Reviews vs. Awards vs. Censorship
Please note this blog post is me speaking for MYSELF, and not any current or past employer.
The flap about that book I shall not give more of a platform to is more than what's being talked about on Twitter, more than what even most romance readers seem to understand, and talking about it in 140-character increments is exhausting because so many pieces are getting lost.
The book in question is controversial. It's controversial in that it uses conversion as a plot point, which appears to be anti-Semitic in nature (the heroine's arc is completed in that she is saved by love and conversion when so many other Jews perished). It's controversial in that it is part of a genre that has been artificially narrowed -- by publishers, by readers, but authors -- to include spirituality only in the context of evangelical Christianity. it's controversial in that it uses a trope that denies consent to the heroine -- no matter how you look at it, you cannot consent to a relationship when the other person holds all the power over whether you live or die.
Where things are getting lost is in who praised the book, who gave the book a platform, who would be accused of censorship.
Censorship is not being allowed an avenue to express yourself. No one is advocating burning this book, or denying the author her right to have written the book. As I noted on Twitter, I was once in a writing challenge with an author who was writing a fic with this exact plotline, and there was a heated argument between us on the issue of consent. I checked this morning, and found several examples -- many unfinished -- of Twilight fan fiction where Edward was the Nazi officer/commander/solder and Bella was the Jew in the camp/heading to the camp/being saved from the camp.
I'm not telling those authors -- or those who read these stories -- that they have no right to read them. But I find it problematic when a SYSTEM rewards these stories with a giant platform.
Let's face it; books with dubious consent issues are currently popular. Those of us who tried to campaign against 50 Shades (or in its fanfic form, Master of the Universe) pointed out that it was at best "dubcon" which is fandomese for "a story where the consent is dubious at best." The general public lapped it up, and obviously didn't care about the consent issues.
At the time, however, one of the organizations that made this book a finalist for an award said no pulled to publish fan fiction was eligible.
And we nodded along. We get it. It's a controversial subject and we might not like singling out some works, but they did.
Now, what is it, five years later? The word censorship is used. Why now? Why when it was okay to say "These works are not okay by us" does it become censorship with the community at large is questioning it?
Note that there were reviewers who gave this book glowing recommendations, but they were single readers. There was no panel discussion, and the one thing you know about privilege is that some people don't see it. I'm not saying it's right that they didn't, but I understand it. There are reviewers who saw good writing and didn't perceive the plot in all the ways it was problematic.
That is the biggest problem in the industry. We can call for diverse books and diverse authors and diverse readers, but the issue is bigger than one book. As a reviewer, I requested the diverse books, and when I wasn't sure about a plot or the way a character was being portrayed, I would often ask friends, "Am I wrong to find this offensive? Is this the author showing reality or an author showing bias?"
But I'm old and I'm super-liberal and I've been around this block. And when we aren't teaching people -- from reviewers to interns to assistants to acquiring editors to amateur reviewers what is problematic, we are really all to blame.
I'm not a member of the organization in question. I have never been a fan of its principles, of its laissez-faire approach to dealing with controversy, and I'm too tired to want to affect change from the inside. So I don't give them my money and I generally ignore them, but most people will tell you this isn't an isolated incident.
It isn't censorship to say "We want to reward authors who approach diversity with sensitivity." It isn't wrong to add guidelines saying works with dubious consent issues wouldn't be eligible for the platform given to them by becoming an award finalist. It is, however, horrifying that authors are given books to review -- from their peers -- with no idea and no guidelines about how to review them critically, with an eye to a book's overall impact other than "Yeah, this is good. Here's my rating scale."
But until we as an entire industry -- from assistants and reviewers to CEOs and acquisitions -- start to look at intersectionality in everything we do? And establish guidelines -- for reviewing, for awards, for publishing -- that instruct people to be aware of content and how marginalized populations may be treated by the content? This one book is the tip of a very big iceberg that's still not visible above the surface.