Does it offend you? Look away!

Post 17 of 23

My publishers once got an anonymous letter, from “A Faithful Reader in Tulsa, Ok”, complaining that she had been offended by one of my books. She liked the sex, she said, but she had not been able to enjoy it, on two counts. First, she didn’t like my TV journalist heroine: the Faithful Reader thought Jade Sweet was the sort of woman who should appear on Dynasty, not in a romance novel. And second, she objected to the way my heroine was investigating various political scandals and crimes in her job.

Even though she had recognized that the book was set in Canada, the Faithful Reader for some reason imagined that these things were being investigated about the USA. It didn’t seem to occur to her that my fictional Probe Team was investigating Canadian problems and scandals and castigating Canadian politicians and attitudes, even in the one or two cases, out of a dozen or more mentioned, in which the US figured. Nor did Faithful Reader concern herself with whether what the Probe Team uncovered was the truth, and whether truth should be spoken.

And she utterly ignored the praise of the USA and the American spirit of enterprise which figured in the book (my imaginative, far-seeing, courageous, powerful hero was disliked by weak-spirited colleagues and competitors for being ‘too American’). My Faithful Reader overlooked all this in her eagerness to accuse me—to my American publisher—of ‘blatant anti-Americanism’.

This is, of course, like any accusation of racism, a rather unpleasant charge to make. Expressed to my publisher with the intent of robbing me of my livelihood, it might even amount to libel. But since the Faithful Reader had taken care not to sign her name to her accusation, I could not respond.

Not long afterwards, another reader was offended by a different book, one in which my scholarly heroine was investigating an ancient Mother Goddess religion in Greece. This reader apparently actually burned my book; she said she felt robbed of the cover price. Since she included her name and address, I was able to send her $5 for her trouble, and I hope that went some way towards mending matters for her.

What shocked me then, and still does now, is that both of these readers felt that my books should not have been published because they personally were offended by the content. Their response was not the kind that says, well, I’ve tasted that and don’t like it so I won’t eat it again. No, it was, I’ve tasted that and I don’t like it and I must prevent anyone else ever tasting it.  It should never have been allowed and we must wipe such things off the face of the earth.

They wanted my publisher to stop publishing me, or at least to rein me in: they wanted to censor me. They weren’t happy just to stop reading me. The Faithful Reader in Tulsa thought that many thousands like herself would be just as offended as she was “to be a captured audience, while Ms. Sellers weaved her own politics through the texture of the story”. Quite overlooking the fact that no one reading a book without a gun held to their head is a captive audience: like every reader she was of course free to stop reading.  Quite overlooking my right to freedom of expression.

Do you imagine romance publishers do not take note of such readers? Sadly, romance publishing was then and is (much more) today in the business of “not offending readers”. Harlequin run focus groups and do market research as if they were selling soap; sometimes I think the Marketing department doesn’t actually see any difference. So later on, when I wrote in another book about the freewheeling way Western countries were then selling poison gas to Saddam Hussein to use against the Kurds, my editor cut that section completely.

Censorship Road may be short or it may be long, but the stop at the end of it is the City of the Bland.

I was reminded of these adventures this week when the Australian radio journalists broadcast their astonishing hoaxing of the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was staying. The tragedy of the nurse’s subsequent suicide could of course never have been intended or even foreseen by anyone. Nevertheless, people are now finding the hoax offensive, finding all hoax phone calls offensive; there is an ugly public outcry against the journalists and a bid to ban such activities in future.

It’s the road to perdition. Quite apart from the question of whether it can be appropriate to ban every activity that has ever been productive of a negative unintended consequence, the criminalizing of speech and behaviour that might be offensive to some people, which is now underway in many countries, is the short cut to much stronger censorship than we have ever been used to in the free world. It’s the death of artistic freedom and creative licence, as well as creative enterprise, imagination, maverick lunacy—everything, in short, that gives our world colour. Let’s not go there. Unless there is a clear social evil involved…let’s just put the book down!