Local author Andrea Juillerat-Olvera gets caught up in a planet-wide effort by banks to censor edgy art
Little ole Reno, Nev., rarely gets caught up in bigger-than-life issues, like world-wide censorship of art, but here we are.
Regular readers will recall an e-book review the RN&R published last year about a locally written novel, Demon’s Grace (“The New Frontier,” Western Lit, June 2). The novel was written by Andrea Juillerat-Olvera and published through Smashwords.com.
Here’s what we said about the novel at the time: “It describes the adventures of Sabrina Lingus with drugs, sex and smuggling information. … [The novel contains descriptions of] wonderfully imaginative, and yet frighteningly believable, near-future intrusions of government—and recreation—into our very minds. The book is intelligently written and guiltily pleasurable, though some of the violence and sexual content aren’t for the faint of heart. (Virtual necrophilia, anyone?) Let’s just say the drugs are designer, the level of government and business scrutiny is profound, and safe sex in future Seattle, while not likely to give you a sore on your genitals, is just as oxymoronic as the term is in Reno present. It’s deliciously dirty.”
Deliciously dirty. But worthy of censorship? Not by a long shot. However, that’s just what Paypal decided when it elected to no longer process money exchanges for materials it finds objectionable. And while the definition of obscene varies from locale to locale—As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it”—the internet has never set its obscenity standard by what’s acceptable in Ames, Iowa.
And Paypal’s threat is serious. If it were to end its relationship with an independent publisher, it would kill that publisher since Paypal has a practical monopoly on these types of internet transactions.
Mark Coker, founder of the Smashwords website, sent a letter on Feb. 24 to Smashwords authors, publishers and agents. Juillerat-Olvera provided us with the document: “Today we are modifying our Terms of Service to clarify our policies regarding erotic fiction that contains bestiality, rape and incest. If you write in any of these categories, please carefully read the instructions below and remove such content from Smashwords. … PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books.”
And with more of a whimper than a scream, one of the world’s largest e-book publishers bowed to pressure, although negotiations with PayPal continue. Some 1,000 of Smashwords’ 100,000 publications were threatened; some were removed until Paypal gave the site a reprieve. Juillerat-Olvera said it was not just Paypal, though. The pressure came from higher up, the transnational banking corporations like Visa that work with Paypal in the virtual financial universe.
And that’s not say that Coker is cowardly by bowing to the pressure—even temporarily. In some ways, this controversy is similar to the imbroglio that erupted in 2010 over an e-book internet giant Amazon was selling, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure, by Philip R. Greaves. Amazon pulled the book from sale.
“There’s a sliver of hope that I might be able to obtain a more positive, less restrictive outcome than I communicated … yet it’s unlikely we’ll achieve the true result I want (no censorship) in the near term,” Coker wrote. “Today, PayPal hinted at a more relaxed definition of prohibited content as, according to them (I’m paraphrasing), “books for which rape, bestiality and incest are the major theme. If rape, bestiality and incest are incidental plot points, then that content might be allowable.”
The irony is that Demon’s Grace, which remained available through Amazon.com’s Kindle site and is now back on Smashwords, is not about bestiality, rape or incest. It’s about the censorship of thinking about bestiality, rape and incest. But Paypal’s demands are not surgical enough to only force removal of materials that might actually be illegal, but the policies censor concepts the financial institutions find offensive.
“My book is not about those things,” Juillerat-Olvera wrote in an email to the RN&R. “It’s about censorship in a dystopian future. I mention those things to make the point. Now I face censorship in the current, living world for the references in the book … fractal-esque isn’t it?”
Obviously, this is not the first time that attempts have been made to censor literary art because somebody has found its sexual content objectionable. Classics like Ulysses by James Joyce, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. come to mind. All have been censored. All have overcome censorship efforts. Even the Bible contains scenes of bestiality, rape and incest, and as such, falls under Paypal’s censorship guidelines.
But these master works are beyond the reach Paypal’s financial extortionists. It’s the small, independent writers and publishers who don’t have the wherewithal to fight back who have come under the gun in what some have characterized as “the most far-reaching act of censorship of the internet era.”
“To me, the really unfair part of Paypal’s rule was that the ‘net’ was cast so wide that it caught up books like mine—which merely address taboo topics,” according to Juillerat Olvera. “But, somehow porn sites in general aren’t affected. The rule seems targeted toward indie publisher’s rather than the porn industry—a policing of thought and creativity rather than actual illicit activity. And why do banks get to censor writers? Ugh.”
Coker says that the battle against internet censorship and to get Paypal to limit its suppression to materials that are actually illegal continues. He also says that people must get involved: “What can you do to move things forward? First, direct your attention where it matters most. Contact your credit card company or congressperson and tell them you want financial services companies out of the business of censoring what writers and readers are free to imagine with fiction. Blog about it. Tweet about it. Contact your favorite blogger and encourage them to raise awareness. Start petitions and tell financial institutions you want their censors out of your head. Contact the media. The media, with your urging, has the power to shine a bright light on the dangerous slippery slope of censorship by financial institutions.”