputes are settled by combat knitting might be a little difficult to rate. I must remember that.

      2. If they were both movies they’d be rated the same, though, right? (Remembering that I really don’t comprehend movie ratings–determining what the kids may watch is Husband’s job.)
        I guess my contention would be that if it’s an adult book, you expect it to be inappropriate for non-adults, and adults shouldn’t be fussing if it portrays . . . well, whatever. It’s for adults.
        Baby Faces would be the equivalent of appropriate for all audiences. (If you aren’t familiar, this book has a picture on each page of a kid under two making some sort of face labeled with the appropriate emotion. Wildly popular with the under one crowd.)

    2. Hell yes. There is no right to never see anything offensive. Anyone who expects *that* needs to be removing their own eyeballs. With rusty spoons.

  6. There is an interesting documentary about MPAA movie ratings and how they are awarded called “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated”, I recommend it. The process is not nearly so objective as the MPAA would like us to believe.

    There is a frightening ideological blindness in many liberals, an inability to consider the possibility that the draconian measures they support for use against the “bad guys” might some day be used against them. Those who have fallen from grace from the mob and found themselves on the receiving end of the feeding frenzy are nearly always wearing comical expressions of shocked incredulity.

    1. I have absolutely no doubt about the rating process being rather less than objective.

      And I’ve seen that ideological blindness in action, with people insisting that such and such a law could NEVER be used against them because that would be wrong. It’s as if they think that on gaining power people automatically become saints or something (but only if they belong to the right clubs).

      Me, I’m of the view that not only does power corrupt, and absolute power corrupt absolutely; power *attracts* the corrupt and corruptible.

  7. Absolutely apropos of nothing, but I thought you might like it…

    Harold stopped and stared. The gatekeeper, in his livery, stood by the rusty wrought-iron ivy making up the gates, hanging only slightly askew between the stone pillars. But glancing to either side, Harold could see that the walls that once protected the compound, that pristine set of buildings where the Haughts of Literature once ruled, determining what would be allowed into their midst and sent out to the waiting hordes… those walls were flattened, torn down and destroyed by the trumpets blasting out of the information superhighway, the rude roars and loud laughter, the continuing ferment of that ever-growing rabble. There just wasn’t any compound left, yet the gatekeeper stood firm, sure that in time, they would return to the glory that had been.

    Harold shook his head, and took a grip on his keyboard. Then he hit the mouse and roared himself, just a bit… and laughed as the digital winds blew his hair back, and the bright sun shine of that human wave hit! Don Quixote rides again!

Comments are closed.