Friday, April 13, 2007

This Post Is Not Yet Rated

Wow, two posts in two days. Last night, I was sad. Tonight, my ire is up. I am Irish, after all--being sad and being angry are the two main catalysts of far too much of my general output.

Anyway. I was watching the film "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," loving it, obviously, for the fact that we get to see a lot of material cut from various films that took their ratings down from the dreaded NC-17 to a more respectable and marketable R, but also because I'm a raging (literally) liberal. My favorite amendment has always been the First. The movie talks about the shadowy ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America; how they are more likely to rate a movie NC-17 because of sex (and more specifically gay sex, or sex centered around the female orgasm) than violence. This of course reminded me of the time I saw "Enemy at the Gates," aka, "Head-Shot Blitzkrieg!", in the theater. I was sitting behind a kid and his dad. There must have been eleventy billion people who got their brains blown out in that movie; kid and dad enjoyed popcorn through the splatter. But when Rachel Weisz and Jude Law got down to the business, the dad put his hand over his son's eyes until their naked, writhing bodies had faded to black on the screen.

It might just be me, but um, following the logic behind that hand block, if I had a son (or a daughter), I would want my child growing up to eventually have successful, enjoyable sex. I wouldn't want them growing up to plant sniper bullets in the brains of German or Russian citizens. But, like I say, maybe that's just me.

More to the point, I watched "TFINYR" with growing dread while they described the movie industry as a conglomerate, vertical industry--just the words now used about book publishing--and was struck by how likely it is that, at some point, books may be subject to similar ratings. After all, movies aren't the only ratings-based game in town. FCC anyone (that's shit-piss-cunt-fuck-motherfucker-cocksucker-tits, to you)? Tipper Gore?

I used to think a good book will always get through. I mean, Nabokov's Lolita eventually found a major American publisher in Putnam, and that was in bad old stodgy 1958. No problemo in our enlightened times.

But now it's bad old stodgy 2007. Books, which are often (sometimes? Maybe my reading list skews in a certain, nasty direction) much more explicit in every way imaginable than movies, TV, radio or music, are simply the next target.

And then I realized: Duh, Kojak, it's already happening.

When I was working at a major publishing house in New York, one of my co-workers, a top editor in our department, came to me one day, flustered. Apparently, she'd sent out manuscript copies of a book she was editing to various book buyers she knew at large franchises around the country to stir up early interest in the book, which she hoped to land on best-seller lists. Not uncommon, and actually a very savvy move. She got a phone call back from a book buyer at a particular discount chain known for its low, low prices. She would have to cut a scene from the book, she was told. Well, she didn't HAVE to, but if this particular discount chain was going to even consider carrying the finished book (which would make up a considerable chunk of final sales), she'd have to kiss this scene goodbye. It was a romance novel, and the scene was a kinky, serious sex scene that "played too much like rape" in this buyer's eyes. The scene was changed.

If you think the fight to stop censorship of literature begins and ends at the public library/high-school reading-list level, you are wrong. It begins with the buyers, it begins pre-publication. And yeah, sure, this is a romance, one of hundreds published in a month. It's not like these buyers would phone up, say, Jonathan Safran Foer and ask him to pull 9/11 photos of a man jumping to his death from the World Trade Center. They wouldn't drop a note to A.M. Homes and ask that she give fist-fucking jacuzzi incest a rest. Or would they?

It's a slippery slope, my friends. I think the only reason the publishing industry has not, up to this point, been subjected to some kind of ratings system is that the industry and the buyers are only now becoming conglomerate. In the old days, your sales reps hand-sold books to important, independent bookstores, like McNally Robinson in New York or Prairie Lights in Iowa City. That's not where the money is anymore. The money is with a very small handful of giant chain buyers who can guarantee hard sales of one title into the tens of thousands of copies. And with publishing companies (and thus editors) under pressure to produce more best-selling titles in less time, I guarantee you'll begin to see more market-based censorship. And eventually, it will go public. And that is the day that the novel--regardless of what other writers and thinkers (Kurt Vonnegut, even) have said before--will actually be dead.

Or maybe I'm being too bleak. Perhaps the one thing that has (relatively) saved books from intense maternal scrutiny for all this time is the fact that to be offended by them, one has to be able to read and comprehend them. We're actually quite fucking lucky that a lot of the censoring elements in this country tend to be, eh how shall I put it, functionally illiterate in anything pertaining to art or free expression? Yes, that's how I shall put it. Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps real art churning in this country is the morbid incuriosity of some of it's most upright citizens.

So! Just to reiterate:
-Buy from independent bookstores, not chains
-Buy books that are published by independent publishers, not huge corporations (difficult, I know, but getting easier as indies gain cred and market-share)
-A lot of Americans are fucking and willfully stupid, thank god.
-Thus, I can write and publish stories that, if made into movies, or, say, gangsta rap albums, would generally be censored (and I'd be rich).
-At least, for now.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kilgore Trout is dead. So it goes.

I have lots of things to write about soon, but Kurt Vonnegut has died. I don't think there's a reading person my age--much less a writer--who has not been stopped in their tracks by a Vonnegut creation. For me, and for a lot of us, Vonnegut was one of the first writers that tore us out of the slumber of junior high, high school and college reading lists. He wrote comics, comedy, sci-fi and horror with a healthy pinch of porn thrown in. Up until yesterday, he was probably the single most influential living writer in America. I can't imagine later Philip Roth or Jonathan Safran Foer, Douglas Glover, Tim O'Brien, James Morrow, or anything ever published by Dave Eggers or McSweeneys, etc. without Kurt Vonnegut. I know he's informed almost every piece of fiction I've loved since I was 13, when, one rainy week, I devoured Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions (the entirety of the Vonnegut section of my junior high library)--hardly grasping the hard-won truth of any of it, but feeling it, feeling Something Important (and Really Fucking Funny, With Drawings of Buttholes and Everything!) anyway. I've gone back to him again. And again, and will again. It's horrible, but part of his genius is that the world as he foretold it has slid even further down the morass to strongly resemble that place. Or maybe it hasn't changed much at all. That might be even worse.

He taught me the word "luddite." He wrote about what it was like to be a human being, as pathetic and sorry as that enterprise can be. He was a cynic who wanted us all to be kind to each other.

The NYT has a nice, long obit. My favorite lit blogger, Maud Newton, has links and links to links.

Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.