Journal Notes on Censorship
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
The following commentary was written at the request of an editor who shall be unnamed. She was editing an anthology on censorship as encountered by feminist writers; I do not know if it was ever published. I wrote of my experience & opinions in the science fiction & fantasy field, the feminist & gay presses, & publishing generally. It was returned to me as "too confrontational" & I was asked to tone it down. Rather than censor my comments on censorship, I decided to permanently misplace that editor's address, publishing the piece, instead, in the f/sf critical journal Quantum, issue 45, 1993.
When I was writing Amazon heroic fantasy novels for the Berkley Group, I was never censored for feminist or lesbian content. My editor, Susan Allison, was supportive, & a joy to work with on those three books. But when I wrote an elegant, pastoral fantasy, the same editor didn't want it because it wasn't violent enough.
In the earlier books, a woman samurai lopped off heads like she was picking bouquets in a garden. That made them so "commercial" they were forgiven the uncommercial component of an uptight bisexual protagonist who felt bad about killing. I had supposedly created an "expected market" so that a novel leaning toward peacefulness & mysticism was not acceptable. Another editor, Terri Windling, who personally liked the pastoral end of fantasy, actually threatened to quit her job over it, so that the book was bought under duress. But because no one else there cared about the book or believed it could have mass appeal, it was the first of my novels not released as the monthly leader, & in consequence sold far fewer copies than did the violent novels, the classic self-fulfilling prophesy.
Curious as it may seem it is possible to be censored for not being violent enough. Censorship can extend to burying a book even if it has been bought & published. A great deal of "censorship" is in actuality the simple decision as to what is a good commercial bet. If incest, alcoholism, child abuse, & bad writing sells well, then badly written books about incestuous alcoholic child abusers won't be censored. If kindness & spirituality & stylishness is viewed as death on the mass market, it won't be allowed.
In Germany, of all places, my reflective woman samurai was lumped together with the bondage fantasy novels of John Norman & the Heavy Metal Science Fiction novels of Norman Spinrad, & condemned as pornographically violent. The effort to get our books placed behind the counters failed. I was amused to be lumped with authors diametrically opposed to the content of my books. As I do not read German, it could well be that the violence of my books was highlighted by the translator, & the reflectiveness excised, so that they came across being as pointlessly violent as two authors in no wise similar to me.
I have occasionally been censored in the pages of gay & lesbian publications, because I am politically a rebel by most standards. I penned a well-researched essay on South American swordfighting lesbians Dona Catalina de Erauso, Dona Eustaqia, Dona Ana, & La Nina, which recounted their murdering, slave-capturing, & Indian-fighting escapades. This was deemed racist by one gay-lesbian press, for I had refused to clean up their images in any way. Their actions were as far from feministly inspired as they could get, yet they represent a vital aspect of lesbian history.
Only Catalina had ever been written about in the popular or gay press previously, & she was greatly misrepresented for the sake of political approval, to be palatable to the moment's feminist moralism. I would not misrepresent these women, so they were revealed as vulgar, amoral, violently aggressive, & almost fantastical because they were consciously imitating amazons of the medieval Spanish romances. Nor would I pass negative judgment on them, & conveyed more than a niggling admiration. Thus I was charged by the lesbian editor (claiming "committee" authority) with myself wanting personally to uphold slavery & kill Indians. It was manifestly an issue of proper, moral, & politically essential censorship so far as that editor was concerned.
I don't think this laughable encounter with a gay press was exceptional, though I have not dealt with so many as to know certainly that this usually happens when reality confronts a specialized, narrowed, & suspicious moral environment. I have the sense that there is greater freedom to write about lesbians & straights side-by-side in non-specialized presses. A lesbian/gay press is leery of the intrusion of anything either heterosexual, or genuinely gender-bendingly uncategorizable.
In most cases, the suitability or unsuitability of a book to a preconceived pattern is what is measured, & not its inherent or artistic value & its individual approach to the material. I know of a novel about a group of women trapping a vampire that was rejected by a feminist press because they thought it was about a man; so even feminists sometimes fail to understand the heart of a feminist book, with lots of women in it, if a single interesting male is present. The same publisher preferred a book by the same author with no male characters at all. This actual & extreme case exemplifies what occurs in publishing not because of feminism or lack of feminism, but what happens when books are categorized by preconceived patterns that have nothing to do with individual books.
It's hard to say all this is exactly censorship. But it assuredly limits the horizons of artistic authors if they seek to publish in any environment of narrow categorizations, which is fast becoming the only kind of publishing environment that exists. My own writing tends to be confrontational, questioning, against formula, morbid, & sometimes downright misanthropic. There is no category of publishing that can be called "not quite like anything else." I will never be so conformist as to be publishable without some degree of abrasion.
Many publishers, both mainstream & specialized, who are aiming at the feminist market, seek kissy-assy Barbie doll niceness whether they admit it or not. This includes the present environment for fantasy novels, which is to a surprising extent a new "women's genre" filling the same need that Regency Romances filled a decade ago, & "Lady's Gothics" a decade before that. The "suspense" of a book may include toying with the idea of breaking social, political, or even conceptual rules, but without actually breaking these unspoken rules. In the 1950s & early 60s, there was genre of mass market paperbacks about lesbians, designed to titillate. The final chapter required the butch girl to kill herself or otherwise vanish from her girlfriend's life, while the femme girl finked out, went straight, & got married. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote some of these. By the 1980s the "conventional" approach to the lesbian story was strongly in reaction to the culturally misogynist assumptions about lesbians, & the same characters would not be considered publishable in a lesbian press. A literature that exists largely in reaction to another literature has no identity of its own. A publishing arena that requires just such a reaction censors self-identity, whether intentionally or not.
The choir is expected to sing the same tune, & the different drummer is always at risk. By & large, I've been able to find an outlet for what I've wanted to write & say, so I can't much complain on my own account. I know good writers who've never attracted any attention at all, let alone a reasonable payment for their work. I've known lousy third-rate authors contracting books so fast that in some cases they literally have to farm them out to be ghosted. I suppose I fall in the middle. At least I'm published & read, & sometimes given a bit of credit by critics or readers for exceptional work. But I feel my income from it is limited by my unwillingness or inability to conform.
Worse than outright censorship has been this whole concept of genre categories. Whether it's "gay lit" or "Harlequin Romance" or "Science Fiction," there are always underlying rules that cannot be broken. An unimaginitive writer who loves a given genre can undoubtedly conform. But if you want to write a romance novel that is sinister & downbeat, forget it; the romance publishers don't do that. If you want to write a science fiction novel that draws on the symbolist & surrealist traditions, forget it; the science fiction publishers don't do that. If you want to write like Kali the Destroyer instead of some trumped up goody-two-shoes New Age Earthmother, forget it; the many publishers of Goddess books don't do that.
To write against form, against norms, is always harder. A mediocre author can write in a conformist way & be successful. A nonconformist has to be a far better writer to achieve a lesser success, because marketing patterns are aimed at narrow categorizations. Censorship has a dollar sign rather than a moral agenda. It is thankfully not yet impossible for unique voices to be heard, but the day could well be near that good books appear exclusively in scarce editions from publishers outside of New York with only the spottiest of distribution. A world in which processed junk food is generally available, & real food is hard to find, is a world that increasingly programs its citizens to themselves become indistinguished piles of crap.
Copyright © 1993, 1998 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
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