Critique (i)

The censorship machine

It’s innocuous, this machine – nothing more than computer code; a sequence of instructions written to perform a specified task. On the surface, the machine is no cause for alarm. The problem, however, is the surface. It’s deceptive. It’s what so many people see and what so few see beyond.

I am speaking of Amazon Kindle’s e-books, of how the Kindle publishing software chooses its ebooks for publication. More accurately, I am speaking of how it singles out manuscripts for rejection from publication – often in under an hour.

That’s right: an entire manuscript can be “read” and rejected in under an hour.

The Kindle website makes no claims of actually reading or even editing the manuscripts it receives for publication. In fact, the website strongly urges potential authors to hire professional editors to proof self-published manuscripts before uploading them through the Kindle software. It is solely at the author’s discretion to hire an editor. As long as the manuscript is formatted to the Kindle specifications, it will more than likely be published, regardless of any literary merit. So it’s doubly-alarming when the Kindle machine rejects a manuscript in under an hour based on the manuscript’s being deemed obscene.

Today in the United States, where so much is considered permissible for adult consumption, obscenity is a weighty accusation.

To an extent, censorship occurs at all the American e-book publishing companies. Certain broad topics enjoy a seemingly endless reign on the verboten list: paedophilia, incest, bestiality, and eroticised rape. It’s prudent to note that these topics are only forbidden when they appear in fiction. And, as fiction, they tend to be attributed to the genre of erotica.

An important distinction, though, between Kindle publishing and smaller e-book publishing houses, is that at the smaller houses – albeit, where self-publishing is not involved – the manuscripts are actually read by human editors. At Kindle, a substantial percentage of erotica titles are being self-published and the software – not an editor – is making the decision about what shall be considered obscene.

A perusal of the current titles in the Kindle erotica section would not scream “censorship!” to most people. Titles such as, A is for Anal, In Her Ass, Gangbangs

Galore, or Watch My Wife Get Fucked, do not conjure up the censored days of yore.

However, considering the actual books that overturned the censorship laws in the United States in 1964 were titled Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover – books that are now considered literary classics – we must then consider the true framework upon which censorship was usually draped: a fear of literary ideas.

The twenty-first century censorship machine knows nothing of context, nothing of ideas. It knows only keywords that must not be present when a manuscript’s category is erotic fiction.

It’s important to note that an already published work of erotic fiction can be available for sale – and sometimes for many years – elsewhere on the Amazon bookstore site, yet be deemed obscene and ineligible for publication as an e-book in the Kindle store. This is precisely because a human editor and a human publisher were behind the publication of the traditional print book, and therefore reading the manuscript and taking any scenarios described within it in the context of the complete book. They likely did not skim the manuscript solely for potentially problematic words.

However, that’s what Kindle’s style of censorship comes down to: Not a fear of potentially explosive literary ideas, but a rejection of words not taken in any context whatsoever – except, of course, that the isolated words are in a manuscript being submitted in the category of erotica.

Once the censorship machine deems a manuscript obscene and unfit for publication, authors who want to dispute this decision will find themselves trapped in a frustrating round of automatic form-letter email replies, until – with perseverance – a Kindle employee might actually send an email reply, but include no explanation for the rejection beyond sending a link that leads to a web page on Kindle’s broadly-phrased policy that states they don’t publish obscenity and/or pornography. (Yes, this is the very same site that publishes titles such as the aforementioned “In Her Ass”, “Gangbangs Galore”, “Watch My Wife Get Fucked”, etcetera.)

Kindle represents only a relatively small portion of Amazon’s publishing program, so it’s chilling to juxtapose the multinational corporation’s position as a "The censorship machine" continues in a popup window.

The twenty-first century censorship machine knows nothing of context,
nothing of ideas… it knows only keywords that must not be
present when a manuscript’s category is erotic fiction.