Times change, and taboos change with them. What sort of taboos exist nowadays in the world of publishing?
I don’t actually believe that we’ve come quite so far as the question would suppose. In fact, I would argue that taboos are more restrictive today that they have been times past. Back in 1967 Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” argued that incest was a Good Thing. Around the same time, Moorcock’s time-travel tale “Behold the Man” showed us the blessed virgin as a slut and Jesus Christ as a drooling, congenital imbecile.
What mainstream sf outlets would have the balls to publish those stories today? Down in the US, a half-second flicker of Janet Jackson faux-nipple on national television sends the whole fucking country into an uproar. Over in the UK, it has recently become illegal to own pictures of legal sexual acts; the ownership of sufficiently “extreme” pornographic images is enough to get you registered as a sex offender. And in my country, Canada’s so-called “premiere science fiction magazine”, On Spec— a publication that once had the guts to publish a story of mine that dared to portray a racist as a sympathetic individual– refused to run a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit, renegeing on a written commitment explicitly designed to ensure that such censorship wouldn’t occur. (It only adds to the irony that the image was intended to illustrate an editorial celebrating science fiction’s potential to explore “dangerous ideas”.)
So, you guys think we’re “thankfully past those days” of censorship?
Tell me, what colour is the sky on your world?
More so even than honest emotion or unevaded truth, genuine originality inspires a gut revulsion on the rare occasion it’s encountered. People think they want it but when the real thing comes along they discover they really, really don’t. There’s nowhere to put it – a slot of the right shape doesn’t exist in the head, because nothing like the idea has ever been seen before. It’s sad that the SF world, too, has this almost primal fear of the unfamiliar. I would have hoped for some precocious curiosity, some openness to exploration, rather than timidity disguised as mere conservatism. SF publishing is like a teenager who’s yearned for sex and then is freaked out by the reality. Pathetically squeamish about anything genuinely new, it huddles about its strangely parochial center. So we see the white-on-white effect of publishers putting out more of the same. They carefully skirt raw, from-the-ground-up thought while simultaneously denying its existence. I can’t believe SF authors haven’t read enough to know what’s already been done. Yet they spend the bulk of a book tamping down any visionary possibilities in order then to spring a tired analog of a revelation. We’re given Lukyanenkoan agents, yet more Clarkean space artifacts and the retreading of ye olde evolution into virtuality and beyond. Get far enough away that all this dwindles into a single dot, then choose something else. There is more than one star.
There are very few blanket taboos left, thank goodness. Where I live in Malaysia, you can still be jailed or fined for having a child out of wedlock or crossdressing or fellatio (yeah, even if you are a married couple!)…even so, a local author published a sympathetic work of fiction centered around a prostitute, and it remains popular and on sale many years later. Even here, people can nibble away at the edges of the taboos.
However, I think some of us writers have possibly become too cautious about offending others. We’re fine with swearing or graphic sex, but we back away from taking a hard look at someone else’s religious beliefs or cultural hang-ups in our work, although we feel free to poke fun at our own.
I know I’ve retreated from such topics, fearing accusations of cultural appropriation or prejudice or insensitivity. I have spent all my adult life living in other cultures, in communities practising religions which are not mine, so I am uniquely situated to write about these things with an outsider’s (possible) objectivity – yet I don’t.
Instead I write fantasy, and cloak my look at real religious foibles and cultural oddities by placing them in a fantasy setting. I’d like to believe that readers are prompted into thinking about their own prejudices and sacred cows as a result, but I suspect I am naïve. In all probability, they either don’t recognise themselves, or the sub-text simply passes them by as they get caught up in the story.
And who am I to complain? I am first and foremost a storyteller and doubtless I have my own numerous biases anyway. And yeah, I’m a rank coward. I don’t have permanent residency…
Are there still taboos? I don’t think so. There are so many markets and so many diverse publishing experiences that even if a mainstream publishing house won’t take a particular topic, someone will — provided it’s well written and the story is good.
I don’t know that taboos — particularly sex and profanity taboos — necessarily apply to some genres and not others (I don’t think of young adult fiction as a genre); I think they’re individual things. I also don’t think they’re things of the past, by any means. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As the whole RaceFail bunfight proves yet again, writers need repeatedly to be reminded that the world isn’t just story-fodder — there are all kinds of people out there, made differently, thinking differently and feeling differently. I don’t think we ought to be writing pap so as to avoid offending anyone, but periodically being kicked awake to sensibilities different from our own can only be a good thing.
‘The reception of “The Goosle”‘ that you speak of was one reader whose particular buttons were pushed by ‘The Goosle’, or were pushed one too many times for him to bear. The story is a continuation and a complete fouling-up of ‘Hansel and Gretel’; it contains dirt-eating, largely off-stage homosexual predation (you get to see the preliminaries and the aftermath), audible but not visible heterosexual sex, a witch fondling Hansel’s penis, cannibalism, an off-stage axe-murder and beheading of the corpse, and many, many other corpses. This SOUNDS as if I dreamed up a list of horrors on purpose to shock people, but I’m talking retrospectively here. The story began with the word ‘gunsel’, which I discovered in the dictionary. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford – you can find variations online – something along the lines of ‘a young man or boy kept for homosexual purposes, especially by a tramp’, so it was never going to be a nice story. (But it didn’t have to be. The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was never envisaged as a children’s or young adults’ anthology, and that was where my critic got the wrong end of the stick.) Then on top of that dictionary definition, the word ‘gunsel’ suggested ‘Hansel’ to me, and the old folk tale mated with the definition and started spawning horrors.
Quite a chorus of people within the genre leaped to my defence when Dave Truesdale lashed out, rather than joining him in his protest, which makes me think that he was rather the exception than the norm, and that nobody’s really fussed about such stories as ‘The Goosle’ existing. Readers are sensible enough to avoid what they don’t like, what makes for a too-difficult read for them at a particular time in their life.
But there are also readers who are in search of a challenging read, for whom reading is, as writing is for me, a bit pointless unless it’s pushing their own envelope, doing something exploratory, making them discover something about themselves or the world around them. I think the challenging reads should exist, as well as the safe, reassuring reads and the downright escapist ones, for those times when we need them.
Taboos are a particular issue in relation to young adult fiction, which my novel Tender Morsels is, in the US, although it’s published as an adult book here in Australia. If people feel strongly about their own taboos, they tend to come down even more definitively on behalf of their children. We want our children to be resilient, but it’s sometimes hard for us to let them go through the experiences that are going to give them that resilience, and for some parents and teachers that extends to experiences they find in a novel.
When I was writing Tender Morsels, I was still thinking it would come out as young adult everywhere. But also, in terms of the story, the events that had to happen at the beginning of the story to justify my heroine’s being given her own personal heaven were so horrible that if I presented them in all their gruesome detail, there was a risk that the story would become unbalanced, and its beauties and its message would be overwhelmed by all the suffering. So the ‘self-censoring’ I did was as much a technical issue as a considering-young-adults move on my part.
What I did was, I suggested enough about the sexual assaults for adult readers to work out what was going on, but not quite enough for young people who didn’t want to look too closely at the facts of incest and rape to have to admit to seeing them. As a result, many adult readers seem to have a harder time with this book than young adults, because they can usually imagine quite clearly what Liga has gone through, while younger readers are spared seeing all the details; they can jump across my jump cuts without putting a whole bunch of implied icky stuff in place there; those without the equipment or experience to cause themselves the pain of imagining simply won’t.
I don’t think the censoring should be happening at the point of writing. Readers are efficient enough at screening out material they don’t want to encounter; my job is not to protect them but to be true to the story that presents itself, to help it go where it needs to go, however unpleasant and dark the places it leads us may be.
I’ve thought about this question for a couple of days, but I personally haven’t run into any explicit taboos or censorship in the field. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the editors I’ve had, but I’ve never been asked to remove, reword, or tone down anything to make it more palatable.
One taboo I can think of that might cause problems would be child pornography. Lolita managed to do it, but even with that as a precedent I think this would still be a difficult subject to write about on a number of levels. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable if the situation ever came up as a necessary element in a story. I’d be very worried and self-conscious about how I approached the topic. It would be like walking into a minefield.
Taboos are hard to recognize if you haven’t bumped into one. I once spent a considerable time in a place that had a taboo against any public eatery staying open during mealtimes, but if I hadn’t been hungry when the restaurant owners were at home eating their breakfast, lunch and dinners, I would never have known. In the case of some writers, either they or their publishers have censored meaning and plot, presumably because they dammed the flow of words. But, like sex, I think it’s a matter of courses and what the rivermasters allow to flow down them. However, I’ve observed a few snags that might stop great stories getting through. The first snag is sex-based. “Interesting story, well written,” read the editor’s note to a friend who happens to be male. “Although the portrayal of women characters will offend our readership. Are you interested still?” The story was about a man who had been working for some time in the garage on an invention he thought would “save the world”. Meanwhile, his wife put up with her car living rough out in the snow. And she not only wasn’t much interested in the details of her husband’s project, but she couldn’t have invented it herself. She was a great cook. When it came time for him to demonstrate his invention, she was more interested in how fast he could get the garage cleared and how much money they’d make from it. I feel personally responsible for the failure of this author to get this story published. He asked me about it, and I said to leave it as it was. It was, of course, sf/f, so the readers would know this isn’t exactly as reality ever is.. After the rejection, the author flipped the sexes and had the husband making the peach cobbler, but somehow, the story never made it into publication.
Another observation, this one garnered from my recent trip to the asteroid *. The *ians are voracious readers. With their one taste-organ orifice, they consume books with a sound that, if you’re not born there, takes some getting used to — and they consume so many books so fast, that *ian authors must imbibe inspiration in some way inhumanly possible as they work without rest, coffee or praise — for on asteroid * there is an inverse of the Earth ratio of fiction writers to readers. With nothing else to eat on *, fiction production isn’t an aspirational profession, just as cooking isn’t for the majority of people who end up doing the cooking on Earth. The most popular theme in *ian sf/f today is visits to Earth and interactions with the dominants there, uh, here: iron atoms. The plots of *ish books are fast and nutritious; but unlike power drinks on our planet, *ish books are packed full of everything delicious –plot, emotion, character — betwixt *lings and these iron atom earthlings (with a smattering of other species they imagine on our planet, but I think some sort of taboo against featuring other species from their asteroid). I’m no reviewer, so I’ll just say simply: I love these books. But *ian sf/f has some guidelines that might be universal today. No cats, no puns, and certainly no fluffy kittens. They’ve had those guidelines since the Pure Fiction Act of 1.9908 eons ago — which means that Lewis Carroll is still banned on *.
As for me, in fiction I always censor and I never censor. Always censor, in the case of telling a reader what I really think. In my opinion, a story shouldn’t tell a reader how to think or what to ditto, any more than a peach telling a stomach how to digest. And I never censor anything I think needs saying. A story is a consumable, but a great story not only feeds. It infects.
One place that I would advocate censorship is the autobiography. I miss *.. Nobody there cares about the life of writers. In fact, on *, if a writer wants to say a character is dull, they don’t write “accountant”, probably because their accountants are as creative as those on Earth. They write “writer”. On *, a writer’s apprenticeship requires — for entry level: three utter failures in life (not having to do with writing); and after entry: two spursecs masticating proofs before a writer (snacks) achieves a Probationary Certificate. When I asked if the * apprenticeship program would be interested in a writing workshop taught by my species from my planet, my visa was revoked. “Writing isn’t taught,” I was told (tersely, some would say). “Observation is. You haven’t noticed that.” I said I don’t believe that writers should autobiograph, but one more personal admission. I still resent that they stamped my passport “Unobservant Alien” and confiscated my stash of *ish books before they sent me home.
The biggest taboo in science fiction and fantasy is showing humans in a positive light. According to the experts, there are so many problems in our world–global warming, overpopulation, the looming singularity–it will be a miracle if humanity survives the next hundred years. As a result, many writers of speculative fiction self censor, embracing doom and gloom under the belief that doing so gives “depth” to their writings. They create nothing but dark and moody antiheroes living dark and moody lives in dark and moody science fiction and fantasy worlds, where ironic quips have taken the place of actual human qualities like self sacrifice, love, and hope.
Ironically, this causes much of SF/F to miss the true depths of humanity, and likewise causes the genre to misunderstand our ability to overcome our self-created problems. Humanity has been engaged in a million-year flirtation with extinction–but we’re still here! Research suggests that tens of thousands of years ago humanity dwindled to a few hundred people. Yet those people didn’t give up. Instead, they spread across the entire globe and created the civilizations which nurture us all. I see no reason why today’s humanity won’t also overcome the problems that threaten both us and our planet. But in today’s SF/F, this positive view of humanity’s past and future is one most writers avoid like the plague.
In recent years, I’ve been exploring gender issues in a lot of my fiction, and I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’m a feminist. I hadn’t thought I was violating any taboos by doing that, but a comment in a positive review of my collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, has given me some food for thought. On The Fix, Lyndon Perry wrote, “To classify this collection as feminist literature, in my opinion, might unnecessarily marginalize these stories away from the very genre fiction scene it seeks to represent.”
His observation, which was based on the fact that the introduction and the jacket cover both discuss feminism, has made me wonder if some of the rejections I receive have to do with the fact that many of my stories do touch on gender issues, or if – as Perry suggests – my reputation as a feminist makes some editors (and readers) dismiss my work without paying close attention.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that a taboo exists against feminist material – or political material generally. Frankly, I hope Perry’s wrong, much as I appreciate the nice things he said about my stories. But it does seem as if fiction that goes farther than simply writing a woman character into a role once reserved solely for male ones is not common in mass market fiction. It’s nice to see the kick-ass heroines, but I am hungry for meatier material.
Thinking about this hasn’t driven me to self-censorship, though. The truth is, I just find gender issues too interesting to stop writing about them. And I’ve been told “girls can’t do that” too many times to let any criticism stop me from being a feminist.
Far from worrying about censorship, I keep thinking I’m not pushing things as far as they could actually go. For me, it’s a question of aesthetics rather than taboos.
I had a brilliant Shakespeare professor in college (Edward Tayler, at Columbia) who pointed out to us that much of literature is about who you are forbidden to marry or have sex with – and that since the rules relaxed in the mid-twentieth century, there was almost nothing left to construct a drama around; he cited Nabokov’s incest (Ada) and child-loving (Lolita) as merely attempts to find something that still could move us to gasp at forbidden romance the way class issues could move Austen or Bronte’s readers.
We all swear too much these days, especially I! Since I moved back to NYC, I’ve reverted to the potty-mouth ways I’d pretty much tamped down while living in Boston (and working on WGBH radio). My 9-year-old virtual niece (from Boston) was quite shocked when she visited me in NYC; I explained the situation, and now when I use strong language she has permission to rap me on the wrist or just glare and say, “New York!” We agreed, however, that “crap” was allowable, or I would be tongue-tied. Rude language can spice up a conversation; but on the page it rapidly cloys. New writers often mistake curse words for expressions of strong emotion: if I’ve read “‘Damn you!’ he cried.” once, I’ve read it a thousand times, and winced each time. You don’t want to be mealy-mouthed, but I tell my writing students they have a “Swears” budget, and they must spend it wisely.
I’m not sure there’s much left in terms of unbreakable taboos, not in terms of subjects that are simply no go areas. Thirty years on from the New Wave and twenty years on from cyberpunk, the genre is far more comfortable with confronting the “less savoury” aspects of society than with brushing them under the carpet for the sake of “decency”. So… swearing, sex, drugs — these things still push the panic buttons of conservatives, but we can kinda tune out from the bleating that ensues, go on with writing and reading what we want to. Burning Harry Potter because it has “witchcraft” in it just makes people look like cranks.
So that conservatism didn’t present any problems for me in getting Vellum and Ink published. The swearing and sex in those books was never an issue, because the reactionaries that are going to freak out at the mere fact of a foul-mouthed cocksucking hero — they’re not the market for those works. The nearest I got asked to toning things down was a suggestion that I drop the odd “fucking” here and there towards the start, just to break the reader in gently. I don’t self-censor and I’ve never felt a pressure to within the industry. Actually, any suggestion that you “just can’t” tackle a certain topic at all is liable to make me want to prove that you can.
These topics aren’t even that marginalised any more. The most straightforward mainstream fantasy that’s aimed at the broadest commercial market is free to tackle the same subjects these days. So you end up with Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, for example — and Morgan’s sex scenes are a fuckload more graphic than mine. So if you want to write a story with that level of… meatiness, there’s not a lot of excuses for not doing so. It’s just not a big deal any more — that’s my perception of it, at least.
TV is lagging behind here, right enough. I think it’s significant that the sexuality of the Gaeta character on Battlestar Galactica is relegated to the webisodes, a marker of the extent to which a “delicate subject” can still bring out cowardice in the Powers-That-Be, the degree to which the media still do buckle to reactionary moral dicta and select simple avoidance as the safe option. I don’t know the truth of the rumour that Rick Berman ruled out having a gay character on Star Trek, but if that’s the case… ? That’s a pretty clear-cut case of a taboo, I’d say. With Gaeta, it’s possible there was never any conscious decision to marginalise his sexuality — just an unconscious failure to pay attention to it — but it doesn’t seem too unlikely that someone somewhere did actively /chicken out/, decide that they could throw a crumb to the gay viewers in the webisodes… but that maybe it was best, you know, not to upset the apple cart in the actual broadcast series. Because homosexuality is a “delicate subject”. That would be a taboo in action.
There is still a sort of moral consensus that defines certain subjects as “delicate”, gets kind of antsy when such topics are broached, but the consensus seems to have shifted from a conservative default to a liberal one. Because of this, I suspect if you ask enough people about new taboos, someone will start muttering about “political correctness” at some point, about how it limits what can and can’t be written these days. Look, they’ll say, even if dirty words and dirtier sex don’t raise an eyebrow, there are things like racism and homophobia, paedophilia and anti-Semitism which the contemporary moral consensus condemns in no uncertain terms, subjects which can generate huge outrage because the very people who won’t blink an eyelid at “motherfucker” will be horrified at the word “nigger”. We get the same passionate condemnations of acts we class as abhorrent, so aren’t these just a new set of taboos? This is where you get all those claims you see that it’s “gone too far”, that the Draconian decrees of a “PC thought-police” are forcing the poor writer to self-censor, or even exerting a pressure that’s tantamount to censorship in its own right.
The argument is bollocks. It’s a straw man argument belied by the reality. Paedophilia is abhorrent. Fascism is abhorrent. But if you tackle those subjects you’re more likely to be lauded for it than reviled for breaching the taboo — assuming you’re approaching them /as topics/ rather than just expressing some fucked-up personal freakery. If you do find it harder to get some Nazi kiddy porn story published, it’s going to be because of the ethics of /advocacy/, not a taboo that simply prescribes /representation/. It’s about /how/ you address those subjects, not /whether/ you address them at all. People berating you for writing Magic Negroes or Mandingos, Castrating Bitches or Depraved Faggots — that’s not censorship. Not being able to find a buyer for Nazi kiddy porn bullshit is not a free speech issue. The imperative being applied here is to treat the subject well, not to avoid it completely. It’s not about taboos.
And the reality is, you might actually /find/ a buyer for that Nazi kiddy porn story. In Military SF and Epic Fantasy the same old reactionary shite is still churned out by the bucketload, and readers lap it up. There’s so much baggage inherited from Romanticism that a watered-down fascism is virtually written into the tropes; and the symbolic formulation that just regurgitates what’s gone before will happily spew this out without a thought — racial essentialism, heroic individualism — in the most unreconstructed form. A lot of readers are simply oblivious of the ethics of a “good story” and would prefer to remain that way. A work can have the most repugnant subtext and you’ll still get apologists saying “You’re not supposed to read it like that” when you point that subtext out. This is fascist, you could say, and creepy in the way it treats underage characters. It’s just a story, they’ll say. So the market for that shit persists. Write a novel which celebrates a Spartan-style totalitarian autocracy in space, and which fetishises redheaded teenage girls, and you’ll just as likely get hailed as the heir to Heinlein as castigated for it.
So, no, it would take some work to convince me that there are a lot of whole new taboos arising in the field to replace the old ones. Though I’ll be interested to hear what others say on this, as maybe I’ve just been lucky in not running up against much of the pressure.
As with so many things in today’s individualized, Internet-connected world, taboos have become less universal, and now vary considerably from market to market. Analog, for example, is unlikely to accept a story with a gay protagonist, which causes no problems at all for F&SF or Asimov’s. Specialist erotica presses such as Circlet now give respectable publication and distribution to frank erotica, which would have been strictly under-the-counter stuff fifty years ago, and many paranormal romances include explicit erotic passages that would once have given librarians fits. Between the extremes, the mainstream has definitely opened up since SF/F’s formative years; profanity, descriptions of sexual activity, and “adult themes and situations” are now unlikely to cause a submission to be rejected or to be edited out.
Some lifestyles that would have been completely taboo in the past can now be portrayed in fiction, such as bisexuality, transsexuality, polyamory, and dominance/submission… but even today it’s unlikely that you’ll find protagonists with these lifestyles; they are more commonly seen in villains. It’s particularly noteworthy, I think, that the evil alternate-universe versions of characters such as Willow in Buffy and Major Kira in DS9 are shown as bisexual leather doms. I do wish polyamory were more accepted in protagonists, because it makes such wonderfully complex romantic plots possible.
Many of the taboos that do exist today seem to turn the old taboos on their heads; the explicit racism and sexism found in Burroughs or Lovecraft would make a novel unpublishable today by any legitimate press. This is not to say that overtly racist and sexist characters don’t exist, but even when they are viewpoint characters they are still portrayed as evil, comedic, misguided, or just “of their time.” Nor is this to say that racism and sexism have been conquered, but it’s more subtle than it used to be.
Taboos about sex also still exist, though the bar has been raised. Bondage and sadistic/masochistic acts are rarely portrayed on the page outside of explicit erotica, though they can be referred to, and the same is even more true for coprophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia, and other paraphilias. The one paraphilia that remains absolutely verboten is pedophilia. Even the fictional portrayal of any form of sexual activity between adults and minors is so stigmatized that no legitimate publisher will touch it, and pedophilia is the one character attribute that is considered to be ultimately, unmitigatedly evil.
In my own writing I haven’t bumped into many of these taboos. I did write a hard SF novella with several gay characters (whose gayness was integral to the plot), which in hindsight was probably a mistake, because hard SF and homosexuality don’t seem to mix. That one remains unpublished. In another unpublished story, involving a teenager’s sexual attraction to an adult, I was strongly advised to raise the teenager’s age from 13 to 15 to avoid accusations of pedophilia (even though the adult did not return the teenager’s advances). And when I got the galleys of my Writers of the Future story I found that all but the very mildest profanity had been edited out.
Well, every writer has had trouble getting stuff published, but probably because they breached the publishing world taboo of writing crap. For me, beyond 2000 when I was taken on by Macmillan, I’ve been censored all the time in that respect – it’s called editing. But no, I don’t really have much trouble getting stuff published and I don’t self censor … except all the time in regard to that first publishing taboo. Doubtless, in years to come some minority group lobby will run out of larger targets and focus its attention on SF books, and then violence, drinking, smoking and excessive consumption of beefburgers will be a no no. I just hope I’m in a position to give them the finger by then.