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…