Editor or censor: two hats, one job? Updates and Additions

The title's allusion to a certain fetish video is deliberate, for it is, arguably, one of the greatest successes in viral marketing, such that porn ever needs to big itself up in order to sell (colloquial pun also intended). It is, like toilet paper, something we could do without, but for some, those essential functions of life are made a whole lot more pleasurable by its existence, although for most to a lesser extent when the two collide on an erotic level.

I was made aware of this particular creation via a means other than the extensive coverage it receives online (I dare not 'google' it to give exact figures, for fear of what might, um, pop up, but I have seen the search results often enough to comment with qualification). My knowledge comes courtesy of the adolescent males I work with on a day-to-day basis, whereby I am bestowed with the arduous task of trying to keep them on the normative straight and narrow - a job made ever more difficult by their access to all manner of media that are revolting, unnecessary, disgusting, tasteless, repulsive, brutal, violent, vile and generally unacceptable. To me.

And there's the rub.

Who am I to call the moral shots, but a knowingly under-read social scientist with a preference for escapist entertainment? The world is a horrid place, where the powerful systematically oppress the powerless in ways that fiction would not dare to imagine. Nor do I want it to, for there is nothing wrong with letting our minds conjure up better realities, where the weak find strength and everyone lives happily ever after. To those who contend "but real life isn't like that", no it's not, you're quite right. If you want real life, then put down that book you're reading and go for a walk instead, because this is fiction. It can be anything we want it to be.

To return momentarily to the aforementioned short film, or in fact a variation thereof: a similar clip prompted much debate a while back, when one of my charges declared "that's f***ing disgusting" in response to the general giggling that had ensued from the revelation of said clip's subject matter. In this variety, we find supposed members (must stopping doing that) of the Roman Catholic clergy engaging in acts we are generally led to believe they don't, other than the more frequent than freak abhorrences the press delight in sharing with us, of course. On this occasion, the ecumenical matter is fecal and, apparently, delicious.

Now, at this point in the discussion, I was more compelled to attend to the pre-vomit saliva welling in my mouth than an explanation of the inappropriateness or danger of their obsession with all things revolting, but they are teenaged boys - relatively immature ones at that. The world so far is a great and wondrous place, filled with surprising invitations to masturbate and imbibe drugs they can name but not identify. Even so, these boys recognised their giggling as a reaction to the discomfort they felt and thankfully the conversation reverted to a more acceptable topic (aka gratuitously violent computer games involving the undead).

For all of this, I still can't decide whether conventional morality is a safety net which stops us from falling into the abyss of our most base behaviours, or a web spun by a moral majority with oblique intent to trap and immobilise dissent. A couple of years ago, when the Top Gear trio were traversing the great US state of Alabama, someone (Clarkson and May, the viewers are led to believe) decided it would be really funny to paint 'MAN LOVE RULES OK' in pink along the side of Richard Hammond's pick-up truck. As Hammond explains:
[W]e all felt that we would cause, at worst, a ripple of offence no deeper than that which might be generated among the residents of Cornwall by three visitors driving their cars through Truro with "Cream teas are rubbish" painted down the sides. We covered three miles before being placed in genuine fear for our lives.

Far be it from me to pass judgement on the response of the good people of Alabama (although I often do offline, at length and not very eloquently), but suffice to say it revealed with a stark clarity the immense chasm between their attitude towards homosexuality and that generally held in the UK. It is only necessary to add that it hasn't always been this way (and the bigotry remains in some - hopefully small - pockets of British society) because it is almost funny to look back now on the production of 'Champagne' - a stage play with music I co-wrote with Nige. Our incentive was the prospect of creating something that would sell on shock value, whilst presenting a view that we truly held: gay relationships were (and will always be) as valid as straight ones. But this was 1994, when Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was still in force, in which it was ordained that local authorities and their schools must not teach "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

Well, we got our five minutes of (local) fame, as did one of our lead actors, whose speed and stealth spared him a gay-bashing on the way home from the theatre one night. As he later pointed out, live on BBC Radio Merseyside, it wasn't as if the show involved 'anal thrusting', which went down a treat, as you can imagine. Nige and I were kicked out of the church worship group, a situation that remained unchanged even after two hours of fervent debate with the vicar (the first nail in the coffin containing my Christianity). He contended that we had a moral obligation to present a Christian perspective on homosexuality. I argued that we had, because there really was no anal thrusting, although we had stepped beyond mere tolerance of 'those different to ourselves'. Back in 1994, Champagne sent the same message that the posters pinned in my high school now declare: "Some people are gay. Get over it.". It also highlighted the dangers of drug abuse, unsafe sex and domestic violence, all in keeping with the preachings of modern Christianity, but that is by-the-by.

This leads me to explain that this blog post is really a prelude to upcoming releases, the first of which is the eBook of Champagne, the novel I penned following the stage show, formerly published in paperback by highblue and already available to purchase. When it was listed on Amazon as 'homoerotic' fiction, on account of a couple of fairly tame passages involving sex between the two main characters, I was livid. I've written other books where the characters engage in sexual relations at some point, as part of the overall development of the plot, and I am not required to list these publications as 'erotic', because on the main they are not. However, in spite of a general air of acceptance (in the UK at least), it appears that one's readers are presumed heterosexual and must be forewarned, lest such content offends their straight sensibilities.

Warning done with, Champagne is best described by my editor, D.P. Ryan:
"Set during a period of significant social and cultural change in the early 1980s, Champagne opens up a world of seedy revue bars, prostitution, abuse, drug addiction and the devastating effect of AIDS. Centred around the events of a declining revue bar and its regeneration, a young man comes of age and finds his first love whilst looking for his estranged, abusive father. Through dark humour and strong characterisation the book is not only eye-opening, but also manages to capture a truly unique time in popular culture."

It is worth noting that the writing of this novel was undertaken with a deliberate, if somewhat subtle, political intent that will remain valid for as long as it is labelled as 'homoerotic'. And yet, the school I work in is testimony to the immense social change that we have seen over the past two decades. At most, a student or teacher might ask of another 'Is he gay?', but it is a question with no more significance than 'What car does he drive?'. Our most popular mainstream TV shows have main characters who just happen to be gay and the straights are merely surprised to discover a celebrity's non-heterosexuality if they seem a little too masculine / feminine to 'be the type'. A (gay male) friend of mine recently remarked that he was becoming increasingly intolerant of gay men whose campness was a fashion statement. In the not-so-distant past, overtly 'gay' behaviour served as a means of signalling one's identity to those who shared it. Now, according to my friend, it is the calling card of a screaming queen and quite unnecessary. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps now Champagne is just a simple love story and if so, then this is how it should be.

Champagne will be available in epub, mobi and Kindle editions before the summer. Watch this space for further information.

The second release is one which has caused me great difficulty, as indicated by the title and lengthy pre-amble to this post. 'Crush' is also the story of two men who fall in love. It is tragic, beautiful and compelling and, considering the personal-political views I have expressed above, it should be a given that I would add it to the Beaten Track catalogue without a second thought. However, it is more than a month since the author, Laura Johnson, made contact. I duly visited the Crush page on Smashwords and downloaded the sample, having noted the warning that "This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under, and which may be offensive to some readers of all ages." I read as far as I could, through page upon page of brutal child sexual abuse, maintaining objectivity by pondering over the distinction between gratuity and political cause. I reached the first incidence of animal cruelty and that was me done. I could go no further, but there was so much more to this story, I hoped.

In an attempt to glean the author's intent, I visited her Facebook page, where her profile picture was a freedom ribbon and her latest post was in regard to the need to act against animal cruelty. Our communications since have made it apparent that Crush, whilst too horrific for this naive little reader, is not gratuitous. In response to my concern that an author (and indeed a readership) might fetishise the more brutal aspects of human sexuality and behaviour, Johnson responded:
"Though I wouldn't want to make the story less brutal than it has to be, I also do not wish to placate audiences who would be titilated by child abuse and brutality. I do not have the slightest idea how I can find a happy medium there. Is there a way to convey the horror of abuse without "wallowing" in it?"

The question could be rhetorical. My personal feeling is that in the modern world, where readers' imaginations are curtailed by media technology, the answer has to be no. Many readers will need a literal account of the 'horrors of abuse' and, as one of my more experienced proof-readers remarked, whilst some of the descriptions of both animal and child abuse are horrific, they are in context and not at all glorified.

Satisfied that the author's intentions were good and that the violence contained within this wonderfully written novel was no more or less horrendous than others of its kind, I decided that I would add Crush to the Beaten Track catalogue, but then...

...Along came PayPal's decision, or rather, the decision imposed on them by banks and credit card companies. In mid February, PayPal issued an ultimatum to independent booksellers such as Smashwords to remove all publications that included certain types of erotica, in particular "bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica". Failure to do so would result in the suspension of accounts and with-holding of funds. Without getting into the complexities of the matter, it would seem that this was not a sudden change of policy - as the Dear Author blog notes, PayPal have had strict rules on this for some time.

Since then, PayPal have clarified and amended their policy on 'Acceptable Use':
"First and foremost, we are going to focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity: material that appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value)."

The main question here is how one might judge material as lacking "...serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value"? The Miller Test is the US legal standard on which such judgements are based and is considered an objective test, based on the view of the "average person, applying contemporary community standards".

Without getting into any heavy social scientific analysis of the social construction of sexuality, it is nonetheless pertinent to consider the following observation of Ancient Greece made by philosopher Michel Foucault:
"Sexual relations thus demanded particular behaviors on the part of both partners. A consequence of the fact that the boy could not identify with the part he had to play; he was sup­posed to refuse, resist, fiee, escape. He was also supposed to make his consent, if he finally gave it, subject to conditions relating to the man to whom he yielded (his merit, his status, his virtue) and to the benefit he could expect to gain from him (a benefit that was rather shameful if it was only a question of money, but honorable if it involved training for manhood, social connections for the future, or a lasting friendship)."

By 'contemporary community standards', this depicts rape and child abuse. In Ancient Greece this was not so: engagement in prostitution (either by prostituting oneself or others) resulted in debarrment from positions of public office, but "certain sexual roles assumed by boys and certain social roles assumed by adults" were considered moral, ethical and legal. And that is the problem with applying contemporary notions of morality to literature, because it does not die with the times.

All of this is, of course, a long-winded justification for the addition of Crush to Beaten Track. We will be launching our own online store in a few weeks' time; until then, PayPal's policies (and therefore US Law) have no jurisdiction, although In English Law, the Obscene Publications Act 1959 makes the distribution, circulation or sale of obscene materials an offence, unless "...it is proved that publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern.". It is my belief that, in the interests of literature and general concern, the publication of Crush is justified as being for the public good.

Crush, by Laura Johnson, is available in a variety of electronic formats, including Kindle (mobi) and epub.

The third addition is 'We The Animals', by Justin Torres, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Hardcover) and Granta Books (Kindle edition), a novel which Torres says is 'relatively autobiographical' - fiction borrowing from real life, something he suggests all authors do. Thus, it was not the novel itself that had me sold initially. I must confess that it was the 'buzz' which drew me in, alerted to it by an article in The Guardian Weekend magazine (Justin Torres: my parents put me in a mental institution; 24th March, 2012), where Torres tells of his incarceration in a mental institution at the age of 17, delivered there by his parents and one of his brothers, essentially on account of his homosexuality. This in itself is not surprising, given that it was the 1990s, in a small town in New York state; add to this Torres' own perception at that time of his sexuality as 'filthy', the self harm and drug use, the possible justifications for his 'treatment' abound. As one commentor on The Guardian's page for the article writes:
"You admit you were depressed, paranoid, and self-harming, and you were probably self-medicating through drugs, but still you insist they locked you up because you're gay? That really is nuts. I agree that a trip to a counsellor might have been a more appropriate first step to helping you, but you definitely come across as someone with problems. Maybe nobody really cares that you are gay apart from you. Ever considered that?"

A few others appear to share this sentiment: indeed the balance between negative and positive comments is quite even, with many citing Torres' confrontational writing style, or his use of the words 'queer' and 'faggot' by way of explaining their discomfort. Still others make the mistake of over-simplifying the cause, as illustrated by the opinion above. Justin Torres was locked up because he was gay, not in a 1960s electrodes attached to the genitals kind of way, but because of the 'pervasive, scalding shame' behind the self-harm, the violent reaction to discovering his family had read his private journals and so on. For, as much as I would like to agree with my friend's analysis - that 'out, loud and proud' is no longer a political necessity - the reactionary comments to Torres' queer stance demonstrate beyond doubt that it is as crucial now as it ever was.

And so to 'We The Animals': if I'm honest, the current price of the Kindle edition (£7.77) is beyond that which I would normally pay or endorse. This is certainly not a cheap read, and with just 144 pages, it almost feels unfinished. The crossover between real life and fiction is immediately apparent, leaving me with a sense that the plot is building up to a pivotal moment in the life of both the main character and the author. It is a moment that never arrives and I realise all at once that it's my own fault, for wanting a happy ending, or a new beginning, and for casting author and character as one and the same.

'We The Animals' is a gloriously frank and beautifully written account of childhood and adolescence. What is most striking is the author's capacity to capture this innocence, his portrayal of sex and violence as almost insignificant sources of bewilderment and curiosity when seen through the eyes of a child.

'We The Animals', by Justin Torres, is available in Kindle and hardcover editions.

This post has been a long time in the writing (and in the reading - if you're still with me at this stage, well done!), in part due to monitoring the situation with PayPal, but mainly on account of other commitments, including the (ongoing) editing of several publications. Thus, if you would like to write a guest post for Beaten Track, please let us know. Articles could be your reflections / inspiration for writing your novel, reviews / previews, social commentary that is linked to writing in some way - anything with a bit of substance and originality.